Make way for the Lady Jila. Make way for the Lady Jila.
The voice was high but masculine. An elaborately carved palanquin was moving down the road carried on the shoulders of eight sweating men, the passenger concealed behind draped purple silks. Twelve guards, dressed in purple tunics and carrying curved swords, formed a protective square around it - the Shadow Men, the soldier eunuchs of the imperial court. They were always quick to beat down those who did not clear the way or bow fast enough. I dropped onto my good knee and dragged my bad leg beneath me. The Lady Jila? She must be one of the emperors favorites if she was allowed out of the Inner Precinct. I lowered into the court noble bow.
Beside me, a stocky man in the leggings and oiled wrap of the seafarer sat back on his heels, watching the approaching procession. If he did not bow down, he would attract the attention of the guards. And they were not careful about whom they struck.
It is a court lady, sir, I whispered urgently. You must bow. Like this. I held my body at the proper angle.
He glanced at me. Do you think she deserves our bows? he asked.
I frowned. What do you mean? Shes a court lady, it doesnt matter what she deserves. If you dont bow, you will be beaten.
The seafarer laughed. A very pragmatic approach to life, he said. Ill take your advice. He lowered his shoulders, still smiling.
I held my breath as the palanquin passed, squinting as the dust raised, then settled. Beyond us, I heard the crack of a sword laid flat against flesh: a merchant, too slow in his movements, knocked to the ground by the lead guard. The palanquin turned the far corner and a collective easing of muscle and breath rippled through the crowd. A few soft remarks grew in volume as people stood, brushing at their clothes. I dropped my hands to the ground and swung my leg out, preparing to stand. Suddenly, I felt a large hand under each armpit, pulling me upward.
There you go, boy.
Dont touch me! I jumped back, my arms across my chest.
Its all right, he said, holding up his hands. I just wanted to return the favor. You saved me from a sword across my back.
He smelled of fish oil and old sweat and seaweed. A memory flashed through me: holding up a heavy string of black pearl kelp, and my mother, nodding and smiling and coiling it into the basket strapped across her slight body. Then the image was gone. Too quick to hold, like all the others I had of my family.
Im sorry, sir, you took me by surprise, I said, tightening my arms around my chest. Thank you for the assistance. Bowing politely, I stepped away from him. The shock of his grip was still on my skin.
The alley opposite was no longer empty; a group of dock boys had congregated near the far end, squatting around a game of dice. Id have to take the long way around. As if in protest, the pain in my hip sharpened.
The seafarer stopped beside me again. Perhaps you will help me once more, he said. Can you tell me the way to the Gate of Officials?
There was no suspicion or puzzlement on his face, just polite inquiry. I looked at the dock boys again, then back at the seafarer. He was not overly tall, but his chest and shoulders were powerful and his face was tanned into stern lines. I glanced to see if he was armed; a knife was slung through his belt. It would do.
Im going that way myself, sir, I said, beckoning him across the road toward the alley. It was not strictly in the direction he wanted to go, but it would still be quicker than the main streets.
I am Tozay, master fisher of Kan Po, he said, pausing at the mouth of the alley. He clasped his hands together and nodded - adult to child.
Excerpted from Eon by Alison Goodman. Copyright © 2008 by Alison Goodman. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Group. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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