Brenda Morris sat down at her computer, her fingers flying as she wrote a letter she knew she'd never be permitted to send.
In your last e-mail, you sort of yelled at me for not staying in touch better this summer. No. I haven't gotten stuck-up working for a movie star. Nothing like it.
It's just that, well, there's so damn much I'm not allowed to talk about, and all of that is the stuff that I really want to talk about. Take Pearl—my "famous boss" as you called her. No. Go back further. Start with my dad hauling me out here to California to introduce me to a guy it turns out he's known since they were both, like, ten. Maybe younger. I'm still trying to work all of this out. Take getting to that guy's office—his name is Albert Yu and he's famous, too, in a really weird way—and finding it trashed. And Albert Yu's missing. And when we finally find him, well, he's still sort of missing. And soon my dad is, too...
Then there's finding out that Dad talks Chinese like a native, and that this skill is perfectly normal compared with that fact that he's a sorcerer of a real obscure sort. And so's Pearl. And so's Albert. And... Jeez... so am I, at least a little. Yeah. This summer, I'm interning in magic and self-defense.
Hell. Can you see why I can't talk about it?
You said you wanted me to tell you all about the people I've been meeting, the things I've been doing, that you already know I make a great chocolate mousse, thank you, very much. Tell you the good stuff.
Okay. How about this? I've met a white tiger the size of a house. No. I'm not exaggerating. His name's Pai Hu. I've talked to dragons and turned into a rat. Really.
I've made some new friends, and seen them bleeding, half-crazy with terror. I've been cut by a sword. I've seen one of my new friends, a really cool old man named Waking Lizard, sprawled, deadddddddddddddddddd"
Brenda's hand stuck on the keyboard, that final letter stuttering out like her own heartbeat, as she remembered the horrible realization that victory tasted a whole lot like defeat.
She didn't realize she was crying until the hot, wet drops hit the backs of her hands.
"Shannon," she said aloud, her voice tight with tears. "I wish I could tell you, but I can't. I can't. I can't even tell you about the guy I... I can't. I'm sorry."
Brenda touched a few keys, let the words shine bright, then struck them away to nothingness, wishing, just a little, that all her problems could be erased so easily.
"Thundering Heaven has betrayed us," the ghost of Loyal Wind reported, his voice tight with suppressed fury.
He who when alive had been the Horse manifested much as he had in the prime of life: a tall man, his shining black hair cut close to a well-shaped head. The styling of that hair showed some vanity for, although it was worn short, the sideburns were long and neatly squared. He wore a full mustache, and a small chin beard. Loyal Wind's clothing was simple, a long tunic, trousers, and riding boots, but the fabric was the best, the embroidered trim sumptuous.
The one to whom he spoke, Nine Ducks, she who in life had been the Ox, was nothing like him. Even in death, where the choice of appearance reflects the spirit's mental state more than any fidelity to the life lived, Nine Ducks manifested as an old woman, bent and leaning on a cane.
Appearance of age notwithstanding, Nine Ducks possessed a tremendous vitality of spirit. She was attired in a shenyi—the long, full-sleeved robe praised by the philosopher K'ung for embodying a unique combination of functionality and symbolic import. The elaborate embroideries that covered the golden-yellow fabric invoked luck, prosperity, and longevity.
"Thundering Heaven has betrayed us?" she said "How?"
"He has taken Bent Bamboo, the Monkey, into his keeping."
"Is Thundering Heaven holding the Monkey prisoner?"
Loyal Wind frowned. "I am not certain. Thundering Heaven may simply have made certain that the Monkey would hear only one version of recent events. For whatever reason, the Monkey will not see me. Without his cooperation, I cannot reach him."
"And without the Monkey," Nine Ducks said, straightening, although she still leaned upon her cane, "we cannot move forward with our plans to open the gates into the Lands Born from Smoke and Sacrifice. Why would Thundering Heaven do this? Surely he does not wish our exile to be extended. Surely a hundred years and more is enough."
"Thundering Heaven is complex," Loyal Wind replied in a tone that indicated he did not approve of such complexity. "Or so I have been told. Debating Thundering Heaven's motivations can wait. Among the living, our allies include the Rat, the Tiger, the Hare, the Dragon, the Rooster, the Pig, and the Dog. Among the dead, you and I—Horse and Ox—have agreed to join forces with the living. Even so, if we are to open the final gate into the Lands, we must have the Snake, the Ram, and the Monkey."
Nine Ducks nodded. "And among the living, these three are useless to us. We must have the cooperation of the dead."
Loyal Wind now extended one calloused hand. Where nothing had been before, there stood a powerfully muscled chestnut stallion, strength and swiftness singing from every line. The stallion was caparisoned for battle. As Loyal Wind swung into the saddle with easy grace, the ghost's attire shifted to match the warlike gear worn by his steed.
"The living must be informed about this turn of events," Loyal Wind announced, looking down at Nine Ducks. "I have a connection to them which I can exploit to make contact, even though they have not summoned me."
"Very well. You tell the living," replied Nine Ducks, pushing herself to her feet with her cane. "I will warn the dead."
Brenda Morris was growing accustomed to having really odd dreams, but this one was about to get star billing.
She'd been half-reclining on the grassy bank bordering a dancing, laughing stream. A handsome young man was seated next to her.
The young man's eyes were wide, round, and exactly the color of freshly opened spring leaves. His hair, the red-gold of dark-honey, was curly, cut just long enough to look untamed without being in the least feminine. He had a wonderful mouth, full-lipped and sensuous. A moment before, he had been singing.
At least, Brenda heard music: robust and rhythmic as any rock and roll piece, but flavored with harps and flutes rather than electric guitar and drums. She didn't know what you called this type of music, but she knew she liked it. She also couldn't remember the name of the young man who was sitting next to her, but she felt fairly certain he was about to kiss her, and she liked that, too.
Brenda felt a little odd about how much she hoped the young man with the green eyes and the red-gold hair would kiss her.
This was a dream. Certainly it was all right to let a man kiss you in a dream, even if... you loved another man? Something like that.
For a moment Brenda had a vision of that other young man, the memory of his face suspended between her and the youth with green eyes. This face had slanting, almond-shaped eyes, dark and serious. It was framed by silky black hair worn as long as her own, caught back with a leather tie.
This second man was as handsome as the green-eyed youth of her dream, but far less real. Brenda couldn't even remember his name.
The young man with the red-gold hair cupped Brenda's cheek in one of his musician's hands. There was an urgency in the brilliant green of his gaze, an urgency Brenda didn't think was entirely related to the kiss his lips still shaped.
Something was buzzing in her ear.
Brenda shook her head, moving out of reach of that cupping hand. She smelled horses. Sweaty horses. Hay and manure.
What had happened to the stream? Where was the grassy bank? Suddenly, Brenda was sitting upright on a straw bale, the freshly cut straw a brighter gold than the hair of the young man who sat next to her, bolt upright and looking distinctly uncomfortable. A moment ago he'd been wearing...
A cap-sleeved tunic? Yes! He'd been dressed like a page or young squire from that book of Arthurian tales her grandmother Elaine had loved to read aloud when Brenda had been too small to read for herself.
Now the young man wore denim coveralls and a short-sleeved, red-plaid cotton shirt. The music in the background blended temple bells and brass chimes incongruously with banjo and fiddle. The green-eyed youth no longer looked as if he were about to kiss Brenda. Now his expression was distinctly annoyed.
A chestnut horse had thrust its head in over the half-open door. Then a man stood there instead, a Chinese man with a full mustache and very short beard. He was wearing ornate armor and a helmet upon which a pair of the longest plumes from a pheasant's tail were set. These caught a faint breeze, giving the Chinese man a sense of motion although he stood perfectly still.
Brenda recognized the Chinese man at once.
"Loyal Wind! What are you doing here? For that matter, what am I doing here? I was sitting on a stream bank. There was a..."
She looked around. The young man with the green eyes had vanished like the dream he had been.
"Why am I in a barn?" Brenda concluded, not really wanting to explain that she'd been sitting on the riverbank with a young man who was not the dark-eyed, black-haired young man whose name she could now remember perfectly.
Flying Claw. His name was Flying Claw.
Loyal Wind chose to answer her last question. "Perhaps you are in a barn, Brenda Morris, because I am the Horse, and where else would you expect to find a horse?"
"In a parking lot," Brenda muttered.
Loyal Wind looked startled, and Brenda hastened to explain.
"A joke some little kids I knew told over and over. They had just discovered knock-knock jokes, but they didn't understand the logic behind them... Oh, never mind. What's going on? What are you doing in my dream?"
The barn was gone now. Brenda and Loyal Wind were standing, facing each other on a dry and barren steppe. Cliffs could be seen in the distance, burnt-orange, barren of all but greyish scrub growth in shadowed crevices.
"I am a bit surprised to find myself in your dream," Loyal Wind admitted. "I sought to bring a message to one of the Thirteen Orphans. I had thought my desire would connect me to Deborah or Riprap since they were among the Orphans who traveled to the Nine Yellow Springs under my guidance. Still, you took part in that journey as well. The Rat is the sign opposed to the Horse on the wheel. There is a strong attraction between opposites."
"But I am not the Rat," Brenda protested. "That's my dad."
She caught herself rationalizing aloud.
"I know, I know. Dad didn't go on that journey, and so maybe that's the reason you reached me and not him. Maybe the others are both awake. Is it easier for you to contact someone who is asleep?"
"Infinitely," Loyal Wind said, and Brenda could tell that, for him, at least, this explained the anomaly. She made a mental note to find out how late Deborah and Riprap had slept.
But Loyal Wind was speaking.
"I have come to bring the Orphans and their allies news of ill omen. You recall that when last we met, I agreed to journey through the Hells until I found the ghosts of the Thirteen Orphans—especially of those four of whom we had need—then seek to win them to our cause?"
"Yes." Brenda nodded. "We've been wondering how you were doing. Quite a few days have gone by since we parted. We've all been recovering, but recently Righteous Drum has started hinting that perhaps we should try some more traditional summons."
Quite a few days, Brenda thought. Well, just five. And I, for one, have been glad for them. What happened at the end of Tiger's Road... I've needed time to think, to adjust.
Loyal Wind, however, took Brenda's comment as a reprimand. He answered with stiff, military exactitude.
"You do realize that the afterlife is vast, far vaster than the worlds of the living, and to locate five spirits—not all of whom recalled me fondly..."
"Yes. Yes." Brenda cut in. "I'm sorry if I seemed unappreciative. Please, tell me what you learned."
Loyal Wind seemed appeased, but his words continued to hold the stiff tone of a report from scout to headquarters. "I located Nine Ducks, the Ox, first. I related to her the heroic tales of the dangers undergone in order to link the Nine Gates to the Nine Yellow Springs. This proved sufficient to win her to our cause."
Brenda remembered that Nine Ducks had been half-way won over already, but nodded understanding and approval.
"Next in order on the wheel is the Snake," Loyal Wind went on, "but as the Snake is not as greatly needed as the other two, I decided to leave Gentle Smoke for later. Equally, the Ram, my yin counterpart, was likely to be easy to convince—or so I judged, given that in life Copper Gong was fierce in her desire to return to the Lands. Thus, next I went searching for the Monkey."
"And did he refuse?" Brenda prompted when Loyal Wind fell silent.
"Worse. I could not find Bent Bamboo at all—or rather, when I did, his trail blended with and then ended in that of another of the Exiles, one whom I had not sought."
"You're procrastinating," Brenda said. "Get on with it. I don't want this dream to end like dreams do in those stupid books where the dreamer gets woken up right before she learns something vital."
Loyal Wind's expression became vaguely disapproving, and Brenda remembered that in the strict hierarchy the Horse had been trained in, he would have expected more respect from a junior. Well, if he wanted abject respect, he shouldn't have come breaking up her dream—especially when she was about to get kissed.
"Where the signs showed me that I should find Bent Bamboo, the Monkey," Loyal Wind continued, "instead I found Thundering Heaven who was once the Tiger. Fierce and defiant, Thundering Heaven awaited me before the dark mouth of a sheltered cave. I knew without asking that the Monkey was within, and that unless I fought Thundering Heaven, I could not pass into that place."
"So you came to report," Brenda said. "Smart."
Loyal Wind looked slightly embarrassed. "Actually, I was considering charging forth and challenging Thundering Heaven when I felt Nine Ducks seeking to contact me. Upon hearing her voice, I realized the wisdom in letting someone else know the situation before I confronted the Tiger, for Thundering Heaven manifested—even as did I—as a man in his prime."
"And Tigers," said Brenda, who had learned a bit in the almost three months since her world had turned so inside out and upside down that she took having conversations in dreams with ghosts of men who had died over a hundred years before somewhat for granted, "are the best solo fighters of all the twelve signs, although Horses are the finest battle commanders."
"Precisely," Loyal Wind said, obviously mollified regarding her earlier impertinence by this recognition of his prowess. "I discussed what I had learned with Nine Ducks. We resolved that I would come and tell the living of this turn of events, while she would seek out and warn the others among the dead."
"And my job," Brenda said, "will be to pass on your news to the others. I wonder what time it is?"
As if in answer, an explosion of raucous rock and roll shattered the dream into fragments. Loyal Wind and the stable didn't so much as vanish as never had been. Brenda sat bolt upright in bed.
"Good timing," she muttered, untangling herself from the sheets and padding barefoot across the room to where the alarm clock was positioned on the farthest edge of the small desk beneath the window.
No more stream bank. No more barn. No more handsome green-eyed squire. No more Chinese ghost. Just the comfortable bedroom in San Jose that was increasing coming to feel like her own.
Slamming her hand onto the alarm clock's "off" button, Brenda though again about that letter she'd wanted to write Shannon. So much had happened since they'd parted at USC that May, promising to stay in touch.
It's late July now, Brenda thought, going into the bathroom. She moved a pink plastic pony with a silky nylon mane and tail to the back of the toilet so she could reach her toothbrush. No. August.
I accept sharing a bathroom with a two and a half year-old and her mom, whereas at home I'd have my own bathroom, when even in the dorm I only had to share with one other person.
Brenda stripped out of the over-sized tee-shirt she wore instead of a nightie, and adjusted the shower water. There was no noise from the door that led into the other bedroom, but then there wouldn't be. Nissa Nita and her daughter, Lani, would have risen around six a.m. Most of the household consisted of early risers, but Brenda (and Deborah, who had a room upstairs), had negotiated to be permitted to sleep until at least eight.
Brenda felt the slight shift in water pressure that told her that Deborah had just turned on a shower upstairs. She hurried to get her long, brown-black hair rinsed. Pearl had put in all new plumbing just the year before, but that didn't mean the hot water didn't run out—not in a household consisting of four adult women, three adult men, and one child.
Pearl's carrying us all, Brenda thought as she turned off the water. She considered her "famous boss" as she toweled off.
Pearl Bright had been a child actress, a contemporary and sometime co-star of Shirley Temple. Now silver-haired, her petite form in excellent condition, her face carrying age lines with dignity, Pearl bore little resemblance to the child who sang and danced her way through the old films that were rapidly becoming Lani's favorites.
However, Pearl Bright was far from a spent "has been." Her mother had invested Pearl's earnings well. These days, Pearl managed a modest financial empire and indulged in philanthropy, all the while maintaining very active connections to the entertainment world.
Pearl has me, Riprap, and Nissa on her payroll as interns. I don't know if she's paying Des anything. I'm not sure about Deborah. How much longer can Pearl afford to keep employing us? How much longer can any of us continue to interrupt the lives we left behind? Classes will be starting soon. I can register on-line, maybe make excuses for showing up late for classes, but eventually I'm going to have to show up in the flesh.
Brenda dressed that flesh in lightweight trousers of off-white natural cotton, and a matching sleeveless top embroidered with dark purple irises. Bare feet would be fine for now, especially since Brenda didn't think she'd be going much of anywhere for a while.
Not what with I've got to tell them, but who should I tell?
Brenda's long hair, wet from the shower, couldn't be taken care of as casually as the rest of her. Brenda toweled her hair mostly dry, combed out the tangles, then worked a quick, loose braid, tying off the end with a ribbon that matched the irises on her shirt.
All the while, Brenda rehearsed the details of Loyal Wind's message, making sure she had hadn't forgotten anything, dreading the reaction to what she must report.
Dreading one reaction more than the rest.
The kitchen clock was showing eight-thirty when Brenda came downstairs. "Kitchen" was almost a misnomer, for the long room at the back of the house combined kitchen, informal dining area, and family room. This interconnected area was one of the most frequented in the house. Brenda was not disappointed in her expectation that she would find most of her housemates there.
Strawberry blonde Nissa Nita, pretty and round-figured—maybe even a bit plump—sat at one end of the table, counting round loops of oat cereal into her daughter's mouth.
Lani—fair as her mother and sharing the same startling shade of turquoise in her eyes, but too full of energy to be any rounder than a healthy two and a half year-old should be—was going along with the game, but Brenda knew Lani well-enough to know that the little girl's cooperation wouldn't last much longer. Sometimes it seemed to Brenda that Lani survived on air and sunlight rather than normal caloric intake.
Down the table a few seats, the newspaper's baseball statistics folded neatly in front of him, sat a member of the household who no one would ever imagine subsisted on sunlight.
Charles Adolphus—never called anything but Riprap—was a big, black man who, before the affairs of the Thirteen Orphans had drawn him from his life in Denver, Colorado, had worked as a bouncer nights and a coach by day. Somewhere in there he must have slept, but Brenda wasn't sure when. Riprap certainly didn't seem to sleep much now.
Riprap was working his way through a large bowl of granola topped with milk and fresh peaches, but Brenda would have bet large sums of money that this was at least the man's second meal of the day. He'd probably been up for hours, gone for a run, then lifted weights in the makeshift weight room he'd put together in the basement.
Brenda moved into the kitchen proper and found Desperate Lee stirring something in a pot set over a very low gas flame. Des was somewhere in his late thirties, making him older than Nissa, who was only a few years older than Brenda herself, or Riprap, who was in his late twenties.
Even in a household of rather unusual people, Des stood out. Taller than average and so lean that he seemed even taller, Des was ethnically Chinese, although a native Californian—as had been his parents before him. Des wore his black hair in a style popular at the time of the California gold rush: forehead shaven, dark hair trailing in a long, tightly braided queue that fell to the middle of his back. His long mustache and wispy chin-beard were a match for the hair style.
Des looked up as Brenda came into the kitchen and smiled warmly, showing off cheekbones a super model would envy. He was dressed in a bathrobe of dark red brocade so ornate it could have easily passed as street wear.
"Morning, Brenda. I've just about finished a batch of congee. Would you like a bowl?"
Brenda had been thinking about breakfasting on bacon, eggs, and toast, chasing it all with strong coffee. One of the few good things about her own lean build was that she could eat anything and never show it—but she'd rather come to like congee for breakfast, especially when it was fresh. The thick rice porridge wasn't too unlike grits. For Brenda, who had been raised in South Carolina, something warm and mushy for breakfast qualified as comfort food.
"Sure, Des. Thanks. Is that green tea in the pot?"
"Just finished brewing," Des assured her with a purist's fervor.
"I'll pour," Brenda said, and did so. Black coffee's bitterness didn't go well with the pickled vegetables she knew Des would serve with the congee.
"In her office with Shen," Des said. "She was up early this morning. They both were."
Brenda heard a faint note of reproof in Des's voice, and swallowed a sigh. Pearl and Shen were both in their seventies, and Brenda guessed that if anyone should have needed to sleep in it was the old folks. Still, she'd noticed both Pearl and Shen seemed to need less sleep that she did—or at least not as much all at once.
Brenda suspected that Des's reproof had nothing to do with Brenda's sleeping in. Although the events of five days ago had bought them some time, they all were aware that the fate of the Thirteen Orphans was far from resolved.
"I'm going to need to talk to Pearl," Brenda said. "Or maybe she's the last person I should talk to. I'm not sure."
Nissa spoke from the other room. "Breni, what do you mean? I know you haven't had your coffee, but must you speak in riddles?"
Brenda took her bowl and teacup to the table, and plunked unceremoniously into a chair across from Riprap. He'd pushed the baseball stats to one side, but continued eating without pause, his velvet brown eyes inquisitive and alert.
Lowering her voice, Brenda said, "What I've got to talk about has to do with Pearl's father, Thundering Heaven. Ever since I woke up, I've been trying to decide whether Pearl needs to know—at least right off. You know how she is about her dad."
Nods from everyone but Lani. The little girl had eaten her fill of cereal and was now sprawled on the family room carpet playing with some mismatched toys. Lani alone was oblivious to the tension Brenda's words had raised.
"Thundering Heaven?" Des repeated. He'd carried his own bowl to the table, and now sat stirring pickled eggplant into the thick rice gruel. "How could you learn anything to do with Thundering Heaven?"
Concisely, Brenda told them about her dream—leaving out the bit about the squire with the green eyes. Her fantasies, she felt, were a private matter. Just as she had not bothered to disbelieve Loyal Wind showing up in her dream, so no one here wasted energy telling Brenda "Don't worry. It was only a dream."
They'd profited from her dreams before this.
Moreover, those seated around this table had walked through the jaws of the White Tiger of the West, had tread the grass of worlds that could not exist. Each had long ago surrendered the right to dissuade themselves that there was only one way of judging reality.
"Thundering Heaven," Nissa said when Brenda finished. "I can see why you wondered if you should say anything to Pearl. That fine lady does have some serious problems about her daddy."
Riprap nodded. "And for good reason. Thundering Heaven treated Pearl pretty badly when her only crime was being born a woman."
"A female Tiger," Des corrected with pedantic firmness. "In the system within which Thundering Heaven had been educated, he hadn't just fathered a daughter, he'd fathered an abomination. Pearl was born late in her father's life. From what my grandmother told me, Thundering Heaven wondered if having a daughter thrust upon him as his heir was his punishment for not attending more promptly to his duties to assure the line of the Tiger."
"Why Thundering Heaven felt as he did doesn't change anything," Nissa said. "What matters is what Brenda just told us. Loyal Wind says that Thundering Heaven is working against us. If Thundering Heaven keeps the Monkey from us, we have little hope of opening the final gate into the Lands."
Brenda nodded. Her teacup was empty, and when she rose to refill it, she added another glop of congee to her bowl.
"So what do we do?" she asked. "Do we tell Pearl, or do we see what we can learn on our own?"
"Tell Pearl," Riprap replied instantly. "Then stand back and watch the fur fly."
Des nodded. "I agree. I've known Pearl since I was a boy. She has never liked being treated as anything less than the Tiger she is. Who are we to protect her from something she is going to need to learn eventually?"
"But does she?" Nissa said. Although a strict and fair parent to Lani, Nissa was far less inclined to confrontation than the rest of them. "Perhaps we can deal with this situation without Pearl having to learn what Thundering Heaven has done."
"Nice idea," Riprap said, "but you know as well as the rest of us what price Thundering Heaven is going to insist on if we want access to his prisoner."
Brenda dropped her spoon into her bowl, the congee suddenly heavy in her gut. She knew she'd suspected this from the moment Loyal Wind told her his message, knew she'd suspected, but hadn't wanted to admit it to herself.
"He's going to insist that Pearl renounce the Tiger."