I leaned to my right to get a better look at him. A year ago, the emperor had ordered raids on the Trang Dein people as punishment for their bold independence. It was whispered in the city taverns that all the male Trang prisoners had been viciously gelded, like animals, and forced to serve on the imperial ships. This boy was only about fifteen but big enough to pass as a man. Was he one of the Trang cattle-men? My eyes dropped, but he wore the loose tunic and trousers of the dock laborer. I couldnt tell by just looking.
Or could I? A cattle-mans energy would be different from a whole mans energy, wouldnt it? Maybe my new mind-sight would work on him as it had with the kitchen girl and apprentice. The memory of watching their bright monsoon union made my skin prickle with shame, but I still narrowed my mind into the energy world. There was the same strange sensation of stepping forward, and then light, so bright that tears came to my eyes. I couldnt separate anyones energy; it was a roiling blurred mass of red and yellow and blue. Then, like a flickering cloud shadow, another presence. And pain, deep and low in the belly. Ten times worse than the monthly pain, as though barbs were being dragged through my innards. Only a power born of evil spirits could have such agony ride with it. My mind-sight buckled. I drew in a shuddering breath as the alley twisted back into view. The pain vanished.
Never again would I intrude upon such savage energies.
Beside me, I heard Master Tozay say, I fish the Kan Po coast. Hired a few of your people as hands on my boats. That was before the raid, of course. They were all good workers.
The island boy nodded warily.
The islands are quiet now, Tozay said softly. Not so many soldiers in Ryoka. Some of the missing are making their way home.
The boy let the stone drop to the ground, his hand groping for the shell carving. Holding it like a talisman, he glanced back at his friends, then faced Master Tozay and hunched his shoulders as though to separate himself from his companions.
Are you hiring now? he asked, stumbling over the words.
I may have a place, Master Tozay said. If youre looking for honest work, then meet me at the Gray Marlin dock tomorrow. Ill wait until the noon bell.
Master Tozay turned, herding me with his body. As we walked out of the alley and into the busy Sweet Sellers Road, I looked back at the island boy. He was staring at us, oblivious to his friends, his hand clenched around the pendant.
What is that thing he wears around his neck? I asked Master Tozay as we crossed the road. A good luck symbol? But I knew the pendant had to be more than that.
Master Tozay snorted. No, I wouldnt say it was good luck. He looked closely at me. You have a politicians face, Eon. Id wager you know a lot more than you show the world. So what have you noted about the change in our land?
More beggars, more raids, more arrests, more hard words against the imperial court. I had also overheard my master in low conversation with others of his rank: The emperor is ill, the heir too callow, the court split in its loyalties.
What I have noted is that it is safer to have a politicians face and a mutes tongue, I said wryly.
Master Tozay laughed. Prudently said. He looked around, then pulled me over to the narrow space between two shops. That boys pendant is an islander totem, to bring longevity and courage, he said, bending close to my ear, his voice low. Its also a symbol of resistance.
To the emperor? I whispered, knowing the danger of such words.
No, child. To the real power in the Empire of the Celestial Dragons. High Lord Sethon.
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