An Inch of Ashes (Chung Kuo)(7)

By: David Wingrove
Chapter 54


A bank of eight screens, four long, two deep, glowed dimly on the far side of the darkened room. In each lay the outline image of a hollowed skull. There were other shapes in the room, vague forms only partly lit by the glow. A squat and bulky mechanism studded with controls was wedged beneath the screens. Beside it was a metallic frame, like a tiny four-poster stretched with wires. In the left-hand corner rested a narrow trolley containing racks of tapes, their wafer-thin top edges glistening in the half-light. Next to that was a vaguely human form, slumped against a bed, its facial features missing. Finally, in the very centre of the room was a graphics artboard, the thin screen blank and dull, the light from the eight monitors focused in its concave surface.

It was late – after three in the morning – and Ben Shepherd was tired, but there was this one last thing to be done before he slept. He squatted by the trolley and flicked through the tapes until he found what he wanted, then went to the artboard and fed in the tape. The image of a bird formed instantly. He froze it, using the controls to turn it, studying it from every angle, as if searching for some flaw in its conception, then, satisfied, he let it run, watching as the bird stretched its wings and launched into the air. Again he froze the image. The bird’s wings were stretched back now, thrusting it forward powerfully.

It was a simple image in many ways. An idealized image of a bird, formed in a vacuum.

He sorted through the tapes again and pulled out three, then returned to the artboard and rewound the first tape. That done he fed the new tapes into the slot and synchronized all four to a preset signal. Then he pressed to play.

This time the bird was resting on a perch inside a pagoda-like cage. As he watched, the cage door sprang open and the bird flew free, launching itself out through the narrow opening.

He froze the image, then rotated it. This time the bird seemed trapped, its beak and part of its sleek, proud head jutting from the cage, the rest contained within the bars. In ze nale doothe background could be seen the familiar environment of The Square. As the complex image turned, the tables of the Café Burgundy came into view. He could see himself at one of the nearer tables, the girl beside him. He was facing directly into the shot, his hand raised, pointing, as if to indicate the sudden springing of the bird, but her head was turned, facing him, her flame-red hair a sharp contrast to the rich, overhanging greenery.

He smiled uncertainly and let the tape run on a moment at one-fifth speed, watching her head come slowly round to face the escaping bird. In that moment, as she faced it fully, the bird’s wing came up, eclipsing the watchers at the table. There it ended.

It was a brief segment, no more than nine seconds in all, but it had taken him weeks of hard work to get it right. Now, however, he was thinking of abandoning it completely.

This was his favourite piece in the whole composition – the key image with which it had begun – yet as the work had grown this tiny fragment had proved ever more problematic.

For the rest of the work the viewpoint was established in the viewer’s head – behind the eyes – yet for this brief moment he had broken away entirely. In another art form this would have caused no problems – might, indeed, have been a strength – but here it created all kinds of unwanted difficulties. Experienced from within the Shell, it was as if, for the brief nine seconds that the segment lasted, one went outside one’s skull. It was a strange, disorienting experience, and no tampering with the surrounding images could mute that effect, or repair the damage it did to the work as a whole.

In all the Shells he had experienced before, such abrupt switches of viewpoint had been made to serve the purpose of the story: used for their sudden shock value. But, then, all forms of the Shell before his own had insisted only upon a cartoon version of the real, whereas what he wanted was reality itself. Or a close approximation. Such abrupt changes destroyed the balance he was seeking – shattered every attempt of his to create that illusion of the really real.

Only now was he beginning to understand the cost – in artistic terms – of such realism: the limiting factors and the disciplines involved. It was not enough to create the perfect illusion; it was also necessary to maintain a sequential integrity in the experiencing mind. The illusion depended on him staying within his own skull, behind his own eyes, the story developing in real time.

There was, of course, a simple answer: one abandoned all breaches of sequential integrity. But that limited the kind of story one could tell. It was a straitjacket of the worst kind, limiting fiction to the vignette, briefly told. He had recognized this at once and agonized over it, but weeks of wrestling with the problem had left him without an answer.

Perhaps this was why all previous practitioners of the form had kept to the quasi-realism of a cartoon, leaving the experiencing imagination to suspend disbelief and form a bridge between what was presented and the reality. Maybe some of them had even tried what he was attempting now – had experimented with ‘perfected’, realistic images and had faced the same constricting factors. Maybe so, but he had to make a choice: to pursue his ideal of a perfect art form or compromise that vision in favour of a patently synthetic form – a mere embellishment of the old. It was no real choice at all, yet still he prevaricated.

He wound the tapes back and replayed, this time at one-tenth speed – five frames a second – watching the bird thrust slowly outward from the cage in an explosion of sudden, golden, living fire; seeing beyond it the girl’s face, its whiteness framed in flames of red as it turned to face the screen.

He closednd enciainchoic his eyes and froze the image. It was the best thing he had done. Something real and beautiful – a tiny, perfect work of art. And yet... He shivered, then pressed ERASE. In an instant it was done, the tapes blanked. He stood there for a long time afterwards, leaning against the machine, perfectly still, his eyes closed. Then, with a tiny shudder, he turned away. There was that much anyway – it was there – it would always be there, in his head.

He went over to the bed and sat, not knowing what he felt, staring intently, almost obsessively at the narrow ridge of flesh that circled his left wrist. Then he got up again and went out into the other room.

For a while he stood there in the centre of the room, his mind still working at the problem; but just now he could not see past his tiredness. He was stretched thin by the demands he had placed on himself these last few weeks. All he could see were problems, not solutions.

He took a long, shuddering breath.

‘Small steps,’ he told himself, his voice soft, small in the darkness. ‘There is an answer,’ he added after a moment, as if to reassure himself. Yet he was far from certain.

He turned away, rubbing at his eyes, too tired to pursue the thought, for once wanting nothing but the purging oblivion of sleep. And in the morning?

In the morning he would begin anew.

The Square was a huge, airy space at the top of Oxford Canton; the uppermost level of a complex warren of colleges that extended deep into the stack below. To the eternal delight of each new generation of students, however, The Square was not square at all, but hexagonal: a whole deck opened up for leisure. Long, open balconies overlooked the vastness of The Green, leaning back in five great tiered layers on every side, while overhead the great dome of the stars turned slowly, in perfect imitation of the sky beyond the ice.

Here, some seventeen years ago, so rumour had it, Berdichev, Lehmann and Wyatt had met and formed the Dispersionist party, determined to bring change to this world of levels, but whether the rumour was true or not, it was a place to which the young intelligentsia of all seven Cities were drawn. If the world of thought were a wheel, this was its hub, The Green its focus.

A line of oaks bordered The Green, hybrid evergreens produced in the vats of SynFlor, while at its centre was an aviary: a tall, pagoda-like cage of thirteen tiers, modelled upon the Liu he t’a, the Pagoda of the Six Harmonies at Hang Chou. As ever, young men and women strolled arm in arm on the vast lawn or gathered about the lowest tier, looking in at the brightly coloured birds.

The Square was the pride of Oxford Canton and the haunt of its ten thousand students. The elite of the Above sent their children to Oxford, just as the elite of a small nation-state had done centuries before. It was a place of culture and, for the children of First Level families, a guarantee of continuity.

No big MedFac screens cluttered The Green itself, but in the cool walkways beneath the overhang, small Vidscreens showed the local cable channels to a clientele whose interests and tastes differed considerably from the rest of the Above.

The overhang was a place of coffee shops and restaurants, CulVid boutiques and Syn-Parlours. It was a curious mixture of new and old, of timelessness and state of the art, of purity and decadence; its schizophrenic face a reflection of its devotees.

At the Café Burgundy business was brisk. It was a favourite haunt of the Arts Faculty students who, at this hour, crowded every available table, talking, drinking, gesturing wildly with all the passion and flamboyance of youth. The tables themselves – more than two hundred in all – spread out from beneath the overhang towards the edge of Thn itre cedle,e Green. Overhead, a network of webbing, draped between strong poles, supported a luxuriant growth of flowering creepers. The plants were a lush, almost luminous green, decorated with blooms of vivid purples, yellows, reds and oranges – huge, gaping flowers with tongues of contrasting hues, like the silent heads of monsters. Beneath them the tables and chairs were all antiques, the wood stained and polished. They were a special feature of the Café, a talking point, though in an earlier century they would have seemed quite unexceptional.

Han waiters made their way between the packed tables, carrying trays and taking orders. They were dressed in the plain, round-collared robes of the Tang dynasty, the sleeves narrow, the long er-silks a dark vermilion with an orange band below the knee: the clothes of an earlier, simpler age.

At a table near the edge sat four students. Their table was clear but for three glasses and a bottle. They had eaten and were on their third bottle of the excellent Burgundy from which the Café took its name. A vacant chair rested between the two males of the party, as if they were expecting another to join them. But it was not so. All spaces at the table had to be paid for, and they had paid to keep it vacant.

There was laughter at the table. A dark-haired, olive-skinned young man was holding sway, leaning well back in his chair, a wine glass canted in his hand. The sing-song tones of his voice were rather pleasant, well modulated. He was a handsome, aristocratic man with a pronounced aquiline profile, a finely formed mouth, and dark, almost gypsy eyes. Strong limbed and broad shouldered, he looked more a sportsman than an artist, though a fastidiousness about his clothes somewhat redressed that impression. As he talked, his free hand carved forms from the air, the movements deft, rehearsed. He was older than the others by some four or five years, a factor that made them defer to him in most things, and often – as now – he monopolized their talk, leading it where he would.

His name was Sergey Novacek and he was a Master’s student and a sculptor. His father, Lubos, was a well-to-do merchant who, at his wife’s behest, indulged his only son, buying him a place at Oxford. Not that Sergey was unintelligent. He could easily have won a scholarship. It was simply a matter of prestige. Of status. At the level on which Lubos Novacek had his interests, it was not done to accept State charity.

Just now Sergey was telling them of the ceremony he had attended the previous day; a ceremony at which six of his sculptures had been on display. He had not long been fulfilling such commissions, yet he spoke as if he had great experience in the matter. But that was his way, and his friends admired him for it, even if others found it somewhat arrogant.

‘It all went very well, at first,’ he said, his handsome features serious a moment. ‘Everyone was most respectful. They fed me and watered me and tried their best to be polite and hide from themselves the fact that I was neither family nor Han.’ He laughed. ‘None too successfully, I’m afraid. But, anyway... The tomb was magnificent. It stood in its own walled gardens next to the house. A massive thing, two storeys high, clad all over in white marble, and with a gate you could have driven a team of four horses through.’ Sergey sipped at his drink, then laughed. ‘In fact, the tomb was a damn sight bigger than the house!’

There was laughter.

‘That’s so typical of them,’ said the second young man, Wolf, lifting his glass to his lips. He was taller and more heavily built than his friend, his perfect North European features topped by a close-cropped growth of ash-blond hair. ‘They’re so into death.’

Sergey raised his glass. ‘And a good job too, neh?’

‘For you,’ one of the girls, Lotte, said teasingly, her blue eyes flashing. It was true. Most of Sergey’s commissions were funerary – tomb statues for the Minor Families.

Lotte was a pale-skinned, large-breasted girl, who wore her blonde hair unfashionably long and plaited, in defiance of fashion. These things aside she looked exactly what she was – the twin of her brother, Wolf. Beside her, silent, sat the fourth of their small group, Catherine. She was smaller than her friends, more delicately built; a slender redhead with Slavic features and green eyes.

Sergey smiled. ‘Anyway. As I was saying. It was all going well and then the ceremony proper began. You know how it is; a lot of New Confucian priests chanting for the souls of the departed. And then the eldest son comes to the front and lights a candle for the ancestors. Well... it had just got to that stage when, would you believe it, eldest son trips over his pau, stumbles forward and falls against the lines of paper charms.’

‘No!’ All three sat forward, Wolf amused, the two girls horrified.

‘Unfortunate, you might think, and embarrassing, but not disastrous. And so it might have been, except that in falling he dropped the lighted candle amongst the charms.’ Sergey laughed shortly and nodded to himself. ‘You should have seen it. There must have been two or three thousand charms hanging up on those lines, dry as bone, just waiting to go up in one great sheet of flame. And that’s exactly what they did. Eldest son was all right, of course. The servants pulled him away at once. But before anyone could do a thing, the flames set off the overhead sprinklers. Worse than that, no one knew the combination sequence to the cut-out and the key to the manual override was missing. It just poured and poured. We were all soaked. But the worst was to come. Because the garden was enclosed, the water couldn’t drain away. Much of it sank into the thin soil layer, but soon that became waterlogged, and when that happened the water began to pour down the steps into the tomb. Within minutes the water was up to the top step. That’s when it happened.’

He leaned forward and filled his glass, then looked about him, enjoying himself, knowing he had their full attention. ‘Well? What do you think?’

Wolf shook his head. ‘I don’t know. The eldest son fell in, perhaps?’

Sergey narrowed his eyes. ‘Ah, yes, that would have been good, wouldn’t it? But this was better. Much better. Imagine it. There we all are, still waiting for someone to switch the damn sprinklers off, our expensive clothes ruined, the ground a total bog beneath our feet, no one willing to show disrespect by leaving the gardens before the ceremony’s over, when what should happen but the unthinkable. Out floats the coffin!’

‘Kuan Yin preserve us!’ Wolf said, his eyes round as coins.

‘Poor man,’ murmured Catherine, looking down.

Sergey laughed. ‘Poor man, my arse! He was dead. No, but you should have seen the faces on those Han. It was as if they’d had hot irons poked up their backsides! There was a muttering and a spluttering and then – damn me if they didn’t try to shove the coffin back into the tomb against the current! You should have seen the eldest son, slipping about in the mud like a lunatic!’

‘Gods preserve us!’ Wolf said. ‘And did they manage it?’

‘Third time they did. But by then the sprinklers were off and the servants were carrying the water away in anything they could find.’

The two men laughed, sitting back in their chairs and baring their teeth. Across from Wolf, Lotte smiled broadly, enjoying her brother’s laughter. Onlgey feld. er y Catherine seemed detached from their enjoyment, as if preoccupied. Sergey noticed this and leaned towards her slightly. ‘What is it?’

She looked up. ‘It’s nothing...’

He raised an eyebrow, making her laugh.

‘Okay,’ she said, relenting. ‘I was just thinking about the painting I’m working on.’

‘You’re having trouble?’

She nodded.

Wolf leaned across to nudge Sergey. ‘I shouldn’t worry. She’s not a real artist.’

Catherine glared at him, then looked away. Wolf was always mocking her for working on an oilboard, when, as he said, any artist worth their ricebowl worked in watercolours. But she discounted his opinion. She had seen his work. It was technically perfect, yet somehow lifeless. He could copy but he couldn’t create.

She looked back at Sergey. ‘I was thinking I might go to the lecture this afternoon.’

He lifted his chin slightly. ‘Lecture?’

She smiled. ‘Oh... I forgot. You weren’t here when the College officials came round, were you?’ She searched in her bag for something, then set a small, hexagonal pad down on the table. She placed her palm against it momentarily, warming the surface, then moved her hand away. At once a tiny, three-dimensional image formed in the air and began to speak.

‘That’s Fan Liang-wei, isn’t it?’ said Wolf, leaning across to refill his glass.

‘Shhhh,’ Sergey said, touching his arm. ‘Let’s hear what the old bugger has to say.’

Fan Liang-wei was one of the most respected shanshui artists in City Europe. His paintings hung in the homes of most of the Minor Families. The Great Man’s long white hair and triple-braided beard were familiar sights to those who tuned in to the ArtVid channel, and even to those whose tastes were less refined, Fan Liang-wei was the very personification of the wen ren, the scholar-artist.

It was standard practice for professors of the College to advertise their lectures in this way, since their fees were paid according to attendance figures. Indeed, it was the practice for some of the less charismatic of them to bribe students to attend – filling the first few rows of the hall with sleepers. For the Great Man, however, such advertising was not strictly necessary. His fee was guaranteed whatever the attendance. Nonetheless, it was a matter of ego – a question of proving his supreme status to his fellow academicians.

The tiny figure bowed to its unseen audience and began to talk of the lecture it was to give that afternoon, its internal timer updating its speech so that when it referred to the lecture it reminded the listeners that it was ‘less than two hours from now’. The lecture was to be on the two shanshui artists, Tung Ch’i-ch’ang and Cheng Ro, and was entitled ‘Spontaneity and Meticulousness’. Sergey watched it a moment longer, then smiled and reached out to put his hand over the pad, killing the image.

‘It could be amusing. I’ve heard the old man’s worth hearing.’

‘And Heng Chian-ye?’ Wolf asked. ‘You’ve not forgotten the card game?’

Sergey looked across and saw how Catherine had looked away angrily. He knew how strongly she disapproved of this side of him – the gambling and the late-night drinking sessions – but it only spurred him on to greater excesses, as if to test her love.

He smiled, then turned back to Wolf. ‘That’s all right. I told him I’d see him at four, but it’ll do the little yellow bastard good to wait a bit. It’ll make hiuloith sh;herm more eager.’

Wolf laughed. ‘Do you still intend to challenge him? They say he’s a good player.’

Sergey lifted his chin and looked away thoughtfully. ‘Yes. But Heng’s an arrogant young fool. He’s inflexible. Worse, he’s rash when put under pressure. Like all these Han, he’s more concerned with saving face than saving a fortune. And that will be his undoing, I promise you. So, yes, I’ll challenge him. It’s about time someone raised the stakes on young Heng.’

Sergey leaned forward, looking across at Lotte. ‘And you, Lotte? Are you coming along?’

Again his words, his action in leaning towards Lotte, were designed to upset the other girl. They all knew how much Lotte was besotted with the handsome young sculptor. It was a joke which even she, on occasions, shared. But that didn’t lessen the pangs of jealousy that affected Catherine.

As ever, Lotte looked at her brother before she answered, a faint colour at her cheeks. ‘Well, I ought, I know, but...’

‘You must,’ Sergey said, reaching out to cover her hand with his own. ‘I insist. You’d never forgive yourself if you didn’t see the Great Man.’

Wolf answered for her. ‘We were going to do some shopping. But I’m sure...’

Wolf looked at Lotte, smiling encouragement, and she nodded. Wolf still had hopes that his sister might marry Novacek. Not that it affected his relationship with Catherine. Not significantly.

‘Good,’ said Sergey, leaning back and looking about the circle of his friends. ‘And afterwards I’ll treat you all to a meal.’

The tiers of the lecture hall were packed to overflowing. Stewards scurried up and down the gangways, trying to find seats for the crowds pressing into the hall, clearly put out by the size of the attendance. Normally the hall seemed vast and echoing, but today it was like a hive, buzzing with expectation.

At three precisely the lights dimmed and the hall fell silent. On a raised platform at the front of the hall a single spotlight picked out a lectern. For a while there was no movement on stage, then a figure stepped out of the darkness. A murmur of surprise rose from the watching tiers. It was Chu Ta Yun, the Minister of Education. He stood to one side of the lectern, his head slightly bowed, his hands folded at his waist.

‘Ch’un tzu,’ he began, his tone humble, ‘I have been given the great pleasure and honour of introducing one of the outstanding figures of our time; a man whose distinctions are too numerous to be listed here and whose accomplishments place him in the very first rank of painters. A man who, when the history of our culture is set down by future generations, will be seen as the epitome – the touchstone – of our art. Ch’un tzu, I ask you to welcome to our college the Honourable Fan Liang-wei, Painter to the court of His Most Serene Highness, Li Shai Tung.’

As the Minister withdrew, head bowed, into the darkness, Fan Liang-wei came into the spotlight, resting his hands lightly on the edge of the lectern then bowing his head to his audience. There was a faint shuffling noise as, in unison, the packed tiers lowered their heads in respect to the Great Man.

‘Ch’un tzu,’ he began, in the same vein as the Minister, then, smiling, added, ‘Friends...’

There was a small ripple of laughter from the tiers. The ice had been broken. But at once his face grew serious again, his chin lifting in an extravagant yet thoughtful gesture, his voice taking on an immediate tone of authority.

‘I have come here today to talk of art, and, in particulas Md tou Tnce r, of the art of shanshui painting, something of which I have, or so I delude myself, some small knowledge.’

Again there was the faintest ripple of amusement, but, as before, it was tinged with the deepest respect. There was not one there who did not consider Fan Liang-wei Chung Kuo’s foremost expert on the ancient art of shanshui.

The Great Man looked about the tiers, as if noting friends there amongst the crowd, then spoke again. ‘As you may know, I have called today’s talk “Spontaneity and Meticulousness”, and it is upon these two extremes of expression that I wish to dwell, taking as my examples the works of two great exponents of the art of shanshui, the Ming painter Tung Ch’i-ch’ang and the Song painter Cheng Ro. But before I come to them and to specific examples of their work, I would like to take this opportunity of reminding you of the critic Hsieh Ho’s Six Principles, for it is to these that we shall, time and again, return during this lecture.’

Fan Liang-wei paused, looking about him. He had just opened his mouth to speak when the door to his right swung open and a young man strode into the hall, ignoring the hushed remonstrances of a steward. The steward followed him two or three paces into the hall, then backed away, head bowed, glancing up at the platform apologetically before drawing the door closed behind him. The young man, meanwhile, moved unselfconsciously along the gangway in front of the platform and began to climb the stairs. He was halfway up when the Great Man cleared his throat.

‘Forgive me, young Master, but am I interrupting something?’

The young man half turned, looking back at the speaker, then, without a word, climbed the rest of the steps and sat down at their head.

There was a murmur of astonishment from the surrounding tiers and even a few harshly whispered words of criticism, but the young man seemed oblivious. He sat there, staring down at the platform, a strange intensity in his manner making him seem brooding, almost malicious in intent.

‘Are we comfortable?’ the Great Man asked, a faint trace of annoyance in his voice.

The young man gave the barest nod.

‘Good. Then perhaps we might continue. As I was saying... Hsieh Ho, in his classic fifth-century work, the Ku Hua-p’in-lu, set down for all time the Six Principles by which the great artist might be recognized. In reiterating these, we might remember that, while Hsieh Ho intended that all six should be present in a great work of art, they do, nonetheless, form a kind of hierarchy, the First Principle, that of spirit-consonance, of harmony of spirit to the motion of life – that sense we have of the painting coming alive through the harmonizing of the vital force, the ch’i, of the painter with the ch’i of his subject matter – forming the first rank, the First Level, if you like.’

There was a mild ripple of laughter at the Great Man’s play of words. He continued quickly, his anger at the rudeness of the young man’s interruption set aside momentarily.

‘Bearing this in mind, we see how the Second Principle, the bone-structure of the brushwork – and its strength in conveying the ch’i or vital energy – stems from the First and is, indeed, dependent upon it, as a Minister is dependent upon the favour of his T’ang. Likewise, the Third Principle, the fidelity or faithfulness of the artistic representation to the subject, is dependent upon these first two. And so forth...’

He hesitated, then looked directly at the young man seated at the head of the stairs. ‘You understand me, young Master?’

Again the young man nodded.

‘Good. Then lety oor ahe dth="1e me move on quickly. Fourth of the Six great Principles is likeness in colour. Fifth is the proper placing of the various elements within the scheme of the painting. And Sixth, and last in our great hierarchy, is the preservation of the experience of the past through making pictorial reference to the great classical paintings.’

Fan Liang-wei smiled, looking about him, then moved to one side, half turning as the screen behind him lit up, showing an ancient painting.

‘There is, of course, one further quality that Hsieh Ho demanded from the great artist – a quality which, because it is intrinsic to art, is enshrined in each of those six great Principles – that of ching. Of precision or minuteness of detail.’

He indicated the painting. ‘This, as you may recognize, is Tung Ch’i-ch’ang’s Shaded Dwelling among Streams and Mountains, one of the great works of Ming art. This hanging scroll...’

The Great Man had turned, looking back at his audience, but now he stopped, his mouth open, for the young man had stood and was making his way slowly down the steps again.

‘Forgive me,’ he said tartly, his patience snapping, ‘but have I to suffer more of your interruptions?’

The young man stopped, a faint smile playing on his lips. ‘No. I’ve heard enough.’

‘Heard enough...’ For the briefest moment Fan’s face was contorted with anger. Then, controlling himself, he came to the edge of the platform, confronting the young man. ‘What do you mean, heard enough?’

The young man stared back at Fan Liang-wei, unperturbed, it seemed, by the hardness in his voice, undaunted by his reputation.

‘I mean what I said. I’ve heard enough. I don’t have to wait to hear what you have to say – you’ve said it all already.’

Fan laughed, astonished. ‘I see...’

The young man lifted his arm, pointing beyond Fan at the screen. ‘That, for instance. It’s crap.’

There was a gasp of astonishment from the tiers, followed by a low murmur of voices. Fan Liang-wei, however, was smiling now.

‘Crap, eh? That’s your considered opinion, is it, Shih...?’

The young man ignored the request for his name, just as he ignored the ripple of laughter that issued from the benches on all sides. ‘Yes,’ he answered, taking two slow steps closer to the platform. ‘It’s dead. Anyone with a pair of eyes can see it. But you...’ He shook his head. ‘Well, to call this lifeless piece of junk one of the great works of Ming art is an insult to the intelligence.’

Fan straightened, bristling, then gave a short laugh. ‘You’re a student of painting, then, young Master?’

The young man shook his head.

‘Ah, I see. Then what are you precisely? You are a member of the college, I assume?’

There was more laughter from the tiers; a harder, crueller laughter as the students warmed to the exchange. The young man had stepped out of line. Now the Great Man would humiliate him.

‘I’m a scientist...’

‘A scientist? Ah, I see.’

The laughter was like a great wave this time, rolling from end to end of the great lecture hall. Fan Liang-wei smiled, looking about him, sensing victory.

‘Then you know about things like painting?’

The young man stood there, the laughter in the hall washing over him, waiting for it to subside. When it did he answered the Great Man.

‘Enough to know that Tung Ch&areored&rsm>paintingrsquo;i-ch’ang was the dead-end of a process of slow emasculation of a once-vital art form.’

The Great Man nodded. ‘I see. And Cheng Ro... I suppose he was a great painter... in your estimation?’

There was more laughter, but it was tenser now. The atmosphere had changed, become electric with anticipation. They sensed blood.

The young man looked down. Then, unexpectedly, he laughed. ‘You know your trouble, Fan Liang-wei?’ He looked up at the older man challengingly. ‘You’re a slave to convention. To an art that’s not a real art at all, just an unimaginative and imitative craft.’

There was a low murmur of disapproval from the tiers at that. As for Fan himself, he was still smiling, but it was a tight, tense mask of a smile, behind which he seethed.

‘But to answer your question,’ the young man continued. ‘Yes, Cheng Ro was a great painter. He had lueh, that invaluable quality of being able to produce something casually, almost uncaringly. His ink drawing of dragons...’

‘Enough!’ Fan roared, shivering with indignation. ‘How dare you lecture me about art, you know-nothing! How dare you stand there and insult me with your garbled nonsense!’

The young man stared back defiantly at Fan. ‘I dare because I’m right. Because I know when I’m listening to a fool.’

The hall had gone deathly silent. Fan, standing there at the edge of the platform, was very still. The smile had drained from his face.

‘A fool?’ he said finally, his voice chill. ‘And you think you can do better?’

For a moment the young man hesitated. Then, astonishingly, he nodded and, his eyes never leaving Fan Liang-wei’s face, began to make his way down to the platform.

The Café Burgundy was alive with news of what had happened.

At a table near the edge of The Green, the four friends leaned in close, talking. Wolf had missed the lecture, but Sergey had been there with Lotte and had seen the young man mount the platform.

‘You should have seen him,’ Sergey said, his eyes glinting. ‘As cool as anything, he got up there and stood at the lectern, as if he’d been meaning to speak all along.’

Wolf shook his head. ‘And what did Fan say?’

‘What could he say? For a moment he was so dumbfounded that he stood there with his mouth hanging open, like a fish. Then he went a brilliant red and began to shout at Shepherd to sit down. Oh, it was marvellous. “It’s my lecture,” the old boy kept saying, over and over. And Shepherd, bold as brass, turns to him and says, “Then you could do us all the courtesy of talking sense.”’

They all roared at that; all but Catherine, who looked down. ‘I’ve seen him, I think,’ she said, ‘in here.’

Sergey nodded. ‘You can’t really miss him. He’s an ostentatious little sod. Do you know what he does?’ He looked about the table, then leaned back, lifting his glass. ‘He comes in at the busiest time of day and has a table to himself. He actually pays for all five places. And then he sits there, drinking coffee, not touching a bite of food, a pocket comset on the table in front of him.’ Sergey lifted his nose in a gesture of disdain, then drained his glass.

Wolf leaned forward. ‘Yes, but what happened? What did Fan say?’

Sergey gave a sharp little laugh. ‘Well, it was strange. It was as if Shepherd had challenged him. I don’t know. I suppose it had become a matter of face... Anyway, quo to t that happeninstead of just sending for the stewards and having him thrown out, Fan told him to go ahead.’

‘I bet that shut him up!’

‘No. And that’s the most amazing part of it. You see, Shepherd actually began to lecture us.’

‘No!’ Wolf said, his eyes wide with astonishment. Beside him, Catherine stared down into her glass.

‘Yes... he droned on for ages. A lot of nonsense about the artist and the object, and about there being two kinds of vision. Oh, a lot of high-sounding mumbo-jumbo.’

‘He didn’t drone, Sergey. And he was good. Very good.’

Sergey laughed and leaned across the table, smiling at the red-haired girl who had been his lover for almost two years. ‘Who told you that? Lotte here?’ He laughed. ‘Well, whoever it was, they were wrong. It’s a pity you missed it, Catherine. Shepherd was quite impressive, in a bullshitting sort of way, but...’ He shrugged, lifting his free hand, the fingers wide open. ‘Well, that’s all it was, really. Bullshit.’

Catherine glanced up at him, as ever slightly intimidated by his manner. She picked up her glass and cradled it against her cheek, the chill red wine casting a roseate shadow across her face. ‘I didn’t just hear about it. I was there. At the back of the hall. I got there late, that’s all.’

‘Then you know it was crap.’

She hesitated, embarrassed. She didn’t like to contradict him, but in this he was wrong. ‘I... I don’t agree...’

He laughed. ‘You don’t agree?’

She wanted to leave it at that, but he insisted.

‘What do you mean?’

She took a breath. ‘I mean that he was right. There is more to it than Fan Liang-wei claims. The Six Principles... they strangle art. Because it isn’t simply a matter of selection and interpretation. As Shepherd said, it has to do with other factors – with things unseen.’

Sergey snorted.

She shivered, irritated by his manner. ‘I knew you’d do that. You’re just like Fan Liang-wei, sneering at anything you disagree with. And both of you... well, you see only the material aspect of the art – its structure and its plastic elements, you don’t see—’

Sergey had been shaking his head, a patient, condescending smile fixed on his lips, but now he interrupted her.

‘What else is there? There’s only light and shadow, texture and colour. That’s all you can put on a canvas. It’s a two-dimensional thing. And all this business about things unseen, it’s...’ He waved it away lightly with his hand.

She shook her head violently, for once really angry with him. ‘No! What you’re talking about is great design, not great art. Shepherd was right. That painting, for instance – the Tung Ch’i-ch’ang – it was crap.’

Sergey snorted again. ‘So you say. But it has nothing to do with art, really, has it?’ He smiled, sitting back in his chair. ‘You fancy the fellow, don’t you?’

She set her glass down angrily. Wine splashed and spilled across the dark green cloth. ‘Now you’re talking bullshit!’

He shook his head, talking over her protestations. ‘My friend, Amandsun, tells me that the man’s not even a member of the Arts Faculty. He really is a scientist of some kind. A technician.’

He emphasized each syllable of the final word, giving it a distinctly unwholesome flavour.

Cattin its onhe herine glared at him a moment, then turned away, facing the aviary and its colourful occupants. On one of the higher perches a great golden bird fluffed out its wings as if to stretch into flight. The long, silken under-feathers were as black as night. It opened its beak, then settled again, making no sound.

Sergey watched the girl a moment, his eyes half-lidded, then, sensing victory, pushed home with his taunts.

‘Yes, I bet our dear Catherine wouldn’t mind him tinkering with her things unseen.’

That did it. She turned and took her glass, then threw its contents into his face. He swore and started to get up, wiping at his eyes, but Wolf leaned across, holding his arm firmly. ‘Too far, Sergey. Just a bit too far...’ he said, looking across at Catherine as he spoke.

Catherine stood there a moment longer, her head held back, fierce, proud, her face lit with anger; then she took five coins from her purse and threw them down on to the table. ‘For the meal,’ she said. Then she was gone; was walking out into the Mainway, ignoring the turned heads at other tables.

Sergey was wiping the wine from his eyes with the edge of the tablecloth. ‘It stings! It fucking well stings!’

‘It serves you right,’ said Lotte, watching her friend go, her eyes uncharacteristically thoughtful. ‘You always have to push it beyond the limits, don’t you?’

Sergey glared at her, then relented. The front of his hair was slick with wine, his collar stained. After a moment he laughed. ‘But I was right, wasn’t I? It hit home. Dead centre!’

Beside him Wolf laughed, looking across at his sister and meeting her eyes. ‘Yes...’ he said, smiling, seeing his smile mirrored back. ‘I’ve never seen her so angry. But who is this Shepherd? I mean, what’s his background?’

Sergey shrugged. ‘No one seems to know. He’s not from one of the known families. And he doesn’t make friends, that’s for sure.’

‘An upstart, do you think?’ Lotte leaned across, collecting up the coins and stacking them in a neat pile.

‘I guess so.’ Sergey wiped at his fringe with his fingers, then licked them. ‘Hmm. It might be interesting to find out, don’t you think? To try to unearth something about him?’

Wolf laughed. ‘Unearth... I like that. Do you think... ?’

Sergey wrinkled his nose, then shook his head. ‘No. He’s too big to have come from the Clay. You can spot those runts from ten li off. No, Mid-Levels, I’d say.’

Lotte looked up, smiling. ‘Well, wherever he comes from, he has nerve, I’ll say that for him.’

Sergey considered, then grudgingly agreed. ‘Yes. He’s impressive in a sort of gauche, unpolished way. No manners, though. I mean, poor old Fan was completely at a loss. You can be sure he won’t rest until he’s found a way of getting even with our friend.’

Wolf nodded. ‘That’s the trouble with the lower levels,’ he said, watching his sister’s hands as they stacked and unstacked the coins. ‘They’ve no sense of what’s right. No sense of li. Of propriety.’

‘Or of art...’ Sergey added.

‘No...’ And their laughter carried across the tables.

Ben drew back, into the shadows, watching. The two old men had gone down on to their knees before the makeshift shrine, the paper offerings and the bowls of food laid out in front of them. As he watched they bowed in unison, mumbling a prayer to the spirits of the departed. Then, while one of them stood em>omet, d their kand stepped back, his head still bowed, the other took a small brush from his inside jacket pocket and, lifting the bowls one at a time, swept the space before the tablets.

The two men were no more than ten or fifteen paces from Ben, yet it seemed as if a vast gulf separated them from him – an abyss of comprehension. He noted the paper money they had laid down for the dead, the sprigs of plastic ‘willow’ each wore hanging from their hair knots, and frowned, not understanding.

When they were gone he went across and stood there, looking at the wall and at the offerings laid out before it. It was a simple square of wall, the end of one of the many cul-de-sacs that led from Main, yet it had been transformed. Where one expected blankness, one came upon a hundred tiny tablets, each inscribed with the names and dates of the deceased. He looked, reading several of them, then bent down, picking up one of the paper notes of money. It was beautifully made, like the other presents here, but none of it was real. These were things for the dead.

For the last hour he had simply walked, here in the lowest levels of Oxford stack, trying to understand the events in the lecture hall. Had drifted through the corridors like a ghost, purposeless.

Or so he’d thought.

Their laughter had not touched him. It had been an empty, meaningless noise; a braying to fill the void within. No, but that emptiness itself – that unease he had seen behind every eye as he was speaking – that worried him. It had been like speaking to the dead. To the hordes of hungry ghosts who, so the Han believed, had no roots to tie them to this world – no living descendants to fulfil their all-too-human needs. They were lost and they looked lost. Even their guide, the Great Man. He more than any of them.

These thoughts had filled him, darkening his mood. And then, to come upon this...

Ben turned, hearing a noise behind him, but it was only an old man, two pots slung from the yoke that rested on his shoulders, the one balancing the other. As the old man came on he noticed Ben and stopped, his ancient face wrinkling, as if suspicious of Ben’s motives.

Ben stood. ‘Forgive me. I didn’t mean to startle you. I was just looking...’ He smiled. ‘Are you a ch’a seller?’

‘Ch’a?’ The old man stared back at Ben, puzzled, then looked down at one of the pots he was carrying and gave a cackle of laughter. ‘No, Master. You have it wrong. This...’ He laughed again, showing his broken teeth. ‘This isn’t ch’a, Master. This here is ash.’


The old man grinned back at him fiercely. ‘Of course. I’m Lu Nan Jen for this stack.’

The oven man! Of course! So the ash... Ben laughed, surprised. ‘And all this?’ he asked, half turning to indicate the shrine, the paper offerings, the bowls of food.

The old man laughed uneasily. ‘You’re a strange one, Master. Don’t you know what day it is? It’s Sao Mu, the Feast of the Dead.’

Ben’s eyes widened. Of course! The fifteenth day of the third month of the old calendar. Ch’ing Ming, it was, the festival of brightness and purity, when the graves were swept and offerings made to the deceased.

‘Forgive me,’ he offered quickly. ‘I’m a student. My studies... they’ve kept me very busy recently.’

‘Ah, a student...’ The old man bowed respectfully, the yoke about his neck bobbing up and down with the movement. Then he looked up, his old eyes twinkling. ‘I’m afraid I can’t offer you any of this ash, Master, bute o stasqudent the ch’a kettle is on inside if you’d honour me with your presence.’

Ben hesitated a moment, then returned the old man’s bow. ‘I would be honoured, Lu Nan Jen.’

The old man grinned back at him, delighted, his head bobbing, then made his way across to a door on the far side of the corridor. Ben followed him in, looking about the tiny room while the old man set down his pots and freed himself from the yoke.

‘I must apologize for the state of things, Master. I have few visitors. Few live visitors, if you understand me?’

Ben nodded. There was a second door at the other end of the room with a sign in Mandarin that forbade unauthorized entry. On the wall beside it was a narrow shelf, on which were a meagre dozen or so tape-books – the kind that were touch-operated. Apart from that there was only a bed, a small stool and a low table on which were a ch’a kettle and a single bowl. He watched while the old man poured the ch’a then turned to him, offering the bowl.

‘You will share with me, I hope?’ he said, meeting the old man’s eyes.

‘I...’ The old man hesitated, then gave a small bow. It was clear he had not expected such a kindness.

Ben sipped at the ch’a, then offered the bowl to the old man. Again he hesitated, then, encouraged by Ben’s warm smile, he took the bowl and drank noisily from it.

‘It must be strange, this life of yours, Lu Nan Jen.’

The oven man laughed and looked about him, as if considering it for the first time. ‘No stranger than any man’s.’

‘Maybe so. But what kind of life is it?’

The old man sat, then leaned forward on the stool, the ch’a bowl held loosely in one hand. ‘You want the job?’ he asked, amused by Ben’s query.

Ben laughed. ‘No. I have enough to do, lao jen. But your work... it fascinates me.’

The old man narrowed his eyes slightly. ‘Do you mean my work, or what I work with?’

‘You can separate the two things that easily?’

The oven man looked down, a strange smile on his lips, then he looked up again, offering the ch’a bowl to Ben. ‘You seem to know a lot, young Master. What is it that you’re a student of?’

‘Of life,’ Ben answered. ‘At least, so my father says.’

The old man held his eyes a moment, then nodded, impressed by the seriousness he saw in the younger man’s face.

‘This is a solitary life, young Master.’ He gave a small chuckle, then rubbed at his lightly bearded chin. ‘Oh... I see many people, but few who are either able or inclined to talk.’

‘You’ve always been alone?’

‘Always?’ The old man sniffed, his dark eyes suddenly intense. ‘Always is a long time, Master, as any of my clients would tell you if they could. But to answer you... No, there were women – one or two – in the early years.’ He looked up, suddenly more serious. ‘Oh, don’t mistake me, Master, I am like other men in that. Age does not diminish need and a good fuck is a good fuck, neh?’

When Ben didn’t answer, the old man shrugged.

‘Anyway... there were one or two. But they didn’t stay long. Not after they discovered what was in the back room.’

Ben turned, looking at the door, his eyebrows lifted.

‘You want to see?’

‘May I?’

He set the ch’a dman bowd up> own and followed the old man, not knowing what he would find. A private oven? A room piled high with skulls? Fresh corpses, part dissected? Or something even more gruesome? He felt a small shiver of anticipation run through him. But the reality of what met his eyes was wholly unexpected.

He moved closer, then laughed, delighted. ‘But it’s... beautiful!’

‘Beautiful?’ The old man came and stood beside him, trying to see it as Ben saw it, with new eyes.

‘Yes...’ Ben said, reaching out to touch one of the tiny figures by the tree. Then he drew his finger back and touched it to his tongue. The taste was strange and yet familiar. ‘What did you use?’

The old man pointed to one side. There, on a small table, were his brushes and paints and beside the paint pots a bowl like the two he had been carrying when Ben had first met him. A bowl filled with ashes.

‘I see,’ said Ben. ‘And you mix the ash with dyes?’

The old man nodded.

Ben looked back at the mural. It almost filled the end wall, only a few white spaces here and there, at the edges and the top left of the painting, revealing where the composition was unfinished. Ben stared and stared, then remembered suddenly what the old man had said.

‘How long did you say you’ve been working at this?’

The old man crouched down, inspecting something at the bottom of the painting. ‘I didn’t.’

‘But...’ Ben turned slightly, looking at him, seeing things there in his face that he had failed to notice earlier. ‘I mean, what you said about the women, when you were younger. Was this here then?’

‘This?’ The old man laughed. ‘No, not this. At least, not all of it. Just a small part. This here...’ He sketched out a tiny portion of the composition, at the bottom centre of the wall.

‘Yes. Of course.’ Ben could see it now. The figures there were much cruder than the others. Now that his attention had been drawn to it, he could see how the composition had grown, from the centre out. The Oven Man had learned his art slowly, patiently, year by year adding to it, extending the range of his expression. Until...

Ben stood back, taking in the whole of the composition for the first time.

It was the dance of death. To the far left, a giant figure – huge, that was, compared to the other, much smaller figures – led the dance. It was a tall, emaciated figure, its skin glass-pale, its body like that of an ill-fed fighter, the bare arms lithely muscled, the long legs stretched taut like a runner’s. Its body was facing to the left – to the west and the darkness beyond – but its horse-like, shaven head was turned unnaturally on its long neck, staring back dispassionately at the naked host that followed, hand in hand, down the path through the trees.

In its long, thin hands Death held a flute, the reed placed to its lipless mouth. From the tapered mouth of the flute spilled a flock of tiny birds, dark like ravens, yet cruel, their round eyes like tiny beads of milky white as they fell on to the host below, pecking at eye and limb.

The trees were to the right. Willow and ash and mulberry. Beneath them and to their left, in the centre of the mural, a stream fell between rocks, heavy with the yellow earth of northern China. These were the Yellow Springs, beneath which, it was said, the dead had their domain, ti yu, the ‘earth prison’. He saw how several among that host – Han and Hung Mao alike – looked up at that golden spill of water as they passed, despairing, seeing nothing of its shining beauty.

It was a scene of torment, yet there was compassion thered .

He looked and looked, drinking it in, then nodded, recognizing the style. It was shanshui – mountains and water. But this was nothing like the lifeless perfection Tung Ch’i-ch’ang had painted. These mountains were alive, in motion, the flow of water turbulent, disturbed by the fall of rock from above.

It was a vision of last things. Of the death not of a single man, but of a world. Of Chung Kuo itself.

He stood back, shivering. It was some while since he had been moved so profoundly by anything. The oven man was not a great painter – at least, not technically – yet what he lacked in skill he more than made up for in vision. For this was real. This had ch’i – vitality. Had it in excess.

‘I can see why they left you, Lu Nan Jen. Was this a dream?’

The old man turned, looking at Ben, his whole manner changed. There was no mistaking him now for a simple ch’a seller.

‘You understand, then?’

Ben met his eyes. ‘When did it come?’

‘When I was ten. My life...’ He shrugged, then looked away. ‘I guess there was nothing I could be after that but Lu Nan Jen. There was no other school for me.’

‘Yes...’ Ben turned, looking at it again, awed by its simple power. ‘All this... your work ... it must keep you busy.’

‘Busy?’ The old man laughed. ‘There is no busier person in the Seven Cities than the oven man, unless it is the Midwife. They say eight hundred million die each year. Eight hundred million, and more each year. Always more. There is no room for such numbers in the earth. And so they come to my ovens.’ He laughed, a strangely thoughtful expression on his face. ‘Does that disturb you, young Master?’

‘No,’ Ben answered honestly, yet it made him think of his father. How long would it be before Hal too was dead – alive in memory alone? Yet he, at least, would lie at rest in the earth. Ben frowned. ‘Your vision is marvellous, Lu Nan Jen. And yet, when you talk, you make it all sound so... so prosaic. So meaningless.’

‘From nothing they come. To nothing they return.’

‘Is that what you believe?’

The old man shrugged, his eyes going to the darkness at the far left of the mural, beyond the figure of Death. ‘To believe in nothing, is that a belief? If so, I believe.’

Ben smiled. There was more sense, more wisdom, in this old man than in a thousand Fan Liang-weis. And himself? What did he believe? Did he believe in nothing? Was the darkness simply darkness? Or was there something there, within it? Just as there seemed to be a force behind the light, was there not also a force behind the dark? Maybe even the same force?

The old man sighed. ‘Forgive me, young Master, but I must leave you now. I have my ovens to attend. But, please, if you wish to stay here...’

Ben lowered his head. ‘I thank you, Lu Nan Jen. And I am honoured that you showed me your work. It is not every day that I come across something so real.’

The oven man bowed, then met Ben’s eyes again. ‘I am glad you came, young Master. It is not every day that I meet someone who understands such things. The dream uses us, does it not?’

heet hoo maBen nodded, moved by the old man’s humility. To create this and yet to know how little he had to do with its creating. That was true knowledge.

He bowed again and made to go, then stopped. ‘One last thing,’ he said, turning back. ‘Do you believe in ghosts?’

The oven man laughed and looked about him at the air. ‘Ghosts? Why, there’s nothing here but ghosts.’

‘Catherine? Are you in there?’

She closed her eyes and let her forehead rest against the smooth, cool surface of the door, willing him to go and leave her in peace, but his voice returned, stronger, more insistent.

‘Catherine? You are there, aren’t you? Let me in.’

‘Go away,’ she said, hearing the tiredness in her voice. ‘You’ve a date with young Heng, haven’t you? Why don’t you just go to that and leave me be.’

‘Let me in,’ he said, ignoring her comment. ‘Come on. We need to talk.’

She sighed then stepped back, reaching across to touch the lock. At once the door slid back.

Sergey had changed. He was wearing his gambling clothes – dark silks that lent him a hard, almost sinister air. She had never liked them, least of all now, when she was angry with him.

‘Still sulking?’ he asked, making his way past her into the room.

She had thrown a sheet over the oilboard to conceal what she had been working on, but he went straight to it, throwing back the sheet.

‘Is this what’s been causing all the difficulties?’

She punched the touch-pad irritably, closing the door, then turned to face him.

‘What do you want?’

He laughed, then came across to her. ‘Is that how you greet me?’

He made to embrace her, but she pushed him away.

‘You forget,’ she said, moving past him and throwing the sheet back over the oilboard.

‘It was a joke...’ he began, but she rounded on him angrily.

‘You’re a child! Do you know that?’

He shrugged. ‘I thought that’s what you liked about me? Besides, it wasn’t you who had wine thrown in your face. That hurt.’


She turned away, but he caught her arm and pulled her back.

‘Let go of me,’ she said coldly, looking down at where he held her.

‘Not until you apologize.’

She laughed, astonished by him. ‘Me apologize? After what you said? You can go rot in hell before I apologize to you!’

He tightened his grip until she cried out, tearing her arm away from his grasp.

‘You bastard... You’ve no right...’

‘No right?’ He came closer, his face leaning into hers threateningly. ‘After what we’ve been to each other these last two years, you have the nerve to say I’ve no right?’ His voice was hard, harder than she had ever heard it before, and she found herself suddenly frightened by this aspect of him. Had it always been there, just below the surface of his charm? Yes. She’d always known it about him. Perhaps that was even what had first attracted her. But she was tired of it now. Tired of his thoughtless domination of her. Let him drink himself to death, or take his whores, or gamble away all his money – she would have no more of it.

‘Just go, Sergey. Now, before you make even more of a fool of yourself.’

She saw his eyes widen with anger and knew she had said the wrone cr fa wais mg thing. He reached out and grabbed her neck roughly, pulling her closer to him. ‘A fool?’

Through her fear she recognized the strange parallel of the words with those Fan Liang-wei had used to Shepherd. Then she was fighting to get away from him, hitting his arms and back as he pulled her chin round forcibly and pressed his mouth against her own. Only then did he release her, pushing her back away from him, as if he had done with her.

‘And now I’ll go see Heng.’

She shivered, one hand wiping at her mouth unconsciously. ‘You bastard...’ she said, her voice small. ‘You obnoxious bastard...’ She was close to tears now, her anger displaced suddenly by the hurt she felt. How dare he do that to her? How dare he treat her like his thing?

But he only shook his head. ‘Grow up, Catherine. For the gods’ sake, grow up.’

‘Me... ?’ But her indignation was wasted on him. He had turned away. Slamming his fist against the lock, he pushed out through the door, barely waiting for it to open. Then he was gone.

She stood there a while, staring at the open doorway, fear and hurt and anger coursing through her. Then, as the automatic lock came on and the door hissed closed, she turned and went out into the kitchen. She reached up and pulled down the bottle of peach brandy and poured herself a large glass, her hands trembling. Then, using both hands to steady the glass, she took a long, deep swig of it, closing her eyes, the rich, dark liquid burning her throat.

She shuddered. The bastard! How dare he?

Back in the other room, she set the glass down on the floor, then threw the sheet back from the oilboard, looking at the painting. It was meant to be a joint portrait. Of her and Sergey. Something she had meant to give him for their second anniversary, two weeks away. But now...

She looked at it, seeing it with new eyes. It was shit. Lifeless shit. As bad as the Tung Ch’i-ch’ang landscape. She pressed to erase then stood back, watching as the faces faded and the coloured, contoured screen became a simple, silk smooth rectangle of uncreated whiteness.

For a moment she felt nothing, then, kneeling, she picked up her glass, cradling it against her cheek momentarily before she put it to her lips and drank.

She looked up again, suddenly determined. Fuck him! If that was what he thought of her – if that was how he was prepared to treat her – then she would have no more of it. Let it be an end between them.

She swallowed, the warmth in her throat deceptive, the tears threatening to come despite her determination not to cry. She sniffed, then raised her glass, offering a toast to the silent doorway.

‘Go fuck yourself, Sergey Novacek! May you rot in hell!’

Sergey stood there at the top of the steps, looking down into the huge, dimly lit gaming room of The Jade Peony. Lights above the tables picked out where games were in progress, while at the far end a bar ran from left to right, backlit and curved like a crescent moon. The floor below was busy. Crowds gathered about several of the tables, the excited murmur of their voices carrying to where he stood.

There was a sweet, almost peppery scent in the air, like cinnamon mixed with plum and jasmine, strangely feminine, yet much too strong to be pleasant. It was the smell of them – of the sons of the Minor Families and their friends. The distinguishing mark of this Han elite; like a pheremonal dye. Sergey smiled. In theory The Jade Peony was a mixed club, membership determined not by race but by recommendation and election, but in practice the only Hung Mao here were guests, like himself.

Yang kuei tzu, they called his kindut okeder lub. ‘Ocean devils’. Barbarians.

Even the Han at the door had looked down on him. He had seen the contempt that lay behind that superficial mask of politeness. Had heard him turn, after he had gone, and mutter a word or two of his own tongue to the other doorman. Had heard them laugh and knew it was about himself.

Well, he’d wipe a few smiles from their faces tonight. And Heng? His smile broadened momentarily. He would make sure Heng would not be smiling for some time.

He went down the plushly carpeted stairway, past the great dragon-head sculpture that stood to one side, making his way to the bar.

As he passed they stared at him openly, their hostility unmasked.

Heng Chian-ye was where he said he would be, at a table on the far left, close to the bar. A big, hexagonal table covered in a bright red silk. Representations of the wu fu, the five gods of good luck, formed a patterned border around its edge, the tiny silhouettes picked out in green.

He smiled and bowed. ‘Heng Chian-ye... You received my message, I hope.’

Heng Chian-ye was seated on the far side of the table, a glass and a wine bottle in front of him. To either side of him sat his friends, four in all, young, fresh-faced Han in their early twenties, their long fingernails and elaborately embroidered silks the calling card of their kind. They stared back at Sergey coldly, as if at a stranger, while Heng leaned forward, a faint smile playing on his lips.

‘Welcome, Shih Novacek. I got your message. Even so, I did wonder whether you would make an appearance tonight.’ His smile broadened momentarily, as if to emphasize the jest. ‘Anyway, you’re here now, neh? So... please, take a seat. I’ll ask the waiter to bring you a drink.’

‘Just wine,’ he said, answering the unspoken query, then sat, smiling a greeting at the others at the table; inwardly contemptuous.

He smiled, then, taking the silken pouch from his jacket pocket, threw it across the table so that it landed just in front of Heng Chian-ye. It was deliberately done; not so much an insult as an act of gaucheness. In the circles in which Heng mixed it was not necessary to provide proof of means before you began to play. It was assumed that if you sat at a gaming table you could meet your debts. So it was among the ch’un tzu. Only hsiao jen – little men – acted as Sergey was acting now.

Sergey saw the looks that passed amongst Heng and his friends and smiled inwardly. Their arrogance, their ready assumption of superiority – these were weaknesses. And the more he could feed that arrogance, the weaker they would become. The weaker they, the stronger he.

‘What’s this?’ Heng said, fingering the string of the pouch as if it were unclean.

‘My stake,’ Sergey said, sitting forward slightly, as if discomfited. ‘Look and see. I think you’ll find it’s enough.’

Heng laughed and shook his head. ‘Really, Shih Novacek. That’s not how we do things here.’

Sergey raised his eyebrows, as if puzzled. ‘You do not wish to play, then? But I thought...’

Heng was smiling tightly. His English was tightly clipped, polite. ‘It isn’t what I meant.’ He lifted the pouch with two fingers and threw it back across the table. ‘You would not be here if I... doubted your ability to pay.’

Sergey smiled. ‘Forgive me,’ he said, looking about him as he picked up the pouch and returned it to his pocket. ‘I did not mean to offend.’

‘Of course,’ Heng answered, smiling, yet the way he glanced at his friends revealed what he uo;quo;et ickwas really thinking. ‘I understand, Shih Novacek. Our ways differ. But the game...’

Sergey lowered his head slightly, as if acknowledging the wisdom of what Heng Chian-ye had said. ‘The game is itself. The same for Han and Hung Mao alike.’

Heng gave the barest nod. ‘So it is. Well... shall we play?’

‘Just you and I, Heng Chian-ye? Or will the ch’un tzu join us?’

Heng looked to either side of him. ‘Chan Wen-fu? Tsang Yi? Will you play?’

Two of the Han nodded; the other two – as if on cue – stood, letting the others spread out round the table.

‘You will be West, Shih Novacek, I East. My friends here will be North and South.’

Sergey sat back, taking the wine from the waiter who had appeared at his side. ‘That’s fine with me. You have new cards?’

Heng lifted his chin, as if in signal to the waiter. A moment later the man returned with a sealed pack, offering them to Sergey. He took them and hefted them a moment, then set them down on the table.

‘Bring another.’

Heng smiled tightly. ‘Is there something wrong with them, Shih Novacek?’

‘Not at all, Heng Chian-ye. Please, bear with me. It is a foible of mine. A... superstition.’ He spoke the last word quietly, as if ashamed of such a weakness, and saw the movement in Heng’s eyes; the way he looked to North and South, as if to reinforce the point to his two friends.

‘You have many superstitions, Shih Novacek?’

‘Not many. But this...’ He shrugged, then turned, taking the new pack from the waiter and setting it down beside the other. Then, to Heng’s surprise, he picked up the first and broke the seal.

‘But I thought...’

Sergey looked down, ignoring Heng’s query, fanning the huge cards out on the table in front of him. There were one hundred and sixty cards in a pack of Chou, or ‘State’, arranged into nine levels, or groupings. At the head of all was the Emperor, enthroned in golden robes. Beneath him were his seven Ministers, these greybeards plainly dressed, as if in contrast. At the third level were the Family Heads – the twenty-nine cards richly decorated, each one quite different from the others. At the next level down the four Generals seemed at first glance quite uniform; yet the staunch Hung Mao faces of the old men differed considerably. Beneath them came the four wives of the Emperor, ranked in their household order, and beneath them – at the sixth level – came the two concubines, their scantily dressed figures making them the most attractive of the cards. Next were the eight sons, their resemblance to their respective mothers suggested by their facial features and cleverly underlined by use of colour and decoration. Then, at the eighth level of this complex hierarchy came the eighty-one officials, ranked in nine levels of nine, their great chi ling patches displayed on the chests of their powder-blue gowns. And finally, at the ninth level – last in the great pecking order of State – were the twenty-four Company Heads, their corporate symbols – some long forgotten, some just as familiar now as when the game was first played one hundred and twenty years before – emblazoned on the copy of the Edict scroll each held.

He turned one of the cards a moment, studying the reverse carefully for special markings, then compared it with a second. The backs of the cards were a bright, silken red, broken in the centre by a pattern of three concentric circles, three rings of dragons: twenty-nine black dragons in the outer circle, seven larger dragons in tierh; t thmpahe second, and, at the very centre, a single golden dragon, larger than all the others, its great jaws closing on its tail.

Sergey smiled and looked up. ‘These are beautiful cards, Heng Chian-ye. The faces... they look almost as if they were drawn from life.’

Heng laughed. ‘So they were, my friend. These are copies of the very first Chou pack, hand drawn by Tung Men-tiao.’

Sergey looked down at the cards with a new respect. Then these were tiny portraits of the actual people who had filled those roles. Men and women whom the great artist and satirist Tung Men-tiao had known in life. He smiled. Somehow it gave the game an added bite.

‘Shall we start?’ Heng asked. ‘If you’ll stack the cards, we’ll cut to see who deals.’

For the first few hours he had tried to keep things fairly even, attributing his victories to good fortune, his defeats to his own stupidity. And all the while he had studied their play – had seen how the other two played to Heng, even while making it seem that they had only their own interests at heart. It was clever but transparent, and he could see how it would have fooled another, but he was not just any player. At Chou he excelled. He had mastered this as a child, playing his father and uncles for his pocket money.

In the last game he had drawn the Emperor and, despite a strong hand, had proceeded to ensure he lost: rather than consolidating power, he played into the hands of Heng’s three Minister cards. Heng’s rebellion had succeeded and Sergey had ended by losing a thousand yuan. He had seen the gleam in Heng’s eyes as he noted down his winnings on the tab and knew that the time was ripe. Heng had won the last two games. He must feel he was on a winning streak. What better time, then, to up the stakes?

Sergey looked down, pretending not to see how Heng looked to his left at Tsang Yi, knowing what was to come.

‘Forgive me, ch’un tzu,’ the Han began, getting to his feet and bowing, first to his friends, and then – his head barely inclined – to Sergey, ‘but I must go. My father...’

‘Of course,’ Heng said smoothly, before Sergey could object. ‘We understand, don’t we, Shih Novacek?’

We do, he thought, smiling inwardly, then watching as another of Heng’s circle took Tsang’s place at table.

‘I’ll buy Tsang out,’ the Han said, his eyes meeting Sergey’s briefly, challengingly. Then, turning to Heng, he added, ‘But look, Chian-ye, why don’t we make the game more... exciting?’

Heng laughed, acting as though he didn’t understand his friend. ‘How so, Yi Shan-ch’i? Was that last game not exciting enough for you?’

Yi inclined his head slightly. ‘Forgive me, honourable cousin, but that is not what I meant. The game itself was good. As enjoyable to watch as I’m sure it was to play. But such a game needs an added bite, don’t you think? If the stake were to be raised to ten thousand yuan a game...’

Heng laughed, then looked across at Sergey. ‘Maybe so. But let’s ask our friend here. Well, Shih Novacek? What do you say? Would you like to raise the stakes, or are you happy as it is?’

It was delicately put. Almost too delicately, for it was phrased as if to let him back off without losing face. But things were not so simple. He was not one of them, even though he sat at their table. He was Yang kuei tzu. A foreign devil. A barbarian. He looked down, wrinkling up his face as if considering the matter, then looked up again.

‘Ten thousand yuan...&rsquoas theh="thei; He laughed nervously. ‘It’s more than I’ve lost in a whole evening before now. Still... Yi Shan-ch’i is right. It would make the game more interesting.’

Heng looked to his two friends, then back at Sergey. ‘I would not like to pressure you...’

‘No.’ Sergey shook his head firmly, as if he had made up his mind and was now determined on it. ‘Ten thousand yuan it is. For good or ill.’

He sat back, watching Yi deal. As ever Heng picked up each card as it was dealt, his face an eloquent map of his fortunes. For his own part, Sergey waited until all seventeen cards were lain face down before him, watching the other two sort their cards before he picked up his own.

As he sorted his hand he thought back to the last time he had played Heng. The object of Chou was straightforward and could be expressed quite simply: it was to hold the most points in one’s hand at the end of the final play. To do so, however, one had not only to strengthen one’s own hand but to weaken one’s opponents. The game’s complex system of discards and exchanges, blind draws and open challenges was designed to simulate this aspect of political life; to counterfeit the sticky web of intrigue that underpinned it all. Heng played, however, as if he barely understood this aspect of the game. As if only the relative levels of the cards – their positive attributes – mattered to him. He sought to cram his hand full of high-scoring cards and bonus combinations – Ministers and Family Heads and Generals – failing, like so many of his kind, to understand the other side of things: the powerfully destructive potential of Concubines and Sons.

In Chou the value of a card did not always express its significance in the scheme of things. So it was with Concubines. At the end of the game they were worth only eight points – fifty-six points less than a Family Head and one hundred and twenty points less than a Minister. Unless...

Unless the Emperor were without a Wife. In which case, the Concubine took on its negative aspect, cancelling out not only its own value but the two hundred and fifty-six points that the Emperor would otherwise score.

Likewise with the Sons. While they scored only four a piece at the final count, in the company of their respective mothers they became a liability, cancelling out not merely their own value but that of any Minister held.

The skilful player sought, therefore, to pair Wives with Sons and hold back Wives from those who held the Emperor and then, at the last throw, to offload their pairings and Concubines in an exchange of hostages. To win by undermining their opponents.

Sergey smiled, noting that he had both Concubines in his hand. Well, good. This time he would keep them. Would make it seem he had drawn them late in the play, before he could offload them on another.

A half-hour later he had lost.

‘Another game, ch’un tzu?’ Heng asked, jotting down Yi’s victory on the tab. Sergey glanced across. He was eleven thousand down, Chan nine, Heng eight. Yi, who had taken on Tsang’s deficit of two thousand, was now twenty-eight thousand up.

Heng dealt this time. ‘Has anyone the Emperor?’ he asked, having sorted out his own hand.

Sergey laid it down before him, then reached across to take another card from the pile. Having the Emperor made one strong. But it also made one vulnerable – to Concubines and the scheming Sons of Wives.

Again he smiled. He had a good hand – no, an excellent hand. Three Wives and Three Ministers and there, at the far left of his hand, one of the Concubines. The tiny, doe-eyed one.

He looked down, momentarily abstracted from the gamg aelliecthad a e, thinking back to earlier that evening and to the row with Catherine. He had shut it out before, but now it came back to him. It had been his fault. He could see that now. But why did she always have to provoke him so? Why couldn’t she be more like the other women he knew? He felt a mild irritation at her behaviour. Why did she always have to be so stubborn? Didn’t she know what it did to him? And all that business with the ‘technician’. Shepherd. Why had she done that, if not to spite him? She knew how jealous he was. Why couldn’t she be a bit more compliant? Then again, he liked her spirit. So different from Lotte and her kind.

He laughed softly, conscious of the contradiction.

‘You have a good hand, Shih Novacek?’ Heng asked, smiling tightly at him, misunderstanding the cause of his laughter.

‘I think so, Heng Chian-ye,’ he answered, leaning forward to place two of the Ministers face down on to the discard pile. ‘I think so.’

Two hours later he was sixty-one thousand down. He wasn’t the only one down, of course. Chan had a deficit of nineteen thousand marked against his name. But Yi was eighteen thousand up, and Heng, who had won three of the last four games, was sixty-two thousand in credit.

It had gone perfectly. Exactly as he’d planned. He looked across. Heng Chian-ye was smiling broadly. In the last hour Heng had begun to drink quite heavily, as if to buoy up his nerves. He had drunk so much, in fact, that he had almost made a simple mistake, discarding the wrong card. An error that could have lost him everything. Only Yi’s quick action had prevented it – an intercession Sergey had pretended not to see.

Now, then, was the time. While Heng was at the height of his pride. But it must come from Heng. In such company as this it must seem that it was not he, but Heng, who raised the stakes a second time.

In the last hour a small crowd had gathered about the table, intrigued by the sight of a Hung Mao playing Chou in The Jade Peony. Sergey had noted how a ripple of satisfaction had gone through the watchers on each occasion he had lost and had felt something harden deep inside him. Well, now he would show them.

He leaned back in his seat, pretending to stifle a yawn. ‘I’m tired,’ he said. ‘Too many late nights, I guess.’ He smiled across at Heng. ‘Maybe I should stop now, while I’ve any of my fortune left.’

Heng glanced across at his friends, then looked back at him. ‘You mean to leave us soon, Shih Novacek?’

He straightened up and took a deep breath, as if trying to sober up. ‘Fairly soon...’

‘Your luck must change...’

‘Must it?’ He laughed harshly, then seemed to relent. ‘Well, maybe...’

‘In which case...’ Heng looked about him, then leaned towards Sergey again. ‘Maybe you’d like the chance to win your money back, eh, my friend? One game. Just you and I. For sixty-one thousand.’

Sergey looked down. Then, surprisingly, he shook his head. ‘I wouldn’t hear of it. Even if I won, well, it would be as if we hadn’t played.’ He looked up, meeting Heng’s eyes. ‘No, my friend. There must be winners and losers in this world of ours, neh? If we are to play, let it be for... seventy-five thousand. That way I at least have a small chance of coming out ahead.’

Heng smiled and his eyes travelled quickly to his friends again. There was an expectant hush now about the table.

‘Make it a hundred...’

He made a mime of considering the matter, then shrugged. ‘All right. So be it.’ He turned, summon toe smsqutaning a waiter. ‘Bring me a coffee. Black, two sugars. I might need my wits about me this time.’

It took him twenty minutes.

‘It seems my luck has changed,’ he said, meeting Heng’s eyes; seeing at once how angry the other man was with himself, for he had made it seem as though victory were the Han’s, only to snatch it away at the last moment. ‘I was fortunate to draw that last card.’

He saw what it cost Heng to keep back the words that almost came to his lips and knew he had him.

‘Anyway...’ he added quickly, ‘I really should go now. I thank you for your hospitality, Heng Chian-ye. Settle with me when you will. You know where to find me.’ He pushed his chair back from the table and got to his feet.


Heng was leaning forward, his hand extended towards Sergey.

‘Surely you won’t go now, Shih Novacek? As you yourself said... your luck has changed. Why, then, do you hurry from your fortune? Surely you aren’t afraid, my friend?’

Sergey stared back at him. ‘Afraid?’

Heng leaned back, a faint smile coming to his lips. ‘Yes. Afraid.’ He hesitated, then, ‘I’ll play you again, Shih Novacek. One final game. But this time we’ll make the stakes worth playing for. Two hundred thousand. No. Two fifty thousand.’

Sergey looked about him at the watching Han, seeing the tension in every face. This was no longer about the money; for Heng it was now a matter of pride – of face.

He sat, placing his hands firmly on the edge of the table, looking back at Heng, fixing him in his gaze, his manner suddenly different – harder, almost brutal in its challenge.

‘All right. But not for two fifty. Let’s have no half-measures between us, Heng Chian-ye. If I play you, I play you for a million. Understand me?’

There were low gasps from all round the table, then a furious murmur of voices. But Heng seemed unaware of the hubbub that surrounded him. He sat there, staring back fixedly at Sergey, his eyes wide, as if in shock. His hands were trembling now, his brow beaded with sweat.


Unable to find his voice, Heng nodded.

‘Good.’ Sergey leaned forward and took the cards, then, surprising them all, handed them to Yi. ‘You deal, Yi Shan-ch’i. I want no one to say that this was not a fair game.’

He saw Heng’s eyes widen at that. Saw realization dawn in Heng’s frightened face.

So now you know.

He kept his face a mask, yet inwardly he was exulting. I’ve got you now, you bastard. Got you precisely where I wanted you. A million. Yes, it was more than Heng Chian-ye had. More than he could possibly borrow from his friends. He would have no alternative. If he lost he would have to go to his uncle.

Heng Yu turned in his seat, dismissing the servant, then went outside into the anteroom. Heng Chian-ye knelt there, on the far side of the room, his head bowed low, his forehead touched almost to the tiled floor. He crossed the room, then stood over the young man, looking down at him.

‘What is it, cousin?’

Heng Chian-ye stayed as he was. ‘Forgive me, Uncle Yu, but I have the most grave request to make of you.’

Heng Yu, Minister of Transportation for Li Shai Tung and Head of the Heng family, pulled at his beard, astonished. Chian-ye was fourteen years his junior, the youngest son of his uncle, the former Minister, Heng Chipo, who had passed away eleven years ago. Several times over the past five yearsd hwidtablhe was. he had been forced to bail the boy out when he had been in trouble, but all that had changed six months back, when Chian-ye had come into his inheritance. Now that he had his own income, Chian-ye had been a much rarer visitor at his Uncle Yu’s house.

‘A grave request? At this hour, Chian-ye? Do you know what time it is? Can it not wait until the morning?’

Heng Chian-ye made a small, miserable movement of his head. ‘I would not have come, Uncle, were it not a matter of the utmost urgency.’

Heng Yu frowned, confused, his head still full of figures from the report he had been studying.

‘What is it, Chian-ye? Is someone ill?’

But he knew, even as he said it, that it was not that. Fu Hen would have come with such news, not Chian-ye. Unless... He felt himself go cold.

‘It isn’t Fu Hen, is it?’

Heng Chian-ye raised his head the tiniest bit. ‘No, Honoured Uncle. No one is ill.’

Heng Yu sighed with relief, then leaned closer. ‘Have you been drinking, Chian-ye?’

‘I...’ Then, astonishingly, Chian-ye burst into tears. Chian-ye, who had never so much as expressed one word of remorse over his own wasteful lifestyle, in tears! Heng Yu looked down at where Chian-ye’s hand gripped the hem of his pau and shook his head. His voice was suddenly forceful; the voice of a Minister commanding an underling.

‘Heng Chian-ye! Remember who you are! Look at you! Crying like a four-year-old! Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?’

‘Forgive me, Uncle! I cannot help it! I have disgraced our noble family. I have lost a million yuan!’

Heng Yu fell silent. Then he gave a small laugh of disbelief.

‘Surely I heard you wrong, Chian-ye? A million yuan?’

But a tiny nod of Chian-ye’s bowed head confirmed it. A million yuan had been lost. Probably at the gaming table.

Heng Yu looked about him at the cold formality of the anteroom, at its mock pillars and the tiny bronze statues of gods that rested in the alcoves to either side, the unreality of it all striking him forcibly. Then he shook his head. ‘It isn’t possible, Chian-ye. Even you cannot have lost that much, surely?’

But he knew that it was. Nothing less would have brought Chian-ye here. Nothing less would have reduced him to such a state.

Heng Yu sighed, his irritation mixed with a sudden despair. Was he never to be free of his uncle’s failings? First that business with Lwo Kang, and now this. As if the father were reborn in his wastrel son – to blight the family’s fortunes with his carelessness and selfishness.

For now he would have to borrow to carry out his schemes. Would have to take that high-interest loan Shih Saxton had offered him. A million yuan! He cursed silently, then drew away, irritably freeing his pau from his cousin’s grasp.

‘Come into the study, Chian-ye, and tell me what has happened.’

He sat behind his great ministerial desk, his face stern, listening to Chian-ye’s story. When his cousin finished, he sat there silently, considering. Finally he looked back at Chian-ye, shaking his head.

‘You have been a foolish young man, Chian-ye. First you overstretched yourself. That was bad enough. But then... well, to promise something that was not yours to promise, that was... insufferable.’

He saw how Chian-ye blushed and hung his head at that. So there is some sense of rightness in you, he thought. Some sense of shame.

‘However,’ he continuitao;m">He sawed, heartened by the clear sign of his cousin’s shame, ‘you are family, Chian-ye. You are Heng.’ He pronounced the word with a pride that made his cousin look up and meet his eyes, surprised.

‘Yes. Heng. And the word of a Heng must be honoured, whether given mistakenly or otherwise.’

‘You mean...?’

Heng Yu’s voice hardened. ‘I mean, cousin, that you will be silent and listen to me!’

Heng Chian-ye lowered his head again, chastened; his whole manner subservient now.

‘As I was saying. The word of a Heng must be honoured. So, yes, Chian-ye, I shall meet Shih Novacek’s conditions. He shall have the Ko Ming bronze in settlement for your debt. As for the information he wanted, you can do that for yourself, right now. The terminal is over there, in the corner. However... there are two things you will do for me.’

Chian-ye raised his head slightly, suddenly attentive.

‘First you will sign over half of your annual income, to be placed in a trust that will mature only when you are thirty.’

Chian-ye hesitated, then gave a reluctant nod.

‘Good. And, second, you will resign your membership to The Jade Peony.’

Heng Chian-ye looked up, astonished. ‘But, Uncle...?’ Then, seeing the angry determination in Heng Yu’s face, he lowered his eyes. ‘As you say, Uncle Yu.’

‘Good,’ Heng Yu said, more kindly now that it was settled. ‘Then go to the terminal. You know how to operate it. The codes are marked to the right. But ask me if you must. I shall be here a few hours yet, finishing my reports.’

He watched Chian-ye go to the terminal, then sat back, smoothing at his beard with his left hand, his right hand resting on the desk. A million yuan! That, truly, would have been disastrous. But this... this deal. He smiled. Yes, it was a gods-given opportunity to put a bit and brace on his reckless cousin – to school him to self-discipline. And the price? One ugly bronze worth, at most, two hundred thousand, and a small snippet of information on a fellow student!

He nodded, strangely pleased with the way things had turned out, then picked up the report again. He was about to push it into the slot behind his ear when Chian-ye turned, looking across at him.

‘Uncle Yu?’

‘Yes, Chian-ye?’

‘There seems to be no file.’

Heng Yu laughed, then stood, coming round his desk. ‘Of course there’s a file, Chian-ye. There’s a file on everyone in Chung Kuo. You must have keyed the code incorrectly.’

He stared at the screen. INFORMATION NOT AVAILABLE, it read.

‘Here,’ he said, taking the scrap of paper from his cousin’s hand. ‘Let me see those details.’

He stopped dead, staring at the name that was written on the paper, then laughed uncomfortably.

‘Is something wrong, Uncle Yu?’

‘No... nothing. I...’ He smiled reassuringly, then repeated what Chian-ye had tried before, getting the same response. ‘Hmm...’ he said. ‘There must be something wrong with this terminal. I’ll call one of my men to come and see to it.’

Heng Chian-ye was watching him strangely. ‘Shall I wait, Uncle?’

For a moment he didn’t answer, his head filled with questions. Then he shook his head absently. ‘No, Chian-ye...’ Then, remembering what day it was, he turned, facing him.

‘You realize what day it is, Chian-ye?’

The young man shook hat earas wais head.

‘You mean, you have been wasting your time gambling, when your father’s grave remains unswept?’

Chian-ye swallowed and looked down, abashed. ‘Sao Mu,’ he said quietly.

‘Yes, Sao Mu... Or so it is for another three-quarters of an hour. Now go, Chian-ye, and do your duty. I’ll have these details for you by the morning, I promise you.’

When Chian-ye was gone he locked the door, then came back to the terminal.

Ben Shepherd... Now, what would Shih Novacek be doing wanting to know about the Shepherd boy? One thing was certain – it wasn’t a harmless enquiry. For no one, Han or Hung Mao, threw a million yuan away on such a small thing. Unless it wasn’t small.

He turned, looking across at the tiny chip of the report where it lay on his desk, then turned back, his decision made. The report could wait. This was much more important. Whatever it was.