The emperors brother. The son of a concubine. According to the old ways, when the emperor came to his throne, he should have ordered his brother Sethon killed, along with all the other male children born to his fathers concubines. But our emperor was an enlightened man, an educated man. He let his eight younger brothers live. He made them his generals, and Sethon, the eldest of the eight, he made his commander in chief. Our emperor was also a trusting man.
But High Lord Sethon commands the armies. What can islanders do against such might? I asked.
Master Tozay shrugged. Not much. But there are others, more powerful, who remain loyal to the emperor and his son. He paused as an old woman stopped at the shop-hatch next to us to poke through a display of yeast cakes. Come, this is not the talk for such an open place, he said softly. Or indeed for any place. He straightened. I fancy a sweet bun. How about you?
I longed to ask him who opposed High Lord Sethon, but the subject was clearly at an end. And I had not had a sweet bun in a very long time - there was no money for such excesses in my masters household.
I should not dawdle. . . . I said.
Come, it will not take long. Well get them as we walk. Can you recommend a seller?
I nodded. One bun would not take long. I spotted a break in the slow-moving crowd and led Master Tozay through it to the corner of the White Cloud Market. It was busier than usual, the afternoon sun driving people under the shade of the broad white silk sails that had been stretched between carved poles. We passed Ari the Foreigner serving some merchants in his coffee stall, the heavy perfume of the strange black drink thick in the air. Ari had once given me a bowl of his coffee, and I had liked the rich bitterness and the slight buzzing it left in my head. I touched Master Tozays arm and pointed at the pastry stall to our left, its counter blocked by customers.
The red bean ones are said to be good here, I said, standing on my toes to see the trays of buns arranged in neat lines.
The nutty smell of bean paste and sweet dough radiated in a wave of heat. A sharp roil of hunger joined the ache in my gut. Master Tozay nodded and, bowing politely, managed to neatly insert himself ahead of a woman hesitating over her choice. As I watched his broad back and sunburned neck, I felt another flicker of memory; of being carried on a big mans back and the salty warmth of sun-leathered skin against my cheek. But, once again, I couldnt make the image stay. Was it a memory of my father? I no longer had any clear idea of what he looked like. A moment later Master Tozay turned, holding a bun in each hand, wrapped in a twist of red paper.
Here you go, he said. Be careful. The seller said theyre just out of the steamer.
Thank you, sir. The heat from the bun stung my palm through the thin wrapping. I slid the paper down, fashioning a handle. It would be best to wait until it had cooled, but the smell was too tantalizing; I bit into it, juggling the steaming pastry around with my tongue.
Tasty, Master Tozay said, fanning his mouth with his hand.
I nodded, unable to speak as the hot, dense filling made my jaw seize and ache with its sudden sweetness.
He motioned forward with his bun. Is this the way to the Gate?
I swallowed and sucked in a breath of cooling air. Yes, you follow the white sails until they end, I said, pointing at the silk roof, and then turn right. Just keep walking and youll come to the Gate of Officials.
Master Tozay smiled. Good boy. Now, if ever you make the journey down the coast to Kan Po, you must look for me. You can be always sure of a welcome. He hesitated, then put his hand on my shoulder. If that dragon has any sense tomorrow, hell choose you, he said, giving me a gentle shake.
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