/ Language: English / Genre:sf_history

The Years of Rice and Salt

Kim Robinson


The Years of Rice and Salt

by Kim Stanley Robinson

Tripitaka: Monkey, how far is it to the Western Heaven, the abode of Buddha?

Wu kong: You can walk from the time of your youth till the time you grow old, and after that, till you become young again; and even after going through such a cycle a thousand times, you may still find it difficult to reach the place where you want to go. But when you perceive, by the resoluteness of your will, the Buddha nature in all things, and when every one of your thoughts goes back to that fountain in your memory, that will be the time you arrive at Spirit Mountain.

The Journey to the West

ONE

Another journey west, Bold and Psin find an empty land; Temur is displeased, and the chapter has a stormy end.

Monkey never dies. He keeps coming back to help us in times of trouble, just as he helped Tripitaka through the dangers of the first journey to the west, to bring Buddhism back from India to China.

Now he had taken on the form of a small Mongol named Bold Bardash, horseman in the army of Temur the Lame. Son of a Tibetan salt trader and a Mongol innkeeper and spirit woman, and thus a traveller from before the day of his birth, up and down and back and forth, over mountains and rivers, across deserts and steppes, crisscrossing always the heartland of the world. At the time of our story he was already old: square face, bent nose, grey plaited hair, four chin whiskers for a beard. He knew this would be Temur's last campaign, and wondered if it would be his too.

One day, scouting ahead of the army, a small group of them rode out of dark hills at dusk. Bold was getting skittish at the quiet. Of course it was not truly quiet, forests were always noisy compared to the steppe; there was a big river ahead, spilling its sounds through the wind in the trees; but something was missing. Birdsong perhaps, or some other sound Bold could not quite identify. The horses snickered as the men kneed them on. It did not help that the weather was changing, long mares' tails wisping orange in the highest part of the sky, wind gusting up, air damp – a storm rolling in from the west. Under the big sky of the steppe it would have been obvious. Here in the forested hills there was less sky to be seen, and the winds were fluky, but the signs were still there.

They ride by fields that lay rank with unharvested crops. Barley fallen over itself, Apple trees with apples dry in the branches, Or black on the ground. No cart tracks or hoof prints or footprints In the dust of the road. Sun sets, The gibbous moon misshapen overhead. Owl dips over field. A sudden gust: How big the world seems in a wind. Horses are tense, Monkey too.

They came to an empty bridge and crossed it, hooves thwocking the planks. Now they came upon some wooden buildings with thatched roofs. But no fires, no lantern light. They moved on. More buildings appeared through the trees, but still no people. The dark land was empty.

Psin urged them on, and more buildings stood on each side of the widening road. They followed a turn out of the hills onto a plain, and before them lay a black silent city. No lights, no voices; only the wind, rubbing branches together over sheeting surfaces of the big black flowing river. The city was empty.

Of course we are reborn many times. We fill our bodies like air in bubbles, and when the bubbles pop we puff away into the bardo, wandering until we are blown into some new life, somewhere back in the world. This knowledge had often been a comfort to Bold as he stumbled exhausted over battlefields in the aftermath, the ground littered with broken bodies like empty coats.

But it was different to come on a town where there had been no battle, and find everyone there already dead. Long dead; bodies dried; in the dusk and moonlight they could see the gleam of exposed bones, scattered by wolves and crows. Bold repeated the Heart Sutra to himself. 'Form is emptiness, emptiness form. Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond. 0, what an Awakening! All hail!'

The horses stalled on the outskirts of the town. Aside from the cluck and hiss of the river, all was still. The squinted eye of the moon gleamed on dressed stone, there in the middle of all the wooden buildings. A very big stone building, among smaller stone buildings.

Psin ordered them to put cloths over their faces, to avoid touching anything, to stay on their horses, and to keep the horses from touching anything but the ground with their hooves. Slowly they rode through narrow streets, walled by wooden buildings two or three storeys high, leaning together as in Chinese cities. The horses were unhappy but did not refuse outright.

They came into a paved central square near the river, and stopped before the great stone building. It was huge. Many of the local people had come to it to die. Their lamasery, no doubt, but roofless, open to the sky – unfinished business. As if these people had only come to religion in their last days; but too late; the place was a boneyard. Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond. Nothing moved, and it occurred to Bold that the pass in the mountains they had ridden through had perhaps been the wrong one, the one to that other west which is the land of the dead. For an instant he remembered something, a brief glimpse of another life – a town much smaller than this one, a village wiped out by some great rush over their heads, sending them all to the bardo together. Hours in a room, waiting for death; this was why he so often felt he recognized the people he met. Their existences were a shared fate.

'Plague,' Psin said. 'Let's get out of here.'

His eyes glinted as he looked at Bold, his face was hard; he looked like one of the stone officers in the imperial tombs.

Bold shuddered. 'I wonder why they didn't leave,' he said.

'Maybe there was nowhere to go.'

Plague had struck in India a few years before. Mongols rarely caught it, only a baby now and then. Turks and Indians were more susceptible, and of course Temur had all kinds in his army, Persians, Turks, Mongols, Tibetans, Indians, Tajiks, Arabs, Georgians. Plague could kill them, any of them, or all of them. If that was truly what had felled these people. There was no way to be sure.

'Let's get back and tell them,' Psin said.

The others nodded, pleased that it was Psin's decision. Temur had told them to scout the Magyar Plain and what lay beyond, west for four days' ride. He didn't like it when scouting detachments returned without fulfilling orders, even if they were composed of his oldest qa'uchin. But Psin could face him.

Back through moonlight they rode, camping briefly when the horses got tired. On again at dawn, back through the broad gap in the mountains the earlier scouts had called the Moravian Gate. No smoke from any village or hut they passed. They kicked the horses to their fastest long trot, rode hard all that day.

As they came down the long eastern slope of the range back onto the steppe, an enormous wall of cloud reared up in the western half of the sky,

Like Kali's black blanket pulling over them,

The Goddess of Death chasing them out of her land. Solid black underside fluted and rippled,

Black pigs' tails and fishhooks swirling into the air below. A portent so bleak the horses bow their heads,

The men can no longer look at each other.

They approached Temur's great encampment, and the black stormcloud covered the rest of the day, causing a darkness like night. Hair rose on the back of Bold's neck. A few big raindrops splashed down, and thunder rolled out of the west like giant iron cartwheels overhead. They hunkered down in their saddles and kicked the horses on, reluctant to return in such a storm, with such news. Temur would take it as a portent, just as they did. Temur often said that he owed all his success to an asura that visited him and gave him guidance. Bold had witnessed one of these visitations, had seen Temur engage in conversation with an invisible being, and afterwards tell people what they were thinking and what would happen to them. A cloud this black could only be a sign. Evil in the west. Something bad had happened back there, something worse even than plague, maybe, and Temur's plan to conquer the Magyars and the Franks would have to be abandoned; he had been beaten to it by the goddess of skulls herself. It was hard to imagine him accepting any such preemption, but there they were, under a storm like none of them had ever seen, and all the Magyars were dead.

Smoke rose from the vast camp's cooking fires, looking like a great sacrifice, the smell familiar and yet distant, as if from a home they had already left for ever. Psin looked at the men around him. 'Camp here,' he ordered. He thought things over. 'Bold.'

Bold felt the fear shoot through him.

'Come on.'

Bold swallowed and nodded. He was not courageous, but he had the stoic manner of the qa'uchin, Temur's oldest warriors. Psin also would know that Bold was aware they had entered a different realm, that everything that happened from this point onwards was freakish, something preordained and being lived through inexorably, a karma they could not escape.

Psin also was no doubt remembering a certain incident from their youths, when the two of them had been captured by a tribe of taiga hunters north of the Kama River. Together they had staged a very successful escape, knifing the hunters' headman and running through a bonfire into the night.

The two men rode by the outer sentries and through the camp to the Khan's tent. To the west and north lightning bolts crazed the black air. Neither men had ever seen such a storm in all their lives. The few little hairs on Bold's forearms stood up like pig bristles, and he felt the air crackling with hungry ghosts, pretas crowding in to witness Temur emerge from his tent. He had killed so many.

The two men dismounted and stood there. Guards came out of the tent, drawing aside the flaps of the doorway and standing at attention, ready with drawn bows. Bold's throat was too dry to swallow, and it seemed to him a blue light glowed from within the great yurt of the Khan.

Temur appeared high in the air, seated on a litter his carriers had already hefted on their shoulders. He was pale faced and sweating, the whites of his eyes visible all the way around. He stared down at Psin.

'Why are you back?'

'Khan, a plague has struck the Magyars. They're all dead.'

Temur regarded his unloved general. 'Why are you back?'

'To tell you, Khan.'

Psin's voice was steady, and he met Temur's fierce gaze without fear. But Temur was not pleased. Bold swallowed; nothing here was the same as that time he and Psin had escaped the hunters, there wasn't a single feature of that effort that could be repeated. Only the idea that they could do it remained.

Something inside Temur snapped, Bold saw it – his asura was speaking through him now, and it looked as if it was wreaking great harm as it did so. Not an asura, perhaps, but his nafs, the spirit animal that lived inside him. He rasped, 'They cannot get away as easily as that! They will suffer for this, no matter how they try to escape.' He waved an arm weakly. 'Go back to your detachment.'

Then to his guards he said in a calmer voice, 'Take these two back and kill them and their men, and their horses. Make a bonfire and burn everything. Then move our camp two days' ride east.'

He raised up his hand.

The world burst asunder.

A bolt of lightning had exploded among them. Bold sat deaf on the ground. Looking around stunned, he saw that all the others there had been flattened as well, that the Khan's tent was burning, Temur's litter tipped over, his carriers scrambling, the Khan himself on one knee, clutching his chest. Some of his men rushed to him. Again lightning blasted down among them.

Blindly Bold picked himself up and fled. He looked over his shoulder through pulsing green afterimages, and saw Temur's black nafs fly out of his mouth into the night. Temur i Lang, Iron the Lame, abandoned by both asura and nafs. The emptied body collapsed to the ground, and rain bucketed onto it. Bold ran into the dark to the west. We do not know which way Psin went, or what happened to him; but as for Bold, you can find out in the next chapter.

TWO

Through the realm of hungry ghosts

A monkey wanders, lonely as a cloud.

Bold ran or walked west all that night, scrambling through the growing forest in the pouring rain, climbing into the steepest hills he could find, to evade any horsemen who might follow. No one would be too zealous in pursuit of a potential plague carrier, but he could be shot down from a good distance away, and he wanted to disappear from their world as if he had never existed. If it had not been for the uncanny storm he would certainly be dead, already embarked on another existence: now he was anyway. Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond…

He walked the next day and all the second night. Dawn of the second day found him hurrying back through the Moravian Gate, feeling that no one would dare follow him there. Once onto the Magyar Plain he headed south, into trees. In the morning's wet light he found a fallen tree and slipped deep under its exposed roots, to sleep for the rest of the day in hidden dryness.

That night the rain stopped, and on the third morning he emerged ravenous. In short order he found, pulled and ate meadow onions, then hunted for more substantial food. It was possible that dried meat still hung in the empty villages' storehouses, or grain in their granaries. He might also be able to find a bow and some arrows. He didn't want to go near the dead settlements, but it seemed the best way to find food, and that took precedence over everything else.

That night he slept poorly, his stomach full and gassy with onions. At dawn he made his way south, following the big river. All the villages and settlements were empty. Any people he saw were dead on the ground. It was disturbing, but there was nothing to be done. He too was in some kind of posthumous existence, a very hungry ghost indeed. Living on from one found bite to the next, with no name or fellows, he began to close in on himself, as during the hardest campaigns on the steppes, becoming more and more an animal, his mind shrinking in like the horns of a touched snail. For many watches at a time he thought little but the Heart Sutra. Form is emptiness, emptiness form. Not for nothing had he been named Sun Wu kong, Awake to Emptiness, in an earlier incarnation. Monkey in the void.

He came to a village that looked untouched, skirted its edge. In an empty stable he found an unstrung bow and a quiver of arrows, all very primitive and poorly made. Something moved in the pasturage outside, and he went out and whistled up a small black mare. He caught her with onions, and quickly taught her to take him.

He rode her across a stone bridge over the big river, and slowly crossed the grain of the land southwards, up and down, up and down. All the villages continued empty, their food rotted or scavenged by animals, but now he had the mare's milk and blood to sustain him, so the matter was not so urgent.

It was autumn here, and he began to live like the bears, eating berries and honey, and rabbits shot with the ridiculous bow. Possibly it had been concocted by a child; he couldn't believe anyone older would make such a thing. It was a single bend of wood, probably ash, partly carved but still misshapen; no arrowrest, no nocking point, its pull like that of a prayer flag line. His old bow had been a laminate of horn, maplewood and tendon glue covered by blue leather, with a sweet pull and release, and enough power to pierce body armour from over a li away. Gone now, gone altogether beyond, lost with all the rest of his few possessions, and when he shot these twig arrows with this branch bow and missed, he would shake his head and wonder if it was even worth tracking the arrow down. It was no wonder these people had died.

In one small village, five buildings clustered above a stream ford, the headman's house proved to have a locked larder, still stocked with dried fishcakes that were spiced with something Bold did not recognize, which made his stomach queasy. But with the strange food in him he felt his spirits rise. In a stable he found sidebags for the mare, and stuffed them with more dried food. He rode on, paying more attention than he had been to the land he was passing through.

White barked trees hold up black branches, Pine and cypress still verdant on the ridge. A red bird and a blue bird sit near each other In the same tree. Now anything is possible.

Anything but return to his previous life. Not that he harboured any resentment of Temur; Bold would have done the same in his place. Plague was plague, and could not be treated lightly. And this plague was obviously worse than most, having killed everyone in the region. Among the Mongols plague usually killed a few babies, maybe made some adults sick. You killed rats or mice on sight, and if babies got feverish and developed the bumps, their mothers took them out to live or die by the rivers. Indian cities were said to have a worse time with it, people dying in great crowds. But never anything like this. It was possible something else had killed them.

Travelling through empty land.

Clouds hazy, moon waning and chill. Sky, frost coloured, cold to look at.

Wind piercing. Sudden terror.

A thousand trees roar in the sparse woodland: A lonely monkey cries on a barren hill.

But the terror washed through him and then away, like freshets of rain, leaving a mind as empty as the land itself. It was very still. Gone, gone, altogether gone.

For a time he thought he would ride through and out of the region of plague, and find people again. But then he came over a jagged range of black hills, and saw a big town spread below, bigger than any he had ever seen, its rooftops covering a whole valley bottom. But deserted. No smoke, no noise, no movement. In the centre of the city another giant stone temple stood open to the sky. Seeing it, the terror poured into him again, and he rode into the forest to escape the sight of so many people gone like the autumn leaves.

He knew roughly where he was, of course. South of here, he would eventually come into the Ottoman Turks' holdings in the Balkans. He would be able to speak with them, he would be back in the world, but out of Temur's empire. Something then would start up for him, some way to live.

So he rode south. But still only skeletons occupied the villages. He grew hungrier and hungrier. He drove the mare harder, while drinking more of her blood.

Then one night in the dark of the moon, all of a sudden there were howls and wolves were on them in a snarling rush. Bold just had time to cut the mare's tether and scramble into a tree. Most of the wolves chased the mare, but some sat panting under the tree. Bold got as comfortable as he could and prepared to wait them out. When rain came they slunk away. At dawn he woke for the tenth time, climbed down. He took off downstream and came on the body of the mare, all skin and gristle and scattered bones. The sidebags were nowhere to be found.

He continued on foot.

One day, too weak to walk, he lay in wait by a stream, and shot a deer with one of the sorry little arrows, and made a fire and ate well, bolting down chunks of cooked haunch. He slept away from the carcass, hoping to return to it. Wolves couldn't climb trees, but bears could. He saw a fox, and as the vixen had been his wife's nafs, long ago, he felt better. In the morning the sun warmed him. The deer had been removed by a bear, it appeared, but he felt stronger with all that fresh meat in him, and pressed on.

He walked south for several days, keeping on ridges when he could, over hills both depopulated and deforested, the ground underfoot sluiced to stone and baked white by the glare of the sun. He watched for the vixen in the valleys at dawn, and drank from springs, and raided dead villages for scraps of food. These grew harder and harder to find, and for a while he was reduced to chewing the leather strap from a harness, an old Mongol trick from the hard campaigns on the steppes. But it seemed to him it had worked better back there, on the endless grass, which was so much easier to cross than these baked tortured white hills.

At the end of one day, after he had long got used to living alone in the world, scavenging it like Monkey himself, he came into a little copse of trees to make a fire, and was shocked to see one already there, tended by a living man.

The man was short, like Bold. His hair was as red as maple leaves, his bushy beard the same colour, his skin pale and brindled like a dog. At first Bold was sure the man was sick, and he kept his distance. But the man's eyes, blue in colour, were clear; and he too was afraid, absolutely on point and ready for anything. Silently they stared at each other, across a small clearing in the middle of the copse.

The man gestured at his fire. Bold nodded and came warily into the glade.

The man was cooking two fish. Bold took a rabbit that he had killed that morning out of his coat, and skinned and cleaned it with his knife. The man watched him hungrily, nodding at each familiar move. He turned his fish on the fire, and made room in the coals for the rabbit. Bold spitted it on a stick and put it in.

After the meat had cooked they ate in silence, sitting on logs on opposite sides of the fire. They both stared into the flames, glancing only occasionally at each other, shy after all their time alone. After all that it was not obvious what one could say to another human.

Finally the man spoke, first brokenly, then at length. Sometimes he used a word that sounded familiar to Bold, but not so familiar as his movements around the fire, and no matter how hard he tried, Bold could make nothing of what the man said.

Bold tried out some simple phrases himself, feeling the strangeness of words in his mouth, like pebbles. The other man listened closely, his blue eyes gleaming in firelight, out of the dirty pale skin of his lean face, but he showed no sign of comprehension, not of Mongolian, Tibetan, Chinese, Turkic, Arabic, Chagatay, or any other of the polyglot greetings Bold had learned through his years of crossing the steppe.

At the end of Bold's recitation the man's face spasmed, and he wept. Then, wiping his eyes clear, leaving big streaks on his dirty face, he stood before Bold and said something, gesturing widely. He pointed his finger at Bold, as if angry, then stepped back and sat on his log, and began to imitate rowing a boat, or so Bold surmised. He rowed facing backwards, like the fishermen on the Caspian Sea. He made the motions for fishing, then for catching fish, cleaning them, cooking them, and feeding them to little children. By his gestures he evoked all the people he had fed, his children, his wife, the people he lived with.

Then he turned his face up at the firelit branches over the two men, and cried again. He pulled up the rough shift covering his body, and pointed at his arms – at his underarms, where he made a fist. Bold nodded, felt his stomach shrink as the man mimed the sickness and cleat o all the children, by lying down on the ground and mewling like a dog. Then the wife, then all the rest. All had died but this man, who walked around the fire pointing at the leaf litter on the ground intoning words, names perhaps. It was all so clear to Bold.

Then the man burned his dead village, all in gestures so clear, and mimed rowing away. He rowed on his log for a long time, so long Bold thought he had forgotten the story; but then he ground to a halt and fell back in his boat. He got out, looking around in feigned surprise. Then he began to walk. He walked around the fire a dozen times, pretend eating grass and sticks, howling like a wolf, cowering under his log, walking some more, even rowing again. Over and over he said the same things, 'Dea, dea, dea, dea,' shouting it at the branch crossed stars quaking over them.

Bold nodded. He knew the story. The man was moaning, with a low growl like an animal, cutting at the ground with a stick. His eyes were as red as any wolf's in the light. Bold ate more of the rabbit, then offered the stick to the man, who snatched it and ate hungrily. They sat there and looked at the fire. Bold felt both companionable and alone. He eyed the other man, who had eaten both his fish, and was now nodding off. The man jerked up, muttered something, lay down, curled around the fire, fell asleep. Uneasily Bold stoked the fire, took the other side of it, and tried to do the same. When he woke the fire had died and the man was gone. It was a cold dawn, dew drenched, and the trail of the man led down the meadow to a big bend in a stream, where it disappeared. There was no sign of where the man had gone from there.

Days passed, and Bold continued south. Many watches went by in which he didn't think a thing, only scanning the land for food and the sky for weather, humming a word or two over and over. Awake to emptiness. One day he came on a village surrounding a spring,

Old temples scattered throughout,

Broken round columns pointing at the sky. All in the midst of a vast silence. What made these gods so angry With their people? What might they make Of a solitary soul wandering by After the world has ended? White marble drums fallen this way and that: One bird cheeps in the empty air.

He did not care to test anything by trespassing, and so circled the temples, chanting 'Orn mane padme hum, om mane padme hummmm', aware suddenly that he often spoke aloud to himself now, or hummed, without ever noticing it, as if ignoring an old companion who always said the same things.

He continued south and east, though he had forgotten why. He scrounged roadside buildings for dried food. He walked on the empty roads. It was an old land. Gnarled olive trees, black and heavy with their inedible fruit, mocked him. No person ate entirely by his own efforts, no one. He got hungrier, and food became his only focus, every day. He passed more marble ruins, foraged in the farmhouses he passed. Once he came on a big clay jar of olive oil, and stayed there four days to drink it all down. Then game became more abundant. He saw the vixen more than once. Good shots with his ridiculous bow kept him away from hunger. He made his fires larger every night, and once or twice wondered what had become of the man he had met. Had meeting Bold made him realize he would be alone no matter what happened or whom he found, so that he had killed himself to rejoin his jati? Or perhaps just slipped while drinking? Or walked in the stream to keep Bold from tracking him? There was no way of telling, but the encounter kept coming back to Bold, especially the clarity with which he had been able to understand the man.

The valleys ran south and east. He felt the shape of his travels in his mind, and found he could not remember enough of the last few weeks to be sure of his location, relative to the Moravian Gate, or the khanate of the Golden Horde. From the Black Sea they had ridden west about ten days' ride, hadn't they? It was like trying to remember things from a previous life.

It seemed possible, however, that he was nearing the Byzantine empire, coming towards Constantinople from the north and west. Sitting slumped before his nightly bonfire, he wondered if Constantinople would be dead too. He wondered if Mongolia was dead, if perhaps everyone in the world was dead. The wind soughed through the shrubs like ghosts' voices, and he fell into an uneasy sleep, waking through the watches of the night to check the stars and throw more branches on his fire. He was cold.

He woke again, and there was Temur's ghost standing across the fire, the light of the flames dancing over his awesome face. His eyes were black as obsidian, and Bold could see stars gleaming in them.

'So,' Temur said heavily, 'You ran away.'

'Yes,' Bold whispered.

'What's wrong? Don't want to go out on the hunt again?'

This was a thing he had said to Bold before. At the end he had been so weak he had had to be carried on a litter, but he never thought of stopping. In his last winter he had considered whether to move east in the spring, against China, or west, against the Franks. During a huge feast he weighed the advantages of each, and at one point he looked at Bold, and something on Bold's face caused the Khan to jump him with his powerful voice, still strong despite his illness: 'What's wrong, Bold? Don't want to go out on the hunt again?'

That earlier time Bold had said, 'Always, Great Khan. I was there when we conquered Ferghana, Khorasan, Sistan, Kbrezm and Mughalistan. One more is fine by me.'

Temur had laughed his angry laugh. 'But which way this time, Bold? Which way?'

Bold knew enough to shrug. 'All the same to me, Great Khan. Why don't you flip a coin?'

Which got him another laugh, and a warm place in the stable that winter, and a good horse in the campaign. They had moved west in the spring of the year 784.

Now Temur's ghost, as solid as any man, glared reproachfully at Bold from across the fire. 'I flipped the coin just like you said, Bold. But it must have come up wrong.'

'Maybe China would have been worse,' Bold said.

Temur laughed angrily. 'How could it have been? Killed by lightning? How could it have been? You did that, Bold, you and Psin. You brought the curse of the west back with you. You never should have come back. And I should have gone to China.'

'Maybe so.' Bold didn't know how to deal with him. Angry ghosts needed to be defied as often as they needed to be placated. But those jet black eyes, sparkling with starlight Suddenly Temur coughed. He put a hand to his mouth, and gagged out something red. He looked at it, then held it out for Bold to see: a red egg. 'This is yours,' he said, and tossed it over the flames at Bold.

Bold twisted to catch it, and woke up. He moaned. The ghost of Temur clearly was not happy. Wandering between worlds, visiting his old soldiers like any other preta… In a way it was pathetic, but Bold could not shake the fear in him. Temur's spirit was a big power, no matter what realm it was in. His hand could reach into this world and grab Bold's foot at any time.

All that day Bold wandered south in a haze of memories, scarcely seeing the land before him. The last time Temur visited him in the stables had been difficult, as the Khan could no longer ride. He had looked at one thick black mare as if at a woman, and smoothed its flank and said to Bold, 'The first horse I ever stole looked just like this one. I started poor and life was hard. God put a sign on me. But you would think He would have let me ride to the end.' And he had stared at Bold with that vivid gaze of his, one eye slightly higher and larger than the other, just like in the dream. Although in life his eyes had been brown.

Hunger kept Bold hunting. Temur, though a hungry ghost, no longer had to worry about food; but Bold did. All the game ran south, down the valleys. One day, high on a ridge, he saw water, bronze in the distance. A large lake, or sea. Old roads led him over another pass, down into another city.

Again, no one there was alive. All was motionless and silent. Bold wandered down empty streets, between empty buildings, feeling the cold hands of pretas running down his back.

On the central hill of the city stood a copse of white temples, like bones bleaching in the sun. Seeing them, Bold decided that he had found the capital of this dead land. He had walked from peripheral towns of rude stone to capital temples of smooth white marble, and still no one had survived. A white haze filled his vision, and through it he stumbled up the dusty streets, up onto the temple hill, to lay his case before the local gods.

On the sacred plateau three smaller temples flanked a large one, a rectangular beauty with double rows of smooth columns on all four sides, supporting a gleaming roof of marble tiles. Under the eaves carved, figures fought, marched, flew and gestured in a great stone tableau depicting the absent people, or their gods. Bold sat on a marble drum from a long toppled column and stared up at the carving in stone, seeing the world that had been lost.

Finally he approached the temple, entered it praying aloud. Unlike the big stone temples in the north, it had been no place of congregation in the end; there were no skeletons inside. Indeed it looked as if it had been abandoned for many years. Bats hung in the rafters, and the darkness was lanced by sunbeams breaking through broken rooftiles. At the far end of the temple it looked as if an altar had been hastily erected. On it a single candlewick burned in a pot of oil. Their last prayer, flickering even after they had died.

Bold had nothing to offer by way of sacrifice, and the great white temple stood silent above him. 'Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond! 0 what an awakening! All hail!' His words echoed hollowly.

He stumbled back outside into the afternoon glare, and saw to the south the blink of the sea. He would go there. There was nothing here to keep him; the people and their gods too had died.

A long bay cut in between hills. A harbour at the head of the bay was empty, except for a few small rowing boats slapping against the waves, or upturned on the shingle beach stretching away from the docks. He did not risk the boats, he knew nothing about them. He had seen Issyk Kul and Lake Qinghai, and the Aral, Caspian and Black Seas, but he had never been in a boat in his life, except for ferries crossing rivers. He did not want to start now.

No traveller seen on this long road,

No boats from afar return for the night. Nothing moves in this dead harbour.

On the beach he scooped a handful of water to drink – spat it out it was salty, like the Black Sea, or the springs in the Tarim Basin. It was strange to see so much waste water. He had beard there was an ocean surrounding the world. Perhaps he was at the edge of the world, the western edge, or the southern. Possibly the Arabs lived south of this sea. He didn't know, and for the first time in all his wandering, he had the feeling that he had no idea where he was.

He was asleep on the warm sand of a beach, dreaming of the steppes, trying to keep Temur out of the dream by force of will alone, when he was rousted by strong hands, rolling him over and tying his legs together and his arms behind his back. He was hauled to his feet.

A man said 'What have we here?' or something to that effect. He spoke something like Turkic, Bold didn't know many of the words, but it was some kind of Turkic, and he could usually catch the drift of what they were saying. They looked like soldiers or perhaps brigands, big hard handed ruffians, wearing gold earrings and dirty cotton clothes. He wept while grinning foolishly at the sight of them; he felt his face stretch and his eyes burn. They regarded him warily.

'A madman,' one ventured.

Bold shook his head at this. 'I – I haven't seen anyone,' he said in Ulu Turkic. His tongue was big in his mouth, for despite all his babbling to himself and the gods, he had forgotten how to talk to people. 'I thought everyone was dead.'

He gestured to the north and west.

They did not seem to understand him.

'Kill him,' one said, as dismissive as Temur.

'The Christians all died,' another said.

'Kill him, let's go. Boats are full.'

'Bring him,' the other said. 'The slavers will pay for him. He won't bring down the boat, thin as he is.'

Something like that. They hauled behind him down the beach. He had to hurry so the rope wouldn't pull him around backwards, and the effort made him dizzy. He didn't have much strength. The men smelled of garlic and that made him ravenous, though it was a foul smell. But if they meant to sell him to slavers, they would have to feed him. His mouth was watering so heavily that he slobbered like a dog, and he was weeping as well, nose running, and with his hands tied behind his back he couldn't wipe his face.

'He's foaming at the mouth like a horse.'

'He's sick.'

'He's not sick. Bring him. Come on,' this to Bold, 'don't be scared.

Where we take you even the slaves live a better life than you barbaria dogs.'

Then he was shoved over the side of a beached boat, and with great jerks it was pulled off into the water, where it rocked violently. Immediately he fell sideways into the wooden wall of the thing.

' UP here, slave. On that pile of rope. Sit!'

He sat and watched them work. Whatever happened, it was better than the empty land. Just to see men move, to hear them talk, filled him. It was like watching horses run on the steppe. Hungrily he watched them haul a sail into the air on a mast, and the boat heeled to the side such that he threw himself the other way. They roared with laughter at this. He grinned sheepishly, gesturing at the big lateen.

'It takes more wind than this breath to tip us.'

'Allah protect us from it.'

'Allah protect us.'

Muslims. 'Allah protect us,' Bold said politely. Then, in Arabic, 'In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate.' In his years in Temur's army he had learned to be as much a Muslim as anyone. The Buddha did not mind what you said to be polite. Now it would not keep him from slavery, but it would perhaps earn him a little more food. The men regarded him curiously. He watched the land slide by. They untied his arms and gave him some dried mutton and bread. He tried to chew each bite a hundred times. The familiar tastes called back to him his whole life. He ate what they gave him, drank fresh water from a cup they gave him.

'Praise be to Allah. Thank you in the name of God the compassionate, the merciful.'

They sailed down a long bay, into a larger sea. At night they pulled behind headlands and anchored the boat and slept. Bold curled under a coil of rope. Every time he woke in the night he had to remind himself where he was.

In the mornings they sailed south and south again, and one day they passed through a long narrows into an open sea, with big waves. The rocking of the boat was like riding a camel. Bold gestured west. The men named it, but Bold didn't catch the name. 'They're all dead,' the men said.

The sunset came and they were still on the open sea. For the first time they sailed all night long, always awake when Bold woke, watching the stars without talking to each other. For three days they sailed out of the sight of any land, and Bold wondered how long it would go on. But on the fourth morning the sky to the south grew white, then brown, A haze like the one that blew out of the Gobi. Sand in the air, sand and fine dust. Land ho! Very low land. The sea and sky Both turn the same brown Before catching sight of a stone tower, Then a great stone breakwater, fronting a harbour.

One of the sailors happily names it: 'Alexandria!' Bold had heard the name, though he knew nothing about it. Neither do we; but to find out more, you can read the next chapter.

THREE

In Egypt our pilgrim is sold into slavery; In Zanj he encounters again the inescapable Chinese.

His captors sailed to a beach, anchored with a stone tied to a rock, tied Bold up securely, and left him in the boat under a blanket while they went ashore.

It was a beach for small boats, near an immense long wooden dockfront behind the seawall, which served much bigger ships. When the men came back they were drunk and arguing. Without untying anything but his legs, and with no more words to him, they pulled Bold out of the boat and marched him down the great seafront of the city, which appeared to Bold dusty and salty and worn down, stinking in the sun like a dead fish, of which there were indeed many scattered about. On the docks before a long building were bales, boxes, great clay jars, netted bolts of cloth; then a fish market, which made his mouth water at the same time that his stomach flopped.

They came to a slave market. A small square with a raised dais in its middle, somewhat like a lama's teaching platform. Three slaves were quickly sold. The women being sold garnered the most attention and comment from the crowd. They were stripped of all but the ropes or chains holding them, if such were necessary, and stood there listlessly, or cowered. Most were black, some brown. They seemed to be at the end of auction day, people selling off leftovers. Before Bold an emaciated girl of about ten years was sold to a fat black man in dirty silk robes. The transaction was completed in a kind of Arabic; she sold for some unit of currency Bold had never heard of before, the payment in little gold coins. He helped his captors get his crusted old clothes off.

'I don't need tying,' he tried to tell them in Arabic, but they ignored him and chained his ankles. He walked onto the platform feeling the baked air settle on him. Even to himself he emitted a powerful smell, and looking down he saw that his time in the empty land had left him about as fleshless as the little girl before him. But what was left was muscle, and he stood up straight, looking into the sun as the bidding went on, thinking the part of the Lapis Lazuli Sutra that went, 'The ruffian demons of unkindness roam the earth, begone! begone! The Buddha renounces slavery!'

'Does he speak Arabic?' someone asked.

One of his captors prodded him, and in Arabic he said, 'In the name of God the merciful, the compassionate, I speak Arabic, also Turkic, Mongolian, Ulu, Tibetan and Chinese,' and he began to chant the first chapter of the Quran as far as he remembered it, until they pulled his chain and he took this as a sign to stop. He was very thirsty.

A short, slight Arab bought him for twenty somethings. His captors seemed pleased. They handed him his clothes as he stepped down, slapped him on the back and were off. He began to put on his greasy coat, but his new owner stopped him, handing him a length of clean cotton cloth.

'Wrap that around you. Leave the other filth here.'

Surprised, Bold looked down at the last vestiges of his previous life. Dirty rags only, but they had accompanied him this far. He pulled his amulet out of them, leaving his knife hidden in a sleeve, but his owner intervened and threw it back onto the clothes.

'Come on. I know a market in Zanj where I can sell a barbarian like you for three times what I just paid. Meanwhile you can help me get ready for the voyage there. Do you understand? Help, and it will go easier for you. I'll feed you more.'

'I understand.'

'Be sure that you do. Don't think of trying to escape. Alexandria is a very fine city. The Mamlukes keep things stricter than sharia here. They are not forgiving of slaves that try to escape. They're orphans brought here from north of the Black Sea, men whose parents were killed by barbarians like you.'

In fact Bold himself had killed quite a few of the Golden Horde, so he nodded without comment.

His owner said, 'They have been trained by Arabs in the way of Allah, and now they are more than Muslim.' He whistled at the thought. 'Trained to rule Egypt apart from all lesser influences, to be true only to the sharia. You don't want to cross them.'

Bold nodded again. 'I understand.'

Crossing the Sinai was like travelling with a caravan crossing one of the deserts of the heartland, except this time Bold was walking with the slaves, in the cloud of dust at the back of the camel train. They were part of the year's haj. Enormous numbers of camels and people had tramped over this road through the desert, and now it was a broad dusty smooth swathe through rockier hills. Smaller parties going north passed by to their left. Bold had never seen so many camels.

The caravanserai were beaten and ashy. The ropes tying him to his new master's other slaves were never untied, and they slept in circles on the ground at night. The nights were warmer than Bold was used to, and this almost made up for the heat of the days. Their master, whose name was Zeyk, kept them well watered and fed them adequately at night and at dawn, treating them about as well as his camels, Bold observed: a tradesman, taking care of the goods in his possession. Bold approved of the attitude, and did what he could to keep the bedraggled string of slaves in good form. If they all kept the pace it made the walking that much easier. One night he looked up and saw the Archer looking down on him, and he remembered his nights alone in the empty land.

The ghost of Temur,

The last survivor of the fisherfolk,

The empty stone temples open to the sky, The days of hunger, the little mare,

That ridiculous bow and arrow,

A red bird and blue bird, sitting side by side.

They came to the Red Sea, and boarded a ship three or four times as long as the one that had brought him to Alexandria, a dhow or zambuco, people called it both. The wind always blew from the west, sometimes hard, and they hugged the western shore with their big lateen sail bellied out to the cast. They made good time. Zeyk fed his string of slaves more and more, fattening them for the market. Bold happily downed the extra rice and cucumbers, and saw the sores around his ankles begin to heal. For the first time in a long time he was not perpetually hungry, and he felt as if he was coming out of a fog or a dream, waking up more each day. Of course now he was a slave, but he wouldn't always be one. Something would happen.

After a stop at a dry brown port called Massawa, one of the hajjira depots, they sailed east across the Red Sea and rounded the low red cape marking the end of Arabia, to Aden, a big seaside oasis, indeed the biggest port Bold had ever seen, a very rich town of green palms waving over ceramic roofs, citrus trees, and numberless minarets. Zeyk did not disembark his goods or slaves here, however; after a day on shore he came back shaking his head.

'Mombasa,' he said to the ship's captain, and paid him more, and they sailed south across the strait again, around the horn and Ras Hafun, then down the coast of Zanj, sailing much farther south than Bold had ever been. The sun at noon was nearly directly overhead, and beat down on them most cruelly all day, day after day, with never a cloud in the sky. The air baked as if the world were an oven. The coast appeared either dead brown or else vibrant green, nothing in between. They stopped at Mogadishu, Lamu and Malinda, each a prosperous Arab trading port, but Zeyk got off only briefly at them.

As they sailed into Mombasa, the grandest harbour yet, they came on a fleet of giant ships, ships bigger than Bold had imagined possible. Each one was as big as a small town, with a long line of masts down its centre. There were about ten of these gigantic outlandish ships, with another twenty smaller ones anchored among them. 'Ah good,' said Zeyk to the zambuco's captain and owner. 'The Chinese are here.'

The Chinese! Bold had had no idea they owned such a great fleet as this one. It made sense, though. Their pagodas, their great wall; they liked to build big.

The fleet was like an archipelago. All on board the zambuco looked at the great ships, abashed and apprehensive, as if faced with sea going gods. The large Chinese ships were as long as a dozen of the biggest dhows, and Bold counted nine masts on one of them. Zeyk saw him and nodded. 'Look well. Those will soon be your home, God willing.'

The zambuco's master brought them inshore on a breath of a breeze. The town's little waterfront was entirely occupied by the landing boats of the visitors, and after some discussion with Zeyk, the zambuco's owner beached his craft just south of the waterfront. Zeyk and his man rolled up their robes and stepped over the freeboard into the water, and helped the whole string of slaves over the side onto land. The green water was as warm as blood, or even hotter.

Bold spotted some Chinese, wearing their characteristic red felt coats even here, where they were certainly much too warm. They wandered the market, fingering the goods on display and chattering among themselves, trading with the aid of a translator Zeyk knew. Zeyk approached and greeted him effusively, asked about direct trade with the Chinese visitors. The translator introduced him to some of the Chinese, who seemed polite, even affable, in their usual way. Bold found himself trembling slightly, perhaps from heat and hunger, perhaps from the sight of the Chinese, after all these years, on the other side of the world. Still pursuing their business.

Zeyk and his assistant led the slaves through the market. It was a riot of smell, colour and sound. People as black as pitch, their eyeballs and teeth flashing white or yellow against their skin, offered goods and bartered happily. Bold followed the others past Great mounds of green and yellow fruit, Rice, coffee, dried fish and squid,

Lengths and bolts of coloured cotton cloth,

Some spotted, others striped white and blue; Bales of Chinese silk, piles of Mecca carpets; Huge brown nuts, copper pans Filled with coloured beads or gemstones, Or round balls of sweet smelling opium; Pearls, raw copper, carnelian, quicksilver; Daggers and swords, turbans, shawls; Elephant tusks, rhinoceros horns,

Yellow sandalwood, ambergris,

Ingots and coin strings of gold and silver, White cloth, red cloth, porcelains,

All the things of this world, solid in the sun.

And then the slave market, again in a square of its own, next to the main market, with a central auction block, so much like a lama's dais when empty.

The locals were gathered around a sale to one side, not a full auction.

They were mostly Arabs here, and often dressed in blue cloth robes and red leather shoes. Behind the market a mosque and minaret stood before rows of four- and even five-storey buildings. The clamour was great, but surveying the scene, Zeyk shook his head. 'We'll wait for a private audience,' he said.

He fed the slaves barley cakes and led them to one of the big buildings next to the mosque. There some Chinese arrived with their translator, and they all went inside to an inner courtyard of the building, shaded and full of green broad leaved plants and a burbling fountain. A room opening onto this courtyard had shelves on all its walls, with bowls and figures placed on them in an elaborate, beautiful display: Bold recognized pottery from Samarqand, and painted figurines from Persia, among Chinese white porcelain bowls painted in blue, gold leaf and copper.

'Very elegant,' Zeyk said.

Then they were to business. The Chinese officers inspected Zeyk's string of slaves. They spoke to the translator, and Zeyk conferred in private with the man, nodding frequently. Bold found he was sweating, though he felt cold. They were being sold to the Chinese as a single lot.

One of the Chinese strolled down the line of slaves. He looked Bold over.

'How did you get here?' he asked Bold in Chinese.

Bold gulped, waved north. 'I was a trader.' His Chinese was really rusty. 'The Golden Horde took me and brought me to Anatolia. Then to Alexandria, then here.'

The Chinese nodded, then moved on. Soon after they were led off by Chinese sailors in trousers and short shirts, back to the waterfront. There several other strings and groups of slaves were gathered. They were stripped, washed down with fresh water, an astringent, more fresh water. They were given new robes of plain cotton, led to boats, and rowed out to the huge side of one of the great ships. Bold climbed a ladder forty one steps up the wooden wall of the ship's side, following a skinny black slave boy. They were taken together below the main deck, to a room near the rear of the ship. What happened in there we don't want to tell you, but the story won't make sense unless we do, so on to the next chapter. These things happened.

FOUR

After dismal events, a piece of the Buddha appears; Then the treasure fleet asks Tianfei to calm their fears.

The ship was so big it did not rock on the waves. It was like being on an island. The room they were kept in was low and broad, extending across the width of the ship. Gratings on both sides let in air and some light, though it was dim. A hole under one grating overhung the ship's side and served as the place of relief.

The skinny black boy looked down it as if judging whether he could escape through the hole. He spoke Arabic better than Bold, though it was not his native tongue either; he had a guttural accent that Bold had never heard before. 'They trot you like derg.' He came from the hills behind the sahil he said, staring down the hole. He stuck one foot through, then another. He wasn't going to get through.

Then the doorlock rattled and he pulled his feet out and sprang away like an animal. Three men came in and had them all stand before them. Ship's petty officers, Bold judged. Checking the cargo. One of them inspected the black boy closely. He nodded to the others, and they put wooden bowls of rice on the floor, and a big bamboo tube bucket of water, and left.

That was the routine for two days. The black boy, whose name was Kyu, spent much of his time looking down the shithole, at the water it seemed, or at nothing. On the third day they were led up and out to help load the ship's cargo. It was hauled inboard on ropes running through pulleys on the masts, then guided down hatches into holds below. The loaders followed instructions from the officer of the watch, usually a big moon faced Han. Bold learned that the hold was broken by interior walls into nine individual compartments, each several times bigger than the biggest Red Sea dhows. The slaves who had been on ships before said that would make the great ship impossible to sink; if one compartment leaked it could be emptied and repaired, or even left to flood, but the others would keep the ship afloat. It was like being on nine ships tied together.

One morning the deck overhead reverberated with the drumming of sailors' feet, and they could feel the two giant stone anchors being raised. Big sails were hauled up on crossbeams, one for each mast. The ship began a slow stately rocking over the water, heeling slightly.

It was indeed a floating town. Hundreds lived on it; moving bags and boxes from hold to hold, Bold counted five hundred different people, and there were no doubt many more. It was astonishing how many people were aboard. Very Chinese, the slaves all agreed. The Chinese didn't notice it was crowded, to them it was normal, no different from any other Chinese town.

The admiral of the great fleet was on their ship: Zheng He, a giant of a man, a flat-faced western Chinese, a hui as some slaves called him under their breath. Because of his presence the upper deck was crowded with officers, dignitaries, priests and supernumeraries of every sort. Belowdecks there were a lot of black men, Zanjis and Malays, doing the hardest work.

That night four men came into the slaves' room. One was Hua Man, Zheng's first officer. They stopped before Kyu and grabbed him up. Hua struck him on the head with a short club. The other three pulled off the boy's robe and separated his legs. They tied bandages tightly around his thighs and around his waist. They held the semi conscious boy up, and Hua took a small curved knife from his sleeve. He grasped the boy's penis and pulled it out, and with a single deft slice cut off penis and balls, right next to the body. The boy groaned as Hua squeezed the bleeding wound and slipped a leather thong around it. He leaned down and inserted a slender metal plug into the wound, then pulled the thong tight and tied it off. He went to the shithole and dropped the boy's genitals through it into the sea. Then from one of his assistants he took a wet wad of paper and held it against the wound he had made, while the others bandaged it in place. When it was secured two of them put the boy's arms over their shoulders, and walked him out the door.

They returned with him a watch or so later, and let him lie down. Apparently they had been walking him the whole time. 'Don't let him drink,' Hua said to the cowed slaves. 'If he drinks or eats in the next three days, he'll die.'

The boy moaned through the night. The other slaves moved instinctively to the other side of the room, too scared to talk about it yet. Bold, who had gelded quite a few horses in his time, went and sat by him. The boy was perhaps ten or twelve years old. His grey face had some quality that drew Bold, and he stayed by him. For three days the boy moaned for water, but Bold didn't give him any.

On the night of the third day the eunuchs returned. 'Now we see whether he will live or die,' Hua said. They held up the boy, took off the bandages, and with a swift jerk Hua pulled the plug from the boy's wound. Kyu yelped and groaned as a hard stream of urine sprayed out of him into a porcelain chamberpot held in place by the second eunuch.

'Good,' Hua said to the silent slaves. 'Keep him clean. Remind him to take out the plug to relieve himself, and to get it back in quick, until he heals.'

They left and locked the door.

Now the Abyssinian slaves would talk to the boy. 'If you keep it clean it will heal right up. Urine cleans it too, so that's all right, I mean, if you wet yourself when you go.'

'Lucky they didn't do it to all of us.'

'Who says they won't?'

'They don't do it to men. Too many die of it. Only boys can sustain the loss.'

The next morning Bold led the boy to the shithole and helped him to get the bandage off, so he could pull the plug and pee again. Then Bold put it back for him, showing him where it went, trying to be delicate as the boy whimpered. 'You have to have the plug, or the tube will close up and you'll die.'

The boy lay on his cotton shift, feverish. The others tried not to look at the horrible wound, but it was hard not to see it once in a while.

'How could they do it?' one said in Arabic, when the boy was sleeping.

'They're eunuchs themselves,' one of the Abyssinians said. 'Hua is a eunuch. The admiral himself is a eunuch.'

'You'd think they'd be the ones to know.'

'They know and that's why they do it. They hate us all. They rule the Chinese Emperor, and they hate everyone else. You can see how it will be,' waving around at the immense ship. 'They'll castrate all of us. It's the end coming.'

'You Christians like to say that, but so far it's only been true for you.'

'God took us first to shorten our suffering. Your turn will come.'

'It's not God I fear, but Admiral Zheng He, the Three Jewel Eunuch. He and the Yongle Emperor were friends when they were boys, and the Emperor ordered him castrated when they were both thirteen. Can you believe it? Now the eunuchs do it to all the boys they take prisoner.'

In the days that followed Kyu got hotter and hotter, and was seldom conscious. Bold sat by his side and put wet rags in his mouth, reciting sutras in his mind. The last time he had seen his own son, almost thirty years before, the boy had been about this age. This one's lips were grey and parched, his dark skin dull, and very dry and hot. Bold had never felt anyone that hot who had not died, so it was probably a waste of time for all concerned; best to let the poor sexless creature slip away, no doubt. But he kept giving him water anyway. He recalled the boy looking around the ship as they had loaded it, his gaze intense and searching. Now the body lay there looking like some sad little African girl, sick to death from an infection in her loins.

But the fever passed. Kyu ate more and more. Even when he was active again, however, he spoke little compared to before. His eyes were not the same either; they stared at people like a bird's eyes do, as if they did not quite believe anything they saw. Bold realized that the boy had travelled out of his body, gone into the bardo and come back someone else. All different. That black boy was dead; this one started anew.

'What is your name now?' he asked him.

'Kyu,' the boy said, but unsurprised, as if he didn't remember telling Bold before.

'Welcome to this life, Kyu.'

Sailing on the open ocean was a strange way to travel. The skies flew by overhead, but it never looked as if they had moved anywhere. Bold tried to reckon what a day's ride was for the fleet, wondering if it was faster in the long run than horses, but he couldn't do it. He could only watch the weather and wait.

Twenty three days later the fleet sailed into Calicut, a city much bigger than any of the ports of Zanj, as big as Alexandria, or bigger.

Sandstone towers bulbed, walls crenellated,

All overgrown by a riot of greens.

This close to the sun life fountains into the sky. Around the stone of the central districts,

Light wooden buildings fill the green bush Up the coast in both directions,

Into the hills behind; the city extends As far as the eye can see, up the sides Of a mountain ringing the town.

Despite its great size, all activity in the city stopped at the arrival of the Chinese fleet. Bold and Kyu and the Ethiopians looked through their grating at the shouting crowds, all those people in their colours waving their arms overhead in awe.

'These Chinese will conquer the whole world.'

'Then the Mongols will conquer China,' Bold said.

He saw Kyu watching the throng on shore. The boy's expression was that of a preta, unburied at death. Certain demon masks had that look, the old Bon look, like Bold's father when enraged, staring into a person's soul and saying I'm taking this along with me, you can't stop me and you'd better not try. Bold shuddered to see such a face on a mere boy.

They were put to work unloading cargo into boats, and taking other loads out of boats onto the ship, but none of the slaves was sold, and only once were they taken ashore, to help break up a mass of cloth bolts and carry them to the long low dug outs being used to transfer goods from the beaches to the treasure fleet.

During this work Zheng He came ashore in his personal barge, which was painted, gilded and encrusted with jewellery and porcelain mosaics, and had a gold statue facing forwards from the bow. Zheng stepped down a walkway from the barge, wearing golden robes embroidered in red and blue. His men had laid a carpet strip on the beach for him to walk on, but he left it to come over and observe the loading of the new cargo. He was truly an immense man, tall, broad, and with a deep draught fore and aft. He had a broad face, not Han; and he was a eunuch; he was all the Abyssinians had claimed. Bold watched him out of the corner of his eye, and then noticed that Kyu was standing bolt upright staring at him too, work forgotten, eyes fixed like a hawk's on a mouse. Bold grabbed the boy and hauled him back to work. 'Come on, Kyu, we're chained together here, move or I'll knock you down and drag you across the ground. I don't want to get in trouble here, Tara knows what happens to a slave in trouble with such people as these.'

From Calicut they sailed south to Lanka. Here the slaves were left aboard the ship, while the soldiers went ashore and disappeared for several days. The behaviour of the officers left behind made Bold think the detachment was out on a campaign, and he watched them as closely as he could as the days passed and they grew more nervous. Bold could not guess what they might do if Zheng He did not return, but he did not think they would sail away. Indeed the fire officers were hard at work laying out their array of incendiaries, when the admiral's barge and the other boats came flying back out of Lanka's inner harbour, and their men came aboard shouting triumphantly. Not only had they fought their way out of an inland trap, they said, but they had captured the treacherous local usurper who had laid the trap, and taken the rightful king as well though there seemed to be some confusion in the story as to which was which, and why they should abduct the rightful king as well as the usurper. Most amazing of all, they said that the rightful king had had in his possession the island's holiest relic, a tooth of the Buddha, called the Dalada. Zheng held up the little gold reliquary to show all aboard this prize. An eyetooth, apparently. Crew, passengers, slaves, all spontaneously roared their acclaim, in throattearing shouts that went on and on.

'This is a great bit of fortune,' Bold told Kyu when the awful noise died down, pressing his hands together and reciting the Descent into Lanka Sutra. In fact it was so much good fortune it frightened him. And there was no doubt that fright had been a big part of the roar of the crew. The Buddha had blessed Lanka, it was one of his special lands, with a branch of his Bodhi tree growing in its soil, and his mineralized tears still falling off the sides of the sacred mountain in the island's centre, the one that was topped by Adam's footprint. Surely it was not right to take the Dalada away from its rightful place in such a holy land. There was an affront in the act that could not be denied.

As they sailed cast, the story circulated through the ship that the Dalada was only proof of the deposed king's right to rule; it would be returned to Lanka when the Yongle Emperor determined the rights of the case. The slaves were reassured by this news.

'So the Emperor of China will decide who rules that island,' Kyu said. Bold nodded. The Yongle Emperor had himself come to the throne in a violent coup, so it was not clear to Bold which of the two Lankan contenders he would favour. Meanwhile, they had the Dalada on board. 'It's good,' he said to Kyu after thinking it over some more. 'Nothing bad can happen to us on this voyage, anyway.'

And so it proved. Black squalls, bearing directly down on them, unaccountably evaporated just as they struck. Giant seas rocked all the horizons, great dragon tails visibly whipping up the waves, while they sailed serenely over a moving flat calm at their centre. They even sailed through the Malacca Strait without hindrance from Palembanque, or, north of that, from the myriad pirates of Cham, or the Japanese wakou – though, as Kyu pointed out, no pirate in his right mind would chal lenge a fleet so huge and powerful, tooth of the Buddha or no.

Then as they sailed into the south China Sea, someone saw the Dalada floating about the ship at night, as if, he said, it were a little candle flame. 'How does he know it wasn't a candle flame?' Kyu asked. But the next morning the sky dawned red. Black clouds rolled over the horizon in a line from the south, in a way that reminded Bold strongly of the storm that had killed Temur.

Driving rain struck, then a violent wind that turned the sea white. Shooting up and down in their dim little room, Bold realized that such a storm was even more frightening at sea than on land. The ship's astrologer cried out that a great dragon under the sea was angry, and thrashing the water under them. Bold joined the other slaves in holding to the gratings and looking out of their little holes to see if they could catch sight of spine or claw or snout of this dragon, but the spume flying over the whitewater obscured the surface. Bold thought he might have seen part of a dark green tail in the foam.

Wind shrieks through the nine masts,

All bare of sail. The great ship tilts in the wind, Rolls side to side, and the little ships Accompanying them bob like corks,

In and out of view through the grating.

In storms like this, nothing to be done but hold on! Bold and Kyu cling fast to the wall, Listening through the howl for the officers' shouts And the thumping feet of the sailors Doing what they can to secure the sails And then to tie the tiller securely in place. They hear the fear in the officers, And sense it in the sailors' feet. Even belowdecks they are wet with spray.

Up on the great poop deck the officers and astrologers performed some sort of ceremony of appeasement, and Zheng He himself could be heard calling out to Tianfei, the Chinese goddess of safety at sea.

'Let the dark water dragons go down into the sea, and leave us free from calamity! Humbly, respectfully, piously, we offer up this flagon of wine, offer it once and offer it again, pouring out this fine, fragrant wine! That our sails may meet favourable winds, that the sea lanes be peaceful, that the all seeing and all hearing spirit soldiers of winds and seasons, the wave quellers and swell drinkers, the airborne immortals, the god of the year, and the protectress of our ship, the Celestial Consort, brilliant, divine, marvellous, responsive, mysterious Tianfei might save us!'

Looking up through the dripping cracks in the deck Bold could see a composite vision of sailors watching this ceremony, mouths all open wide shouting against the wind's roar. Their guard yelled at them, 'Pray to Tianfei, pray to the Celestial Consort, the sailor's only friend! Pray for her intercession! All of you! Much more of this wind and the ship will be torn apart!'

'Tianfei preserve us,' Bold chanted, squeezing Kyu to indicate he should do the same. The black boy said nothing. He pointed up at the forward masts, however, which they could see through the hatchway grating, and Bold looked up and saw red filaments of light dancing between the masts: balls of light, like Chinese lanterns without the paper or the fire, glowing at the top of the mast and over it, illuminating the flying rain and even the black bottoms of the clouds that were peeling by overhead. The otherworldly beauty of the sight tempered the terror of it; Bold and everyone else moved outside the realm of terror, it was too strange and awesome a sight to worry any longer about life or death. All the men were crying out, praying at the top of their lungs. Tianfei coalesced out of the dancing red light, her figure gleaming brightly over them, and the wind diminished all at once. The seas calmed around them. Tianfei dissipated, ran redly out of the rigging and back into the air. Now their grateful voices could be heard above the wind. Whitecaps still toppled and rolled, but all at a distance from them, halfway to the horizon.

Tianfei!' Bold shouted with the rest. 'Tianfei!'

Zheng He stood at the poop rail and raised both hands in a light rain. He shouted 'Tianfei! Tianfei has saved us!' and they all bellowed it with him, filled with joy in the same way the air had been filled with the red light of the goddess. Later the wind blew hard again, but they had no fear.

How the rest of the voyage home went is not really material; nothing of note happened, they made it back safely, and what happened after that you can find out by reading the next chapter.

FIVE

In a Hangzhou restaurant, Bold and Kyu rejoin their jati; In a single moment, end of many months' harmony.

Storm tossed, Tianfei protected, the treasure fleet sailed into a big estuary. Ashore, behind a great seawall, stood the rooftops of a vast city. Even the part visible from the ship was bigger than all the cities Bold had ever seen put together – all the bazaars of central Asia, the Indian cities Temur had razed, the ghost towns of Frengistan, the white seaside towns of Zanj, Calicut all combined would have occupied only a quarter or a third of the land covered by this forest of rooftops, this steppe of rooftops, extending all the way to distant hills visible to the west.

The slaves stood in the waist of the big ship, silent in the midst of the cheering Chinese, who cried out 'Tianfei, Celestial Consort, thank you!' and 'Hangzhou, my home, never thought to be seen again!' 'Home, wife, new year festival!' 'We happy, happy men, to have travelled all the way to the other side of the world and then make it back home!' and so on.

The ships' huge anchor stones were dropped over the side. Where the Chientang River entered the estuary there was a powerful tidal bore, and any ship not securely anchored could be swept far up into the shal lows, or flushed out to sea. When the ships were anchored the work of unloading began. This was a massive operation, and once as he ate rice between watches at the hoist, Bold noted that there were no horses, camels, water buffalo, mules or asses to help with the job, or with any other job in the city: just thousands of labourers, endless lines of them, moving the food and goods in, or taking out the refuse and manure,

Mostly by canal – in and out, in and out, as if the city were a monstrous imperial body lying on the land, being fed and relieved by all its subjects together.

Many days passed in the labour of unloading, and Bold and Kyu saw a bit of the harbour Kanpu, and Hangzhou itself, when manning barges on trips to state warehouses under the southern bill compound that had once been the imperial palace, hundreds of years before. Now lesser aristocrats and even high ranking bureaucrats and eunuchs lived in the old palace grounds. North of these extended the walled enclosure of the old city, impossibly crowded with warrens of wooden buildings that were five, six and even seven storeys tall – old buildings that overhung the canals, people's bedding spread out from balconies to dry in the sun, grass growing out of the roofs.

Bold and Kyu gawked up from the canals while unloading the barges. Kyu looked with his bird's gaze, seeming unsurprised, unimpressed, unafraid. 'There are a lot of them,' he conceded. Constantly he was asking Bold the Chinese words for things, and in the attempt to answer Bold learned many more words himself.

When the unloading was done, the slaves from their ship were gathered together and taken to Phoenix Hill, 'the hill of the foreigners', and sold to a local merchant named Shen. No slave market here, no auction, no fuss. They never learned what they had been sold for, or who in particular had owned them during their sea passage. Possibly it had been Zheng He himself.

Chained together at the ankles, Bold and Kyu were led through the narrow crowded streets to a building near the shores of a lake flanking the west edge of the old city. The first floor of the building was a restaurant. It was the fourteenth day of the first moon of the year, Shen told them, the start of the Feast of Lanterns, so they would have to learn fast, because the place was hopping.

Tables spill out of the restaurant Into the broad street bordering the lakefront, Every chair filled all day long.

The lake itself dotted with boats,

Each boat sporting lanterns of all kinds Coloured glass painted with figures,

Carved white and apple jade, Roundabouts turning on their candles' hot air, Paper lanterns burning up in brief blazes. A dyke crowded with lantern bearers Extends into the lake, the opposite shore is crowded As well, so at the day's end The lake and all the city around it Spark in the dusk of the festival twilight. Certain moments give us such unexpected beauty.

Shen's eldest wife, I Ii, ran the kitchen very strictly, and Bold and Kyu soon found themselves unloading hundredweight bags of rice from the canal barges tied up behind the restaurant; carrying them in; returning bags of refuse to the compost barges; cleaning the tables; and mopping and sweeping the floor. They ran in and out, also upstairs to the family compound above the restaurant. The pace was relentless, but all the while they were surrounded by the restaurant women, in white robes with paper butterflies in their hair, and by thousands of other women as well, promenading under the globes of coloured light, so that even Kyu raced about drunk on the sights and smells, and on drinks salvaged from near empty cups. They drank lychee, honey and ginger punch, paw paw and pear juice, and teas green and black. Shen also served fifteen kinds of rice wine; they tried the dregs of them all. They drank everything but plain water, which they were warned against as dangerous to the health.

As for the food, which again came to them mostly in the form of table scraps – well, it beggared description. They were given a plateful of rice every morning, with some kidneys or other offal thrown in, and after that they were expected to fend for themselves with what customers left behind. Bold ate everything he got his hands on, astonished at the variety. The Feast of Lanterns was a time for Shen and I Ii to offer their fullest menu, and so Bold had the chance to taste roebuck, red deer, rabbit, partridge, quail, clams cooked in rice wine, goose with apricots, lotus seed soup, pimento soup with mussels, fish cooked with plums, fritters and souffles, ravioli, pies and cornflour fruitcakes. Every kind of food, in fact, except for any beef or dairy; strangely, the Chinese had no cattle. But they had eighteen kinds of soy, Shen said, nine of rice, eleven of apricots, eight of pears. It was a feast every day.

After the rush of the Feast of Lanterns was over, I Ii liked to take short breaks from her work in the kitchen, and visit some of the other,,, restaurants of the city, to see what they were offering. She would return" to inform Shen and the cooks that they needed to make a sweet soy soup, for instance, like that she had found at the Mixed Wares Market; or pig cooked in ashes, like that at the Longevity and Compassion Palace.

She started taking Bold with her on her morning trips to the abattoir, located right in the heart of the old city. There she chose her pork ribs, and the liver and kidneys for the slaves. Here Bold learned why they were never to drink the city's water; the offal and blood from the slaughter were washed off right into the big canal running down to the river, but often the tides pushed water back up this canal and through the rest of the city's water network.

Returning behind I li with his wheelbarrow of pork one day, pausing to let a party of nine intoxicated women in white pass by, Bold felt all of a sudden that he was in a different world. Back at the restaurant he said to Kyu, 'We've been reborn without our noticing it.'

'Maybe you have. You're like a baby here.'

'Both of us! Look about you! It's…' He could not express it.

'They are rich,' Kyu said, looking about. Then they were back to work.

The lakefront never was an ordinary place. Festival or not – and there were festivals almost every month – the lakefront was one of the main places the people of Hangzhou congregated. Every week there were private parties between the more general festivals, so the promenade was a daily celebration of greater or lesser magnitude, and although there was a great deal of work to be done supplying and maintaining the restaurant, there was also a great deal of food and drink to be scavenged, or poached in the kitchen, and both Bold and Kyu were insatiable. They soon filled out, and Kyu was also still sprouting up, looking tall among the Chinese.

Soon it was as if they had never lived any other life. Well before dawn, resonant wooden fish were struck with mallets, and the weathermen shouted their announcements from the firewatch towers: 'It is raining! It is cloudy today!' Bold and Kyu and about twenty other slaves got up and were let out of their room, and most went down to the service canal that ran in from the suburbs, to meet the rice barges. The barge crews had got up even earlier – theirs was night work, starting at midnight many li away. All together they heaved the bulging sacks onto wheelbarrows, then the slaves wheeled them back through the alleys to Shen's. They sweep up the restaurant,

Light the stove fires, set the tables,

Wash bowls and chopsticks, chop vegetables, Cook, carry supplies and food Out to Shen's two pleasure boats, And then as dawn breaks And people begin slowly to appear On the lakefront for breakfast,

They help the cooks, wait on tables,

Wait and clean tables – anything needed, Lost in the meditation of labour though usually the hardest work in the place was theirs, as they were the newest slaves. But even the hardest work wasn't very hard, and with the constant availability of food, Bold considered their placement a windfall; a chance to put some meat on their bones, and learn better the local dialect and the ways of the Chinese. Kyu pretended never to notice any of these things, indeed pretended not to understand most of the Chinese spoken to him, but Bold saw that he was actually soaking in everything like a dishwasher's sponge, watching sideways so that it seemed he never watched, when he always watched. That was Kyu's way. He already knew more Chinese than Bold.

The eighth day of the fourth moon was another big festival, celebrating a deity who was patron to many of the guilds of the town. The guilds organized a procession, down the broad imperial way that divided the old city north to south, then over to West Lake for dragon boat jousts, among all the other more usual pleasures of the lakefront. Each guild wore its particular costume and mask, and brandished identical umbrellas, flags or bouquets as they marched in squares together, shouting 'Ten thousand years! Ten thousand years!' as they had done ever since the emperors had actually lived in Hangzhou, and heard these shouted hopes for their longevity. Spread out along the lakefront at the end of the parade, they watched a dance of a hundred little eunuchs in a circle, a particular celebration of that festival. Kyu almost looked directly at these children.

Later that day he and Bold were assigned to one of Shen's pleasure boats, which were floating extensions of his restaurant. 'We have a wonderful feast for our passengers today,' Shen cried as they arrived and filed aboard. 'We'll be serving the Eight Dainties today dragon livers, phoenix marrow, bear paws, lips of apes, rabbit embryo, carp tail, broiled osprey, and kumiss.'

Bold smiled to think of kumiss, which was simply fermented mares' milk, included among the Eight Dainties; he had practically grown up on it. 'Some of those are easier to obtain than others,' he said, and Shen laughed and kicked him into the boat.

Onto the lake they paddled. 'How come your lips are still on your face?' Kyu called back at Shen, who was out of hearing.

Bold laughed. 'The Eight Dainties,' he said. 'What these people think of!'

'They do love their numbers,' Kyu agreed. 'The Three Pure Ones, the Four Emperors, the Nine Luminaries 'The Twenty eight Constellations '

'The Twelve Horary Branches, the Five Elders of the Five Regions..

'The Fifty Star Spirits.'

'The Ten Unforgivable Sins.'

'The Six Bad Recipes.'

Kyu cackled briefly. 'It's not numbers they like, it's lists. Lists of all the things they have.'

Out on the lake Bold and Kyu saw up close the magnificent decoration of the day's dragon boats, bedecked with flowers, feathers, coloured flags and spinners. Musicians on each boat played madly, trying with drum and horn to drown out the sound of all the others, while pikemen in the bows reached out with padded staves to knock people on other boats into the water.

In the midst of this happy tumult, screams of a different tone caught the attention of those on the water, and they looked ashore and saw that there was a fire. Instantly the games ended and all the boats made a beeline for land, piling up five deep against the docks. People ran right over the boats in their haste, some towards the fire, some towards their own neighbourhoods. As they hurried over to the restaurant Bold and Kyu saw for the first time a fire brigade. Each neighbourhood had one, with its own equipment, and they would all follow the signal flags from the watchtowers around the city, soaking roofs in districts threatened by the blaze, or putting out flying embers. Hangzhou's buildings were all wood or bamboo, and most districts had gone up in flames at one time or another, so the routine was well practised. Bold and Kyu ran behind Shen up to the burning neighbourhood, which was to the north of theirs and upwind, so that they too were in danger.

At the fire's edge thousands of men and women were at work, many in bucket lines that extended to the nearest canals. The buckets were run upstairs into smoky buildings, and tossed down onto the flames. There were also quite a number of men carrying staves, pikes, and even crossbows, and questioning men hauled out of the fiery alleyways bordering the conflagration. Suddenly these men beat one of those that emerged to a bloody mass, right there amid the firefighting. Looter, someone said. Army detachments would soon arrive to help capture more and kill them on the spot, after public torture, if there was time.

Despite this threat, Bold saw now that there were figures without buckets, darting in and out of the burning buildings. The fight against looters was as intense as that against the fire! Kyu too saw this as he passed wooden or bamboo buckets down the line, openly watching everything.

Days flew by, each busier than the last. Kyu was still nearly mute, head always lowered, a mere beast of burden or kitchen swab incapable of learning Chinese, or so everyone in the restaurant believed. Only semihuman in fact, which was the usual attitude of the Chinese towards black slaves in the city.

Bold spent more and more time working for I li. She appeared to prefer to take him on her trips out, and he hustled to keep up with her, manoeuvring the wheelbarrow through the crowd. She was always in a tearing hurry, mostly in her quest for new foods; she seemed anxious to try everything. Bold saw that the restaurant's success had resulted from her efforts. Shen himself was more an impediment than a help, as he was bad with his abacus and couldn't remember much, especially about his debts, and he kicked his slaves and his girls for hire.

So Bold was pleased to follow I Ii They visited Mother Sung's outside the Cash — reserve Gate, to try her white soy soup. They watched Wei Big Knife at the Cat Bridge boil pork, and Chou Number Five in front of the Five span Pavilion, making his honey fritters. Back in the kitchen I Ii would try to reproduce these foods exactly, shaking her head ominously as she did. Sometimes she would retire to her room to think, and a few times she called Bold up the stairs, to order him out in search of some spice or ingredient she had thought of that might help with a dish.

Her room had a table by the bed, covered with cosmetic bottles, jewellery, perfume sachets, mirrors and little boxes of lacquered wood, jade, gold and silver. Gifts from Shen, apparently. Bold glanced at them while she sat there thinking.

A tub of white foundation powder, Still flat and shiny on top.

A deep rose shade of grease blush,

For cheeks already chapped dark red. A box of pink balsam leaves Crushed in alum, for tinted nails,

Which many women in the restaurant displayed. I Ii's nails were bitten to the quick.

Cosmetics never used, jewellery never worn,

Mirrors never looked into. The outward gaze.

Once she stained her palms with the pink balsam dye; another time, all the dogs and cats in the kitchen. Just to see what would happen, as far as Bold could tell.

But she was interested in the things of the city. Half her trips out were occupied by talk, by asking questions. Once she came home troubled: 'Bold, they say that northerners here go to restaurants that serve human flesh. "Two legged mutton", have you heard that? Different names for old men, women, young girls, children? Are they really such monsters up there?'

'I don't think so,' Bold said. 'I never met any.'

She was not entirely reassured. She often saw hungry ghosts in her sleep, and they had to come from somewhere. And they sometimes complained to her of having had their bodies eaten. It made sense to her that they might cluster around restaurants in search of some kind of retribution. Bold nodded; it made sense to him too, though it was hard to believe the teeming city harboured practising cannibals when there was so much other food to be had.

As the restaurant prospered, I Ii made Shen improve the place, cutting holes in the side walls and putting in windows, filling them with square trellis works supporting oiled paper, which blazed or glowed with sunlight, depending on the hour and weather. She opened the front of the building entirely to the lakefront promenade, and paved the downstairs with glazed bricks. She burned pots of mosquito smoke during the summer, when they were at their worst. She built in a number of small wall shrines devoted to various gods deities of place, animal spirits, demons and hungry ghosts, even, at Bold's humble request, one to Tianfei the Celestial Consort, despite her suspicion that this was only another name for Tara, already much honoured in the nooks and crannies of the house. If it annoyed Tara, she said, it would be on Bold's head.

Once she came home retailing a story of a number of people who had died and come back to life shortly thereafter, apparently because of the mistakes of careless celestial scribes, who had written down the wrong names. Bold smiled; the Chinese imagined a complicated bureaucracy for the dead, just like the ones they had established for everything else. 'They came back with information for their living relatives, things that turned out to be correct even though the briefly deceased person couldn't have known about it!'

'Marvels,' Bold said.

'Marvels happen every day,' I li replied. It was, as far as she was concerned, a universe peopled by spirits, genies, demons, ghosts as many kinds of beings as tastes. She had never had the bardo explained to her, and so she didn't understand the six levels of reality that organized cosmic existence; and Bold did not feel that he was in a position to teach her. So it remained at the level of ghosts and demons. Malignant ones could be held off by various practices that annoyed them; firecrackers, drums and gongs, these things chased them away. It was also possible to strike them with a stick, or burn artemisia, a Sechuan custom that I Li practised. She also bought magic writing on miniature papers or cylinders of silver, and put up white jade square tiles in every doorway; dark demons disliked the light of these. And the restaurant and its household prospered, so she felt she had done the right things.

Following her out several times a week, Bold learned a lot about Hangzhou. He learned the best rhinoceros skins were found at Chien's,

As you went down from the service canal to little Chinghu Lake; the finest turbans were at Kang Number Eight's, in the Street of the Worn Cash Coin, or at Yang Number Three's, going down the canal after the Three Bridges. The largest display of books was at the bookstalls under the big trees near the summer house of the Orange Tree Garden. Wicker cages for birds and crickets could be found in Ironwire Lane, ivory combs at Fei's, painted fans at the Coal Bridge. I Ii liked to know of these places, even though she only bought what they sold as gifts for her friends or her mother in law. A very curious person indeed. Bold could hardly keep up with her. One day in the street, rattling off some story or other, she stopped and looked up at him, surprised, and said, 'I want to know everything!'

But all the while, Kyu had been watching without watching. And one night, during the tidal bore of the eighth moon, when the Chientang River roared with high waves and there were many visitors in the city, in the hour before the woodblocks and the weathermen's cries, Bold was awakened by a gentle tug on the ear, then the firm pressure of a hand over his mouth.

It was Kyu. He held a key to their room in his hand. 'I stole the key.' Bold pulled Kyu's hand away from his mouth. 'What are you doing?' he whispered.

'Come on,' Kyu said in Arabic, in the phrase used for a balking camel. 'We're escaping.'

'What? What do you mean?'

'We're escaping, I said.'

'But where will we go?'

'Away from this city. North to Nanjing.'

'But we have it good here!'

'Come on, none of that. We're finished here. I've already killed Shen.' 'You what!'

'Shhhh. We need to set the fires and get out of here before the wake up.'

Stunned, Bold scrambled to his feet, whispering 'Why, why, why, why? We had a good thing here, you should have asked me first if I wanted any part of this!'

'I want to escape,' Kyu said, land I need you to do it. I need a master to get around.'

'Get around where?'

But now Bold was following Kyu through the silent household, stepping blindly with complete assurance, so well had he come to know this building, the first one he had ever lived in. He liked it. Kyu led him into the kitchen, took a branch sticking out of the smouldering stove fire; he must have put it in before rousing Bold, for the pitchy knot at the end was now blazing. 'We're going north to the capital,' Kyu said over his shoulder as he led Bold outdoors. 'I'm going to kill the Emperor.'

'What!'

'More about that later,' Kyu said, and applied the flaming torch to a bundle of rush and kindling and balls of wax he had put against the walls, in a corner. When it had caught fire he ran outside, and Bold followed him appalled. Kyu lit another bundle of kindling against the house next door, and placed the brand against a third house, and all the while Bold stayed right behind him, too shocked to think properly. He would have stopped the boy if it weren't for the fact that Shen was already murdered. Kyu and Bold's lives were forfeit; setting the district on fire was probably their only chance, as it might burn the body so that the killing would not show. It also might be assumed that some slaves had been burned up entire, locked in their room as they were. 'Hopefully they'll all burn,' Kyu said, echoing this thought.

We are as shocked as you are by this development, and don't know what happened next, but no doubt the next chapter will tell us.

SIX

By way of the Grand Canal our pilgrims escape justice;

In Nanjing they beg the aid of the Three jewel Eunuch.

They ran north up the dark alleys paralleling the service canal. Behind them the alarm was being raised already, people screaming, fire bells ringing, a fresh dawn wind blowing in off West Lake.

'Did you take some cash?' Bold thought to ask.

'Many strings,' Kyu said. He had a full bag under his arm.

They would need to get as far away as they could, as quickly as possible. With a black like Kyu it would be hard to be inconspicuous. Necessarily he would have to remain a young black eunuch slave, Bold therefore his master. Bold would have to do all the talking; this was why Kyu had brought him along. This was why he had not murdered Bold along with the rest of the household.

'What about I Ii Did you kill her too?'

'No. Her bedroom has a window. She'll do fine.'

Bold wasn't so sure; widows had a hard time of it; she'd end up like Wei Big Knife, on the street cooking meals on a brazier for passers by. Although for her that might be opportunity enough.

Wherever there were a lot of slaves, there were usually quite a few blacks. The canal boats were often moved along through the countryside by slaves, turning capstans or pulling their ropes directly, like mules or camels. Possibly the two of them could take on such a role and hide in it; he could pretend to be a slave himself but no, they needed a master to account for them. If they could slip onto the end of a rope line… He couldn't believe he was thinking about joining a canal boat ropeline, when he had been waiting tables in a restaurant! It made him so angry at Kyu that he hissed.

And now Kyu needed him. Bold could abandon the boy and he would stand a much better chance of slipping into obscurity, among the many traders and Buddhist monks and beggars on the roads of China; even their famous bureaucracy of local yamens and district officials could not keep track of all the poor people slipping around in the hills and the back country. While with a black boy he stood out like a festival clown with his monkey.

But he was not going to abandon Kyu, not really, so he just hissed. On they ran through the outer city, Kyu pulling Bold by the hand from time to time and urging him in Arabic to hurry. 'You know this is what you really wanted, you're a great Mongol warrior, you told me, a barbarian of the steppes, feared by all the peoples, you were only just pretending not to mind being someone's kitchen slave, you're good at not thinking about things, about not seeing things, but it's all an act, of course you always knew, you just pretend not to know, you wanted to escape all the while.' Bold was amazed to think anyone could have misunderstood him that completely.

The suburbs of Hangzhou were much greener than the old central quarter, every household compound marked by trees, even small mulberry orchards. Behind them the fire alarm bells were waking the whole city, the day starting in a panic. From a slight rise they could look back between walls and see the lakefront aglow; the entire district appeared to have caught fire as quickly as Kyu's little balls of wax and kindling, fanned by a good stiff west wind. Bold wondered if Kyu had waited for a windy night to make his break. The thought chilled him. He had known the boy was clever, but this ruthlessness he had never suspected, despite the preta look he sometimes had, which reminded Bold of Temur's look – some intensity of focus, some totemic aspect, his raptor nafs looking out no doubt. Each person was in some crucial sense his or her nafs, and Bold had already concluded Kyu's was a falcon, hooded and tied. Temur's had been an eagle on high, stooping to tear at the world.

So he had seen some sign, had had some idea. And there was that closed aspect of Kyu too, the sense that his true thoughts were many rooms away, ever since his castration. Of course that would have had its effects. The original boy was gone, leaving the nafs to negotiate with some new person.

They hurried through the northernmost sub prefecture of Hangzhou, and out of the gate in the last city wall. The road rose higher into the Su Tung po Hills, and they got a view back to the lakefront district, the flames less visible in the dawn, more a matter of clouds of black smoke, no doubt throwing sparks east to spread the blaze. 'This fire will kill a lot of people!' Bold exclaimed.

'They're Chinese,' Kyu said. 'There's more than enough to take their place.'

Walking hard to the north, paralleling the Grand Canal on its west side, they saw again how crowded China was. Up here a whole country of rice paddies and villages fed the great city on the coast. Farmers were out in the morning light,

Sticking rice starts into the submerged fields, Bending over time after time. A man walks Behind a water buffalo. Strange to see Such rain polished black poverty,

Tiny farms, rundown crossroad villages,

After all the colourful glories of Hangzhou.

'I don't see why they all don't move to the city,' Kyu said. 'I would.'

'They never think of it,' Bold said, marvelling that Kyu would suppose other people thought like he did. 'Besides, their families are here.'

They could just see the Grand Canal through the trees lining it, some two or three li to the east. Mounds of earth and timber stood by it, marking repairs or improvements. They kept their distance, hoping to avoid any army detachments or prefecture posses that might be patrolling the canal on this unfortunate day.

'Do you want a drink of water?' Kyu asked. 'Do you think we can drink it here?'

He was very solicitous, Bold saw; but of course now he had to be. Near the Grand Canal the sight of Kyu would probably pass for normal, but Bold had no paperwork, and local prefects or canal officials might very well ask him to produce some. So neither the Grand Canal nor the country away from it would work all the time. They would have to slip on and off it as they went, depending on who was around. They might even have to move by night, which would slow them down and be more dangerous. Then again it seemed unlikely that all the hordes of people moving up and down the canal and its corridor were being checked for papers, or had them either.

So they moved over into the crowd walking the canal road, and Kyu carried his bundle and wore his chains, and fetched water for Bold, and pretended ignorance of any but the simplest commands. He could do a scarily believable imitation of an idiot. Gangs of men hauled barges, or turned the capstans that raised and lowered the lock gates that interrupted the flow of the canal at regular intervals. Pairs of men, master and servant or slave, were common. Bold ordered Kyu about, but was too worried to enjoy it. Who knew what trouble Kyu might cause in the north. Bold didn't know what he felt, it changed minute by minute. He still couldn't believe Kyu had forced this escape on him. He hissed again; he had life or death power over the boy, yet he remained afraid of him.

At a new little paved square, next to locks made of new raw timber, a local yamen and his deputies were stopping every fourth or fifth group. Suddenly they waved at Bold, and when he led Kyu over, suddenly hopeless, they asked to see his papers. The yamen was accompanied by a higher official in robes, a prefect wearing a patch with twinned sparrow hawks embroidered on it. The prefects' symbols of rank were easy to read – the lowest rank showed quail pecking the ground, the highest, cranes sporting over the clouds. So this was a fairly senior figure here, possibly on the hunt for the arsonist of Hangzhou, and Bold was trying to think of lies, his body tensing to run, when Kyu reached into his bag and gave Bold a packet of papers tied with a silk ribbon. Bold undid the ribbon's knot and gave the packet to the yamen, wondering what it said. He knew the Tibetan letters for 'om mani padme hum', as who could not with them carved on every rock in the Himalaya, but other than that he was illiterate, and the Chinese alphabet looked like chicken tracks, each letter different from all the rest.

The yamen and the sparrow hawk official read the top two sheets, then handed them back to Bold, who tied them up and gave them to Kyu without looking at him.

'Take care around Nanjing,' Sparrow Hawk said. 'There are bandits in the hills just south of it.'

'We'll stick to the canal,' Bold said.

When they were out of sight of the patrol, Bold struck Kyu hard for the first time. 'What was that! Why didn't you tell me about the papers! How can you expect me to know what to say to people?'

'I was afraid you would take them and leave me.'

'What do you mean? If they say I have a black slave, then I need a black slave, don't I? What do they say?'

'They say you are a horse merchant from the treasure fleet, travelling to Nanjing to complete business in horses. And that I am your slave.'

'Where did you get them?'

'A rice boatman who does them wrote one for me.'

'So he knows our plans?'

Kyu said nothing, and Bold wondered if the boatman too was dead. The boy seemed capable of anything. Getting a key, getting papers forged, preparing the little fireballs… If the time came where he thought he didn't need Bold, Bold would no doubt wake up one morning with a slit throat. He would most certainly be safer on his own.

As they trudged past the barge ropelines, he brooded on this. He could abandon the boy to whatever fate befell him – more enslavement, or quick death as a runaway, or slow death as an arsonist and murderer – and then work his way north and west to the great wall and the steppes beyond, and thence home.

From the way Kyu avoided his gaze and slunk behind him, it was apparent that he knew more or less what Bold was thinking. So for a day or two Bold ordered him about harshly, and Kyu jumped at every word.

But Bold did not leave him, and Kyu did not slit Bold's throat. Thinking it over, Bold had to admit to himself that his karma was somehow tied up with the boy's. He was part of it somehow. Very possibly he was there to help the boy.

'Listen,' Bold said one day as they walked. 'You can't go to the capital and kill the Emperor. It isn't possible. And why would you want to anyway?'

Hunched, sullen, the boy eventually said in Arabic, 'To bring them down.'

Again the term he used came from camel driving.

'To what?'

'To stop them.'

'But killing the Emperor, even if you could, wouldn't do that. They'd just replace him with another one, and it would all go on the same as before. That's how it works.'

Much trudging, and then: 'They wouldn't fight over who got to be the new emperor?'

'Over the succession? Sometimes that happens. It depends on who's in line to succeed. I don't know about that any more. This Emperor, the Yongle, is a usurper himself. He took it away from his nephew, or uncle. But usually the eldest son has a clear right. Or the Emperor designates a different successor. In any case the dynasty continues. It isn't often there is a problem.'

'But there might be?'

'There might be and there might not. Meanwhile they'd be staying up at night working out better ways to torture you. What they did to you on the ship would be nothing compared to it. The Ming emperors have the best torturers in the world, everyone knows that.'

More trudging. 'They have the best everything in the world,' the boy complained. 'The best canals, the best cities, the best ships, the best armies. They sail around the seas and everywhere they go people kotow to them. They land and see the tooth of the Buddha, they take it with them. They instal a king that will serve them, and move on and do the same everywhere they go. They'll conquer the whole world, cut all the boys, and all the children will be theirs, and the whole world will end up Chinese.'

'Maybe so,' Bold said. 'It's possible. There certainly are a lot of them. And those treasure ships are impressive, no doubt of that. But you can't sail into the heart of the world, the steppes where I came from. And the people out there are much tougher than the Chinese. They've conquered the Chinese before. So things should be all right. And listen, no matter what happens, you can't do anything about it.'

'We'll see about that in Nanjing.'

It was crazy, of course. The boy was deluded. Nevertheless there was that look that came into his eye – inhuman, totemic, his nafs looking out at things – the sight of which gave Bold a chill down the chakra nerve right to the first centre, behind his balls. Aside from the raptor nafs, which he had been born with, there was something scary in the hatred of a eunuch, something impersonal and uncanny. Bold had no doubt that he was travelling with some kind of power, some African witch child or shaman, a tulku, who had been captured out of the jungles and mutilated, so that his power had been redoubled, and was now turning to revenge. Revenge, against the Chinese! Despite his belief that it was crazy, Bold was curious to see what might come of that.

Nanjing was bigger even than Hangzhou. Bold had to give up being amazed. It was also the home harbour for the great treasure fleet. An entire city of shipbuilders had been established down by the Yangzi River estuary, the shipyards including seven enormous drydocks running perpendicular to the river, behind high dams with guards patrolling their gates so that no one could sabotage them. Thousands of shipwrights, carpenters and sailmakers lived in quarters behind the drydocks, and this sprawling town of workshops, called Longjiang, included scores of inns for visiting labourers, and sailors ashore. Evening discussions in these inns concerned mainly the fate of the treasure fleet and of Zheng He, who currently was occupied building a temple to Tianfei, while he worked on another great expedition to the west.

It was easy for Bold and Kyu to slip into this scene as small time trader and slave, and they rented sleeping spaces on the mattresses at the South Sea Inn. Here in the evenings they learned of the construction of a new capital up in Beiping, a project which was absorbing a great deal of the Yongle Emperor's attention and cash. Beiping, a provin cial northern outpost except during the Mongol dynasties, had been Zhu Di's first power base before he usurped the Dragon Throne and became the Yongle Emperor, and he was now rewarding it by making it the imperial capital once again, changing its name from Beiping ('northern peace') to Beijing ('northern capital'). Hundreds of thousands of workers had been sent north from Nanjing to build a truly enormous palace, indeed from all accounts the whole city was being made into a kind of palace the Great Within, it was called, forbidden to any but the Emperor and his concubines and eunuchs. Outside this precious ground was to be a larger imperial city, also new.

All this construction was said to be opposed by the Confucian bureaucracy who ruled the country for the Emperor. The new capital, like the treasure fleet, was a huge expense, an imperial extravagance that the officials disliked, for bleeding the country of its wealth. They must not have seen the treasures being unloaded, or did not believe them equal to what had been spent to gain them. They understood Confucius to say that the wealth of the empire ought to be land based, a matter of expanded agriculture and assimilation of border people, in the traditional style. All this innovation, this shipbuilding and travel, seemed to them to be manifestations of the growing power of the imperial eunuchs, whom they hated as their rivals in influence. The talk in the sailors' inns supported the eunuchs, for the most part, as the sailors were loyal to sailing, to the fleet and Zheng He, and the other eunuch admirals. But the officials didn't agree.

Bold saw the way Kyu picked up on this talk, and even asked further questions to learn more. After only a few days in Nanjing, he had found out all kinds of gossip Bold had not heard: the Emperor had been thrown by a horse given to him by the Temurid emissaries, a horse once owned by Temur himself (Bold wondered which horse it was; strange to think an animal had lived so long, though on reflection he realized it had been less than two years since Temur's death). Then lightning had struck the new palace in Beijing and burned it all down. The Emperor had released an edict blaming himself for this disfavour from Heaven, causing fear and confusion and criticism. In the wake of these events, certain bureaucrats had openly criticized the monstrous expenditures of the new capital and the treasure fleet, draining the treasury surplus just as famine and rebellion in the south cried out for imperial relief. Very quickly the Yongle Emperor had tired of this criticism, and had had one of the most prominent critics exiled from China, and the rest banished to the provinces.

'That's all bad,' one sailor said, a little bit the worse for drink, 'but worst of all for the Emperor is the fact that he's sixty years old. There's no help for that, even when you're Emperor. It may even be worse for him.'

Everyone nodded. 'Bad, very bad.' 'He won't be able to keep the eunuchs and officials from fighting.' 'We could see a civil war before too long.'

'To Beijing,' Kyu said to Bold.

But before they left, Kyu insisted they go up to Zheng He's house, a rambling mansion with a front door carved to look like the stern of one of his treasure ships. The rooms inside (seventy two, the sailors said) were each supposed to be decorated to resemble a different Muslim country, and in the courtyard the gardens were planted to resemble Yunnan.

Bold complained all the way up the hill. 'He will never see a poor trader and his slave. His servants will kick us away from the door, this is ridiculous!'

It happened just as Bold had predicted. The gatekeeper sized them up and told them to be on their way.

'All right,' Kyu said. 'Off to the temple for Tianfei.'

This was a grand complex of buildings, built by Zheng He to honour the Celestial Consort, and to thank her for her miraculous rescue of them in the storm.

The centrepiece of the temple Is a nine storeyed octagonal pagoda,

Tiled in white porcelain fired with Persian cobalt That the treasure fleet brought back with it.

Each level of the pagoda must be built With the same number of tiles, this Pleases Tianfei, so the tiles get smaller As each storey narrows to a graceful peak, Far above the treetops. Beautiful offering And testament to a goddess of pure mercy.

There in the midst of the construction, conversing with men who looked no better than Bold or Kyu, was Zheng He himself. He looked at Kyu as they approached, and paused to talk to him. Bold shook his head to see this example of the boy's power revealing itself.

Zheng nodded as Kyu explained they had been part of his last expedition. 'You looked familiar.' He frowned, however, when Kyu went on to explain that they wanted to serve the Emperor in Beijing.

'Zhu Di is off campaigning in the west. On horseback, with his rheumatism.' He sighed. 'He needs to understand that the fleet's way of conquering is best. Arrive with the ships, start trading, instal a local ruler who will cooperate, and for the rest, simply let them be. Trade with them. Make sure the man at the top is friendly. There are sixteen countries sending tribute to the Emperor as a direct result of the voyages of our fleet. Sixteen!'

'It's hard to get the fleet to Mongolia,' Kyu said, frightening Bold. But Zheng He laughed.

'Yes, the Great Without is high and dry. We have to convince the Emperor to forget the Mongols, and look to the sea.'

'We want to do that,' Kyu said earnestly. 'In Beijing we will argue the case every chance we get. Will you give us introductions to the eunuch officials at the palace? I could join them, and my master here would be good in the imperial stables.'

Zheng looked amused. 'It won't make any difference. But I'll help you for old times' sake, and wish you luck.'

He shook his head as he wrote a memorial, his brush wielded like a little hand broom. What happened to him afterwards is well known: grounded by the Emperor, given a land locked military command, spending his days constructing the nine storeyed porcelain pagoda honouring Tianfei; we imagine he missed his voyages over the distant seas of the world, but cannot say for sure. But we do know what happened to Bold and Kyu, and we will tell you in the next chapter.

SEVEN

New capital, new emperor, plots reach their ends. Boy against China; you can guess who wins.

Beijing was raw in every sense, the wind frigid and damp, the wood of the buildings still white and dripping with sap, the smell of pitch and turned earth and wet cement everywhere. It was crowded, too, though not like Hangzhou or Nanjing, so that Bold and Kyu felt cosmopolitan and sophisticated, as if this huge construction site were beneath them somehow. A lot of people here had that attitude.

They made their way to the eunuch clinic named in Zheng He's memorial, located just south of the Meridian Gate, the southern entrance to the Forbidden City. Kyu presented his introduction, and he and Bold were whisked inside to see the clinic's head eunuch. 'A reference from Zheng He will take you far in the palace,' this eunuch told them, 'even if Zheng himself is having troubles with the imperial officials. I know the palace's Director of Ceremonies, Wu Han, very well, and will introduce you. He is an old friend of Zheng's, and needs eunuchs in the Literary Depth Pavilion for rescript writing. But wait, you are not literate, are you? But Wu also administers the eunuch priests maintained to attend to the spiritual welfare of the concubines.'

'My master here is a lama,' Kyu said, indicating Bold. 'He has trained me in all the mysteries of the bardo.'

The eunuch regarded Bold sceptically. 'Be that as it may, one way or another the memorial from Zheng will get you in. He has recommended you very highly. But you will need your pao, of course.'

'Pao?' Kyu said. 'My precious?'

'You know.' The eunuch gestured at Kyu's groin. 'It is necessary to prove your status, even after I have inspected and certified you. Also, more importantly perhaps, when you die you will be buried with it on your chest, to fool the gods. You don't want to come back as a shemule, after all.' He glanced at Kyu curiously. 'You don't have yours?'

Kyu shook his head.

'Well, we have many here you can choose from, left over from patients who died. I doubt you can tell black from Chinese after the pickling!' He laughed and led them down a hall.

His name was jiang, he said; he was an ex sailor from Fukian, and was puzzled that anyone young and fit would ever leave the coast to come to a place like Beijing. 'But as black as you are, you'll be like the quillin that the fleet brought back last time for the Emperor, the spotted unicorn with the long neck. I think it also was from Zanj. Do you know it?'

' It was a big fleet,' Kyu said.

'I see. Well, Wu and the other palace eunuchs love exotics like you and the quillin, and so does the Emperor, so you'll be fine. Keep quiet and don't get mixed up in any conspiracies, and you'll do well.'

In a cool storage building they went into a room filled with sealed porcelain and glass jars, and found a black penis for Kyu to take with him. The head eunuch then inspected him personally, to make sure he was what he said he was, and then brushed his certification onto the introduction from Zheng, and put his chop to it in red ink. 'Some people try to fake it, of course, but if they're caught they get it handed to them, and then they aren't faking it any more, are they. You know, I noticed they didn't put in a quill when they cut you. You should have a quill to keep it open, and then the plug goes in the quill. It's much more comfortable that way. They should have done that when you were cut.'

'I seem to be all right without it,' Kyu said. He held the glass jar up against the light, looking closely at his new pao. Bold shuddered and led the way out of the creepy room.

While further arrangements were made in the palace, Kyu was assigned a bed in the dorm, and Bold was offered a room in the clinic's men's building. 'Temporary, you understand. Unless you care to join us in the main building. Great opportunities for advancement… 'No thank you,' Bold said politely. But he saw that many men were coming in to request the operation, desperate for a job. When there was famine in the countryside there was no shortage of applicants, they even had to turn people away. As with everything in China, there was a whole bureaucracy at work here, the palace requiring as it did several thousand eunuchs for its operation. This clinic was just a small part of that.

So they were launched in Beijing. Indeed, things had gone so well that Bold wondered if Kyu, no longer needing Bold as he had during their journey north, would now abandon him – move into the Forbidden City and disappear from his life. The idea made him sad, despite all.

But Kyu, after being assigned to the concubines of Zhu Gaozhi, the Emperor's eldest legitimate son and the Heir Designate, asked Bold to come with him and apply to be a stabler for the Heir. 'I still need your help,' he said simply, looking like the boy who had boarded the treasure ship so long ago.

'I'll try,' Bold said.

Kyu was able to ask the favour of an interview from Zhu Gaozhi's stable master, and Bold went in and displayed his expertise with some big beautiful horses, and was given a job. Mongolians had the same kind of advantage in the stable that eunuchs had in the palace.

It was easy work, Bold found; the Heir Designate was an indolent man, his horses seldom ridden, so that the stablers had to exercise them on a track, and in the new parks of the palace grounds. The horses were all very big and white, but slow and weak winded; Bold saw now why the Chinese could never go north of their Great Wall and attack the Mongols to any great effect, despite their stupendous numbers. Mongols lived on their horses, and lived off them too made their clothes and shelter from their felt and wool, drank their milk and blood, ate them when they had to. Mongolian horses were the life of the people; whereas these big clodhoppers might as well have been driving millstones in a circle with blinkers on, for all the wind and spirit they had.

It turned out Zhu Gaozhi spent a lot of time in Nanjing, where he had been brought up, visiting his mother the Empress Xu. So as the months passed, Bold and Kyu made the trip between the two capitals many times, travelling on barges on the Grand Canal, or on horseback beside it. Zhu Gaozhi preferred Nanjing to Beijing, for obvious reasons of climate and culture; late at night, after drinking vast quantities of rice wine, he could be heard declaring to his intimates that he would move the capital back to Nanjing on the very day of his father's death. This made the enormous labour of building Beijing look odd to them when they were there.

But more and more they were in Nanjing. Kyu helped run the Heir's harem, and spent most of his time inside their enclosure. He never told Bold a thing about what he did in there, except one time, when he came out to the stables late at night, a bit drunk. This was almost the only time Bold saw him any more, and he looked forward to these nocturnal visits, despite the way they made him nervous.

On this occasion Kyu remarked that his main task these days was to find husbands for those of the Emperor's concubines who had reached the age of thirty without ever having relations with the Emperor. Zhu Di farmed these out to his son, with instructions to marry them off.

'Would you like a wife?' Kyu asked Bold slyly. 'A thirty year old virgin, expertly trained?'

'No thanks,' Bold said uneasily. He already had an arrangement with one of the servant women in the compound in Nanking, and though he supposed Kyu was joking, it made him feel strange.

Usually when Kyu made these midnight visits out to the stables, he was deep in thought. He did not hear things Bold said to him, or answered oddly, as if replying to some other question. Bold had heard that the young eunuch was well liked, knew many people in the palace, and had the favour of Wu, the Director of Ceremonies. But what they all did in the concubines' quarters during the long nights of the Beijing winters, he had no idea. Usually Kyu came out to the stables reeking of wine and perfume, sometimes urine, once even vomit. 'To stink like a eunuch' – the common phrase came back to Bold at those times with unpleasant force. He saw how people made fun of the mincing eunuch walk, the hunched little steps with feet pointing outwards, something that was either a physical necessity or a group style, Bold didn't know. They were called crows for their falsetto voices, among other names; but always behind their backs; and everyone agreed that as they fattened and then wizened in their characteristic fashion, they came to look like bent old women.

Kyu was still young and pretty, however, and drunk and dishevelled as he was during his night visits to Bold, he seemed very pleased with himself. 'Let me know if you ever want women,' he said. 'We've got more than we need in there.'

During one of the Heir's visits to Beijing, Bold caught a glimpse of the Emperor and his heir together, as he brought their perfectly groomed horses out to the Gate of Heavenly Purity, so that the two could ride to ether in the parks of the imperial garden. Except the Emperor wanted to leave the enclosure and ride well to the north of the city, apparently, and sleep out in tents. Clearly the Heir Designate was unenthusiastic, and the officials accompanying the Emperor were as well. Finally he gave in and agreed to make it a day ride, but outside the imperial city, by the river.

As they were mounting the horses he exclaimed to his son, 'You have to learn to fit the punishment to the crime! People need to feel the justice of your decision! When the Board of Punishments recommended that Xu Pei yi be put to the lingering death, and all his male relations over sixteen put to death and all his female relations and children enslaved, I was merciful! I lowered his sentence to beheading, sparing all the relatives. And so they say, "the Emperor has a sense of proportion, he understands things".'

'Of course they do,' the Heir agreed blandly.

The Emperor glanced sharply at him, and off they rode.

When they returned, late in the day, he was still lecturing his son, sounding even more peeved than he had in the morning. 'If you know nothing but the court, you will never be able to rule! The people expect the Emperor to understand them, to be a man who rides and shoots as well as the Heavenly Envoy! Why do you think your governors will do what you say if they think you are womanly? They will only obey you to your face, and behind your back they will mock you and do whatever they like.'

'Of course they will,' said the Heir, looking the other way.

The Emperor glared at him. 'Off the horse,' he said in a heavy voice.

The Heir sighed and slid from his mount. Bold caught the reins and calmed the horse with a quick hand while leading it towards the Emperor's mount, ready when the Emperor leapt off and roared 'Obey!'

The Heir fell to his knees and kotowed.

'You think the bureaucrats care about you!' the Emperor shouted. 'But they don't! Your mother is wrong about that, like she is about everything else! They have their own ideas, and they won't support you when there's the least trouble. You need your own men.'

' Or eunuchs,' the Heir said into the gravel.

The Yongle Emperor stared at him. 'Yes. My eunuchs know they depend on my good will above all else. No one else will back them. So they're the only people in the world you know will back you.'

No reply from the prostrated elder son. Bold, facing away and moving to the very edge of earshot, risked a glance back. The Emperor, shaking his head heavily, was walking away, leaving his son kneeling on the ground.

'You may be backing the wrong horse,' Bold said to Kyu the next time they met, on one of Kyu's increasingly rare night visits to the stables. 'The Emperor is going out with his second son now. They ride, they hunt, they laugh. One day they killed three hundred deer we had enclosed. While with the Heir Designate, the Emperor has to drag him out of doors, can't get him off the palace grounds, and spends the whole time yelling at him. And the Heir nearly mocks him to his face. Comes as close as he dares. And the Emperor knows it too. I wouldn't be surprised if he changed the Heir Designate.'

'He can't,' Kyu said. 'He wants to, but he can't.'

'Whyever not?'

'The eldest is the son of the Empress. The second born is the son of a courtesan. A low ranking courtesan at that.'

'But the Emperor can do what he wants, right?'

'Wrong. It only works when they all follow the laws together. If anyone breaks the laws, it can mean civil war, and the end of the dynasty.'

Bold had seen this in the Chinggurid wars of succession, which had gone on for generations. Indeed it was said now that Temur's sons had been fighting ever since his death, with the Khan's empire divided into four parts, and no sign of it ever coming together again.

But Bold also knew that a strong ruler could get away with things. 'You're parroting what you've heard from the Empress and the Heir and their officials. But it isn't that simple. People make the laws, and sometimes they change them. Or ignore them. And if they've got the swords, that's it.'

Kyu considered this in silence. Then he said, 'There's talk that the countryside is suffering. Famine in Hunan, piracy on the coast, diseases in the south. The officials don't like it. They think the great treasure fleet brought back disease instead of treasure, and wasted huge sums of money. They don't understand what trade brings back, they don't believe in it. They don't believe in the new capital. They tell the Empress and the Heir that they should help the people, that we should get back to agriculture, and stop wasting so much cash on extravagant projects.'

Bold nodded. 'I'm sure they do.'

'But the Emperor persists. He does what he wants, and he has the army behind him, and his eunuchs. The eunuchs like the foreign trade, as they see it makes them rich. And they like the new capital, and all the rest. Right?'

Bold nodded again. 'So it seems.'

'The regular officials hate the eunuchs.'

Bold glanced at him. 'Do you see that yourself?'

'Yes. Although it's the Emperor's eunuchs they really hate.'

'No doubt. Whoever is closest to power is feared by all the rest.'

Again Kyu thought things over. He seemed to Bold to be happy, these days; but then again Bold had thought that in Hangzhou. So it always made Bold nervous to see Kyu's little smile.

Soon after that conversation, when they were all in Beijing, a great storm came.

Yellow dust makes the first raindrops muddy; Lightning cracks down bronze through it,

Stitching together earth and sky,

Visible through closed eyelids.

About an hour later word comes: The new palaces have caught fire.

The whole centre of the Forbidden City Burning as though drenched in pitch,

Flames licking the wet clouds,

Pillar of smoke merging with the storm,

Rain downwind baked out of the air, replaced by ash.

Running back and forth with terrified horses, then with buckets of water, Bold kept an eye out, and finally, at dawn, when they had given up fighting the blaze, for it was useless, he caught sight of Kyu there among the evacuated imperial concubines. All the Heir Designate's people had a hectic look, but Kyu in particular seemed to Bold elated, the whites of his eyes visible all the way around. Like a shaman after a successful voyage to the spirit world. He started this fire, Bold thought, just like in Hangzhou, this time using the lightning as his cover.

The next time Kyu made one of his midnight visits to the stables, Bold was almost afraid to speak to him.

Nevertheless he said, 'Did you set that fire?' – whispering in Arabic, even though they were alone, outside the stables, with no chance of being overheard.

Kyu just stared at him. The look said Yes, but he didn't elaborate.

Finally he said calmly, 'An exciting night, wasn't it? I saved one of the Script Pavilion's cabinets, and some concubines as well. The redjackets were very grateful about their documents.'

He went on about the beauty of the fire, and the panic of the concu bines, and the rage, and later the fear, of the Emperor, who took the fire to be a sign of heavenly disapproval, the worst bad portent ever to smite him; but Bold could not follow the boy's talk, his mind filled as it was with images of the various forms of the lingering death. To burn down a merchant in Hangzhou was one thing, but the Emperor of all China! The Dragon Throne! He glimpsed again that thing inside the boy, the black nafs banging its wings around inside, and felt the distance between them grown vast and unbridgeable.

'Be quiet!' he said sharply in Arabic. 'You're a fool. You'll get yourself killed, and me too.'

Kyu smiled grimly. 'On to a better life, right? Isn't that what you told me? Why should I fear dying?'

Bold had no answer.

After that they saw less of each other than ever. Days passed, festivals, seasons. Kyu grew up. When Bold caught sight of him, he saw a tall slender black eunuch, pretty and perfumed, mincing along with a flash of the eye, and, once, that raptor look as he regarded the people around him. Bejewelled, plump, perfumed, dressed in elaborate silk: a favourite of the Empress and the Heir, even though they hated the eunuchs of the Emperor. Kyu was their pet, and perhaps even a spy in the Emperor's harem. Bold feared for him at the same time that he feared him. The boy was wreaking havoc among the concubines of both Emperor and Heir, many said, even people in the stables who had no way of knowing directly. The way he moved through them was too forward, he was bound to be making enemies. Cliques would be plotting to bring him down. He must know that, he must be courting it; he laughed in their faces, so that they would hate him even more. It all seemed to delight him. But imperial revenge had a long reach. If someone fell, everyone he knew came down too.

So when the news spread that two of the Emperor's concubines had hanged themselves, and the furious Emperor demanded an accounting, and the whole nest of corruption began to unravel before everyone, fear rippling through the court like the plague itself, lies spreading the blame wider and wider, until fully three thousand concubines and eunuchs were implicated in the scandal, Bold expected to hear any hour of his young friend's torture and lingering death, perhaps from the mouths of guards come to execute him as well.

But it didn't happen. Kyu existed under a spell of protection like that of a sorcerer, it was so obvious that everyone saw it. The Emperor executed forty of his concubines with his own hand, swinging the sword furiously, cutting them in half or decapitating them with single strokes, or running them through over and over, until the steps of the rebuilt Hall of Great Harmony ran with their blood; but Kyu stood just to the side, unharmed. One concubine even cried out towards Kyu as she stood naked before them all, a wordless shriek, and then she cursed the Emperor to his face, 'It's your fault, you're too old, your yang is gone, the eunuchs do it better than you!' Then snick, her head was falling into the puddles of blood like a sacrificed sheep's. All that beauty wasted. And yet no one touched Kyu; the Emperor dared not look at him; and the black youth watched it all with a gleam in his eye, enjoying the wastage, and the way the bureaucrats hated him for it. The court was literally a shambles, they were feeding on each other now; and yet none of them had the courage to take on the weird black eunuch.

Bold's last meeting with him happened just before Bold was to accompany the Emperor on an expedition to the west, to destroy the Tartars led by Arughtai. It was a hopeless cause; the Tartars were too fast, the Emperor not well. Nothing would come of it. They would be back when winter came on, in just a few months. So Bold was surprised when Kyu came to the stables to say farewell.

It was like talking to a stranger now. But the youth clasped Bold by the arm suddenly, affectionate and serious, like a prince talking to a trusted old retainer.

' Do you never want to go home?' he asked.

'Home,' Bold said.

'Isn't your family out there?'

'I don't know. It's been years. I'm sure they think I died. They could be anywhere.'

'But not just anywhere. You could find them.'

'Maybe.' He looked at Kyu curiously. 'Why do you ask?'

Kyu didn't answer at first. He was still clutching Bold's arm. Finally he said, 'Do you know the story of the eunuch Chao Kao, who caused the downfall of the Chin dynasty?'

'No. Surely you're not still talking about that.'

Kyu smiled. 'No.' He pulled a little carving from his sleeve half of a tiger, carved from black ironwood, its stripes cut into the smooth surface. The amputation across its middle was mortised; it was a tally, like those used by officials to authenticate their communications with the capital when they were in the provinces. 'Take this with you when you go. I'll keep the other half. It will help you. We'll meet again.'

Bold took it, frightened. It seemed to him like Kyu's nafs, but of course that was something that couldn't be given away.

'We'll meet again. In our lives to come at least, as you always used to tell me. Your prayers for the dead give them instructions on how to proceed in the bardo, right?'

'That's right.'

'I must go.' And with a kiss to the cheek Kyu was off into the night.

The expedition to conquer the Tartars was a miserable failure, as expected, and one rainy night the Yongle Emperor died. Bold stayed up all through that night, pumping the bellows for a fire the officers used to melt all the tin cups they had, to make a coffin to carry the imperial body back to Beijing. It rained all the way back, the heavens crying. Only when they reached Beijing did the officers let the news be known.

The imperial body lay in state in a proper coffin for a hundred days. Music, weddings and all religious ceremonies were forbidden during this interval, and all the temples in the land were required to ring their bells thirty thousand times.

For the funeral Bold joined the ten thousand members of the escort, Sixty li's march to the imperial tomb site,

Northwest of Beijing. Three days zigzagging To foil evil spirits, who only travel in straight lines. The funeral complex deep underground,

Filled with the dead Emperor's best clothes and goods, At the end of a tunnel three li long,

Lined with stone servants awaiting his next command. How many lifetimes will they stand waiting?

Sixteen of his concubines are hanged, Their bodies buried around his coffin.

The day the Successor ascended the Dragon Throne, his first edict was read aloud to all in the Great Within and the Great Without. Near the end of the edict, the reader in the palace proclaimed to all assembled there before the Hall of Great Harmony,

'All voyages of the treasure fleet are to be stopped. All the ships moored in Hangzhou are ordered to return to Nanjing, and all goods on the ships are to be turned over to the Department of Internal Affairs, and stored. Officials abroad on business are to return to the capital immediately; and all those called to go on future voyages are ordered back to their homes. The building and repair of all treasure ships is to stop immediately. All official procurement for going abroad must also be stopped, and all those involved in purchasing should return to the capital.'

When the reader had finished, the new Emperor, who had just named himself the Hongxi Emperor, spoke for himself. 'We have spent too much on extravagance. The capital will return to Nanjing, and Beijing will be designated an auxiliary capital. There will be no more waste of imperial resources. The people are suffering. Relieving people's poverty ought to be handled as though one were rescuing them from fire, or saving them from drowning. One cannot hesitate.'

Bold saw Kyu's face across the great courtyard, a little black figurine with blazing eyes. The new Emperor turned to look at his dead father's retinue, so many of them eunuchs. 'For years you eunuchs have only been thinking of yourselves, at the expense of China. The Yongle Emperor thought you were on his side. But you were not. You have betrayed all China.'

Kyu spoke up before his fellows could stop him. 'Your Highness, it's the officials who are betraying China! They are trying to be as regent to you, and make you a boy emperor for ever!'

With a roar a gang of the officials rushed at Kyu and some of the other eunuchs, pulling knives from their sleeves as they pounced. The eunuchs struggled or fled, but many were cut down on the spot. Kyu they stabbed a thousand times.

The Hongxi Emperor stood and watched. When it was over he said, 'Take the bodies and hang them outside the Meridian Gate. Let all the eunuchs beware.'

Later, in the stables, Bold sat holding the half tiger tally in his hand. He had thought they would kill him too, and was ashamed how much that thought had dominated him during the slaughter of the eunuchs; but no one had paid the slightest attention to him. It was possible no one else even remembered his connection to Kyu.

He knew he was leaving, but he didn't know where to go. If he went to Nanjing and helped burn the treasure fleet, and all its docks and warehouses, he would certainly be continuing his young friend's project. But all that would be done in any case.

Bold recalled their last conversation. Time to go home, perhaps, to start a new life.

But guards appeared in the doorway. We know what happened next; and so do you; so let's go on to the next chapter.

EIGHT

In the bardo, Bold explains to Kyu the true nature of reality; Their jati regathered, they are cast back into the world.

At the moment of death Kyu saw the clear white light. It was everywhere, it bathed the void in itself, and he was part of it, and sang it out into the void.

Some eternity later he thought: This is what you strive for.

And so he fell out of it, into awareness of himself. His thoughts were continuing in their tumbling monologue reverie, even after death. Incredible but true. Perhaps he wasn't dead yet. But there was his body, hacked to pieces on the sand of the Forbidden City.

He heard Bold's voice, there inside his thoughts, speaking a prayer. 'Kyu my boy, my beautiful boy,

The time has come for you to seek the path. This life is over. You are now Face to face with the clear light.'

I'm past that, Kyu thought. What happens next? But Bold couldn't know where he was along his way. Prayers for the dead were useless in that regard.

' You are about to experience reality In its pure state. All things are void. You will be like a clear sky,

Empty and pure. Your named mind Will be like clear still water.'

I'm past that! Kyu thought. Get to the next part!

'Use the mind to question the mind. Don't sleep at this crucial time. Your soul must leave your body awake, and go out through the Brahma hole.'

The dead can't sleep, Kyu thought irritably. And my soul is already out of my body.

His guide was far behind him. But it had always been that way with Bold. Kyu would have to find his own way. Emptiness still surrounded the single thread of his thoughts. Some of the dreams he had had during his life had been of this place.

He blinked, or slept, and then he was in a vast court of judgment. The dais of the judge was on a broad deck, a plateau in a sea of clouds. The judge was a huge black faced deity, sitting potbellied on the dais. Its hair was fire, burning wildly on its head. Behind it a black man held a pagoda roof that might have come straight out of the palace in Beijing. Above the roof floated a little seated Buddha, radiating calm. To his left and right were peaceful deities, standing with gifts in their arms; but these were all a great distance away, and not for him. The righteous dead were climbing long flying roads up to these gods. On the deck surrounding the dais, less fortunate dead were being hacked to pieces by demons, demons as black as the Lord of Death, but smaller and more agile. Below the deck more demons were torturing yet more souls. It was a busy scene and Kyu was annoyed. This is my judgment, and it's like a morning abattoir! How am I supposed to concentrate?

A creature like a monkey approached him and raised a hand: 'Judg ment,' it said in a deep voice.

Bold's prayer sounded in his mind, and Kyu realized that Bold and this monkey were related somehow. 'Remember, whatever you suffer now is the result of your own karma,' Bold was saying. 'It's yours and no one else's. Pray for mercy. A little white god and a little black demon will appear, and count out the white and black pebbles of your good and evil deeds.'

Indeed it was so. The white imp was pale as an egg, the black imp like onyx; and they were hoeing great piles of white and black stones into heaps, which to Kyu's surprise appeared about equal in size. He could not remember doing any good deeds.

'You will be frightened, awed, terrified.'

I will not! These prayers were for a different kind of dead, for people like Bold.

'You will attempt to tell lies, saying I have not committed any evil deed.'

I will not say any such ridiculous thing.

Then the Lord of Death, up on its throne, suddenly took notice of Kyu, and despite himself Kyu flinched.

'Bring the mirror of karma,' the god said, grinning horribly. Its eyes were burning coals.

'Don't be frightened,' Bold's voice said inside him. 'Don't tell any lies, don't be terrified, don't fear the Lord of Death. The body you're in now is only a mental body. You can't die in the bardo, even if they hack you to pieces.'

Thanks, Kyu thought uneasily. That is such a comfort.

'Now comes the moment of judgment. Hold fast, think good thoughts; remember, all these events are your own hallucinations, and what life comes next depends on your thoughts now. In a single moment of time a great difference is created. Don't be distracted when the six lights appear. Regard them all with compassion. Face the Lord of Death without fear.'

The black god held a mirror up with such practised accuracy that Kyu saw in the glass his own face, dark as the god's. He saw that the face is the naked soul itself, always, and that his was as dark and dire as the Lord of Death's. This was the moment of truth! And he had to concentrate on it, as Bold kept reminding him. And yet all the while the whole antic festival shouted and shrieked and clanged around him, every possible punishment or reward given out at once, and he couldn't help it, he was annoyed.

'Why is black evil and white good?' he demanded of the Lord of Death. 'I never saw it that way. If this is all my own thinking, then why is that so? Why is my Lord of Death not a big Arab slave trader, as it would be in my own village? Why are your agents not lions and leopards?'

But the Lord of Death was an Arab slave trader, he saw now, an Arab intaglioed in miniature in the surface of the god's black forehead, looking out at Kyu and waving. The one who had captured him and taken him to the coast. And among the shrieks of the rendered there were lions and leopards, hungrily gnawing the intestines of living victims.

All just my thoughts, Kyu reminded himself, feeling fear rise in his throat. This realm was like the dream world, but more solid; more solid even than the waking world of his just completed life; everything trebly stuffed with itself, so that the leaves on the round ornamental bushes (in ceramic pots!) hung like jade leaves, while the jade throne of the god pulsed with a solidity far beyond that of stone. Of all the worlds the bardo was the one of the utmost reality.

The white Arab face in the black forehead laughed and squeaked, 'Condemned!' and the huge black face of the Lord of Death roared, 'Condemned to hell!' It threw a rope around Kyu's neck and dragged him off the dais. It cut off Kyu's head, tore out his heart, pulled out his entrails, drank his blood, gnawed his bones; yet Kyu did not die. Body hacked to pieces, yet it revived. And it all began again. Intense pain throughout. Tortured by reality. Life is a thing of extreme reality; death also.

Ideas are planted in the mind of the child like seeds, and may grow to dominate the life completely.

The plea: I have done no evil.

Agony disassembled into anguish, regret, remorse; nausea at his past lives and how little they had gained him. In this terrible hour he sensed them all without actually being able to remember them. But they had happened. Oh, to get off the endless wheel of fire and tears. The sorrow and grief he felt then was worse than the pain of dismemberment. The solidity of the bardo fell apart, and he was bombarded by light exploding in his thoughts, through which the palace of judgment could only be seen as a kind of veil, or a painting on the air.

But there was Bold up there, being judged in his turn. Bold, a cowering monkey, the only person after Kyu's capture who had meant anything at all to him. Kyu wanted to cry out to him for help, but stifled the thought, as he did not want to distract his friend at the very moment, of all the infinity of moments, when he needed not to be distracted. Nevertheless something must have escaped from Kyu, some groan of the mind, some anguished thought or cry for help; for a gang of furious four armed demons dragged Kyu down and away, out of sight of Bold's judgment.

Then he was indeed in hell, and pain the least of his burdens, as superficial as mosquito bites, compared to the deep, oceanic ache of his loss. The anguish of solitude! Coloured explosions, tangerine, lime, quicksilver, each shade more acid than the last, burned his consciousness with an anguish ever deeper. I'm wandering in the bardo, rescue me, rescue me!

And then Bold was there with him.

They stood in their old bodies, looking at each other. The lights grew clearer, less painful to the eyes; a single ray of hope pierced the depth of Kyu's despair, like a lone paper lantern seen across West Lake. You found me, Kyu said.

Yes.

It's a miracle you could find me here.

No. We always meet in the bardo. We will cross paths for as long as the six worlds turn in this cycle of the cosmos. We are part of a karmic jati.

What's that?

Jati, subcaste, family, village. It manifests differently. We all came into the cosmos together. New souls are born out of the void, but infrequently, especially at this point in the cycle, for we are in the Kali yuga, the Age of Destruction. When new souls do appear it happens like a dandelion pod, souls like seeds, floating away on the dharma wind. We are all seeds of what we could be. But the new seeds float together and never separate by much, that's my point. We have gone through many lives together already. Our jati has been particularly tight since the avalanche. That fate bound us together. We rise or fall together.

But I don't remember any other lives. And I don't remember anyone from this past life but you. I only recognize you! Where are the rest of them?

You didn't recognize me either. We found you. You have been falling away from the jati for many reincarnations now, down and down into yourself alone, in lower and lower lokas. There are six lokas; they are t e orlds, the realms of rebirth and illusion. Heaven, the world of the devas; then the world of the asuras, those giants full of dissension; then the human world; then the animal world; then the world of pretas, or hungry ghosts; then hell. We move between them as our karma changes, life by life.

How many of us are there in this jati?

I don't know. A dozen perhaps, or half a dozen. The group blurs at the boundaries. Some go away and don't come back until much later. We were a village, that time in Tibet. But there were visitors, traders. Fewer every time. People get lost, or fall away. As you have been doing. When the despair strikes.

At the mere sound of the word it washed through Kyu: Despair. Bold's figure grew transparent.

Bold, help me! What do I do?

Think good thoughts. Listen, Kyu, listen – as we think, so we are. Both here and hereafter, in all the worlds. For thoughts are things, the parents of all actions, good and bad alike. And as the sowing has been, so the harvest will be.

I'll think good thoughts, or try, but what should I do? What should I look for?

The lights will lead you. Each world has its own colour. White light from the devas, green from the asuras, yellow from the human, blue from the beasts, red from ghosts, smoke coloured from hell. Your body will appear the colour of the world you are to return to.

But we're yellow! Kyu said, looking at his hand. And Bold was as yellow as a flower.

That means we must try again. We try and try again, life after life, until we achieve Buddha wisdom, and are released at last. Or some then choose to return to the human world, to help others along their way to release. Those are called bodhisattvas. You could be one of those, Kyu. I can see it inside you. Listen to me now. Soon you'll run for it. Things will chase you, and you'll hide. In a house, a cave, a jungle, a lotus blossom. These are all wombs. You'll want to stay in your hiding place, to escape the terrors of the bardo. That way lies preta, and you will become a ghost. You must emerge again to have any hope. Choose your womb door without any feelings of attraction or repulsion. Looks can be deceiving. Go as you see fit. Follow the heart. Try helping other spirits first, as if you were a bodhisattva already.

I don't know how!

Learn. Pay attention and learn. You must follow, or lose the jati for good.

Then they were attacked by huge male lions, manes already matted with blood, roaring angrily. Bold took off in one direction and Kyu in another. Kyu ran and ran, the lion on his heels. He dodged through two trees and onto a path. The lion ran on and lost him.

To the east he saw a lake, adorned with black and white swans. To the west, a lake with horses standing in it; to the south, a scattering of pagodas; to the north a lake with a castle in it. He moved south towards the pagodas, feeling vaguely that this would have been Bold's choice; feeling also that Bold and the rest of his jati were already there, in one of the temples waiting for him.

He reached the pagodas. He wandered from one building to the next, looking in doorways, shocked by visions of crowds in disarray, fighting or fleeing from hyena headed guards and wardens; a hell of a village, each possible future catastrophic, terrifying. Death's home town.

A long time passed in this horrible search, and then he was looking through the gates of a temple at his jati, his cohort, Bold and all the rest of them, Shen, I li Dem his mother, Zheng He, Psin, all of them immediately known to him – oh, he thought, of course. They were naked and bloodied, but putting on the gear of war nevertheless. Then hyenas howled, and Kyu fled through the raw yellow light of morning, through trees into the protection of elephant grass. The hyenas prowled between the huge tufts of grass, and he pressed through the knife edges of one broken down clump to take refuge inside it.

For a long time he cowered in the grass, until the hyenas went away, also the cries of his jati as they looked for him, telling him to stick with them. He hid there through a long night of awful sounds, creatures being killed and eaten; but he was safe; and morning came again. He decided to venture forth, and found the way out was closed. The knife edged grass blades had grown, and were like long swords caging him, even pressing in on him, cutting him as they grew. Ah, he realized; this is a womb. I've chosen one without trying to, without listening to Bold's advice, separated from my family, unaware and in fear. The worst kind of choosing.

And yet to stay here would be to become a hungry ghost. He would have to submit. He would have to be born again. He groaned at the thought, cursed himself for a fool. Try to have a little more presence of mind next time, he thought, a little more courage! It would not be easy, the bardo was a scary place. But now, when it was too late, he decided he had to try. Next time!

And so he re entered the human realm. What happened to him and to his companions that time around, it is not our task to tell. Gone, gone, gone altogether beyond! All hail!

One. The Cuckoo in the Village

What happens is that sometimes there is a confusion, and the reincarnating soul enters into a womb already occupied. Then there are two souls in the same baby, and a fight breaks out. Mothers can feel that kind, the babies that thrash around inside, wrestling themselves. Then they're born and the shock of that ejection stills them for a while, they're fully occupied learning to breathe and otherwise coming to grips with this world. After that the fight between the two souls for the possession of the one body recommences. That's colic.

A baby suffering colic will cry out as if struck, arch its back in pain, even writhe in agony, for many of its waking hours. This should be no surprise, two souls are struggling within it, and so for weeks the baby cries all the time, its guts twisted by the conflict. Nothing can ease its distress. It's not a situation that can last for long, it's too much for any little body to bear. In most cases the cuckoo soul drives out the original, and then the body finally calms down. Or sometimes the first soul successfully drives out the cuckoo and is restored to itself. Or else, in rare cases, neither one is strong enough to drive the other out, and the colic finally subsides but the baby grows up a divided person, confused, erratic, unreliable, prone to insanity.

Kokila was born at midnight, and the dai pulled her out and said, 'It's a girl, poor thing.' Her mother Zaneeta hugged the little creature to her breast, saying, 'We will love you anyway.'

She was a week old when the colic struck. She spat up her mother's milk and cried inconsolably all through the nights. Very quickly Zaneeta forgot what the cheerful new babe had been like, a kind of placid grub at her breast sucking, gurgling amazedly at the world. Under the assault of the colic she screamed, cried, moaned, writhed. It was painful to see it. Zaneeta could do nothing but hold her, hands under her stomach as it banded with cramping muscles, letting her hang face downwards from Zaneeta's hip. Something about this posture, perhaps just the effort of keeping her head upright, quieted Kokila. But it did not always work, and never for long. Then the writhing and screams began again, until Zaneeta was near distraction. She had to keep her husband Rajit fed and her two older daughters as well, and having borne three daughters in a row she was already out of Rajit's favour, and the babe was intolerable. Zaneeta tried sleeping with her out in the women's ground, but the menstruating women, while sympathetic, did not appreciate the noise. They enjoyed getting out of the home away with the girls, and it was not a place for babies. So Zaneeta was driven to sleeping with Kokila out against the side of their family's house, where they both dozed fitfully between bouts of crying.

This went on for a couple of months, and then it ended. Afterwards the baby had a different look in her eye. The dai who had delivered her, Insef, checked her pulse and her irises and her urine, and declared that a different soul had indeed taken over the body, but that this was not really important – it happened to many babies, and could be an improvement, as usually in colic battles the stronger soul won out.

But after all that internal violence, Zaneeta regarded Kokila with trepi dation, and all through her infancy and childhood Kokila looked back at her, and at the rest of the world, with a kind of black wild look, as if she were uncertain where she was or what she was doing there. A confused and often angry little girl, in fact, although clever in manipu lating others, quick to caress or to yell, and very beautiful. She was strong, too, and quick, and by the time she was five she was more help than harm around the home. By then Zaneeta had had two more children, the younger of them a son, the sun of their lives, all thanks to Ganesh and Kartik, and with all the work there was to be done she appreciated Kokila's self reliance and quick abilities.

Naturally the new son, jahan, was the centre of the household, and Kokila only the most capable of Zaneeta's daughters, absorbed in the business of her childhood and youth, not particularly well known to Zaneeta compared to Rajit and jahan, whom naturally she had to study in depth.

So Kokila was free to follow her own thoughts for a few years. Insef often said that childhood was the best time in a woman's life, because as a girl she was somewhat free of men, and mostly just another worker around the house and in the fields. But the dai was old, and cynical about love and marriage, having seen their results so often turn bad, for herself and for others. Kokila was no more inclined to listen to her than to anyone else. To tell the truth she didn't seem to listen much to anybody. She watched everyone with that startled wary look you see on animals you come upon suddenly in the forest, and spoke little. She seemed to enjoy going off to do the daily work. She stayed silent and observant around her father, and the other children of the village didn't interest her, except for one girl, who had been found abandoned as an infant, one morning in the women's ground. This foundling Insef was raising to be the dai after her. Insef had named her Bihari, and often Kokila went to the dai's hut and took Bihari with her on her morning round of chores, not talking to her very much more than she did to anyone else, but pointing things out to her, and most of all, bothering to bring her along in the first place, which surprised Zaneeta. The foundling was nothing unusual, after all, just a little girl like all the rest. It was another of Kokila's mysteries.

In the months before monsoon, the work for Kokila and all the rest of them got harder for several weeks on end. Wake in the morning and stoke the fire. Cross the cool village, the air not yet dusty. Pick up Bihari at the dai's little hut in the woods. Downstream to the defecation grounds, wash afterwards, then back through the village to pick up the water jars and head upstream. Past the laundry pools, where women were already congregating, and on to the watering hole. Fill up and hump the big heavy jars back home, stopping several times to rest. Then off into the forest to forage for firewood. This could take most of the morning. Then back to the fields west of the village, where her father and his brothers had some land, to sow pulse of wheat and barley. They put it in over a few weeks, so that it would ripen through the long harvest month. This week's row was weak, the tops small, but Kokila thrust them in the ploughed earth without thought, then in the heat of the day sat with the other women and girls, mixing grain and water to make a pasty dough, throwing chapatis, cooking some of them. After that she went out to their cow. A few rhythmic downward tugs of her finger in its rectum started a spill of dung that she collected warm in her hands, slapped into patties with some straw for drying, and put on the stoneand turf wall bordering her father's field. After that she took some dried dung cakes by the house, put one on the fire, went out to the stream to wash her hands and the dirty clothes: four saris, dhotis, wraps. Then back to the house in the waning light of the day, the heat and dust making everything golden in the slant air, to the hearth in the central room of their house, to cook chapatis and daal bhat on the little clay stove next to the firepit.

Some time after dark Rajit would come home, and Zaneeta and the girls would surround him with care, and after he had eaten the daal bhat and chapatis he would relax and tell Zaneeta something about his day, as long as it had not gone too badly. If it had, he wouldn't speak of it. But usually he told them something of his juggling of land and cattle deals. The village families used marginal pastures as securities for new animals, or vice versa, and brokering trade in calves and kids and pasture rights was what her father did, mostly between Yelapur and Sivapur. Then also he was always making marriage arrangements for his daughters, a bad business as he had so many of them, but he made up dowries when he could, and had no hesitation in marrying them down. Had no choice, really.

So the evening would end and they slept on rush mattresses unrolled for the night on the floor, by the fire for warmth if it was cool, for the smoke's protection from mosquitos if it was warm. Another night would pass.

One evening after dinner, a few days before Durga Puja marked the end of the harvest, her father told her mother that he had arranged a possible marriage for Kokila, whose turn it was, to a man from Dharwar, the market village just the other side of Sivapur. The prospective husband was a Lingayat, like Rajit's family and most of Yelapur, and the third son of Dharwar's headman. He had quarrelled with his father, however, and this left him unable to ask Rajit for much of a dowry. Probably he was unmarriageable in Dharwar, Kokila guessed, but she was excited anyway. Zaneeta seemed pleased, and said she would look the candidate over during the Durga Puja.

Ordinary life was pegged to whichever festival was coming next, and the festivals all had different natures, colouring the feel of the days leading up to them. Thus the Car Festival of Krishna takes place in the monsoon, and its colour and gaiety stand in contrast to the lowering grey overhead; boys blow their palm leaf trumpets as if to hold off the rain by the blast of their breath, and everyone would go crazy from the noise if the blowing itself didn't reduce the trumpets quickly to palm leaves again. Then the Swing Festival of Krishna takes place at the end of monsoon, and the fair associated with it is full of stalls selling superfluous things like sitars and drums, or silks, or embroidered caps, or chairs and tables and cabinets. The time for the ld shifts through the year, making it seem a very human event somehow, free of the earth and its gods, and during it all the Muslims come to Sivapur to watch their elephant parade.

Then Durga Puja marks the harvest, the grand climax of the year, honouring the mother goddess and all her works.

So the women gathered on the first day, and mixed a batch of vermilion bindi paste, while drinking some of the dai's fiery chang, and they scattered after that, painted and giggling, following the Muslim drummers in the opening parade, shouting 'To the victory of Mother Durga!' The goddess's slant eyed statue, made of clay and dressed in coloured pith and gilding, looked faintly Tibetan. Placed around it were similarly dressed statues of Laksmi and Saraswati, and her sons Ganesh and Kartik. Two goats were tethered in turn to a sacrificial post before these statues and decapitated, the bleeding heads staring up from the dust.

The sacrifice of the buffalo was an even greater matter; a special priest came from Bbadrapur, with a big scimitar sharpened for the occasion. This was important, for if the blade didn't make it all the way through the buffalo's big neck, it meant that the goddess was displeased and had refused the offering. Boys spent the morning rubbing the skin on the top of its neck with ghee, to soften it.

This time the heavy stroke of the priest was successful, and all the shouting celebrants charged the body to make little balls of blood and dust, and throw them at each other, shrieking.

An hour or two later the mood was entirely different. One of the old men started singing 'The world is pain, its load past bearing', and then the women took it up, for it was dangerous for the men to be heard questioning the Great Mother; even the women had to pretend to be wounded demons in the song: 'Who is she that walks the fields as Death, She that fights and swoops as Death? A mother will not destroy her child, Her own flesh, creation's joy, yet we see the Killer looking here then there…'

Later, as night fell, the women went home and dressed in their best saris, and came back out and stood in two lines, and the boys and men shouted 'Victory to the Great Goddess!' and the music began, wild and carefree, the whole crowd dancing and talking around the bonfire, looking beautiful and dangerous in their firelit finery.

Then people from Dharwar turned up, and the dancing grew wild. Kokila's father took her by the hand out of the line and introduced her to the parents of her intended. Apparently a reconciliation had been patched together for the sake of this formality. The father she had seen before, headman of Dharwar as he was, named Shastri; the mother she had never seen before, as the father had pretensions of purdah, though he was not really wealthy.

The mother looked Kokila over with a sharp, not unfriendly eye, bindi paste running down between her eyebrows, face sweaty in the hot night. Possibly a decent mother in law. Then the son was produced: Gopal, third son of Shastri. Kokila nodded stiffly, looking aslant at him, not knowing what she felt. He was a thin faced, intent looking youth, perhaps nervous – she couldn't tell. She was taller than he was. But that might change.

They were swept back into their respective parties without exchanging a word. Nothing but that single nervous glance, and she did not see him again for three years. All the while, however, she knew they were destined to marry, and it was a good thing, as her affairs were therefore settled, and her father could stop worrying about her, and treat her without irritation.

Over time she learned from the women's gossip a bit more about the family she was going to join. Shastri was an unpopular headman. His latest offence was to have exiled a Dharwar blacksmith, for visiting a brother in the hills without asking his permission first. He had not called the panchayat together to discuss or approve this decision. He had never called the panchayat together, in fact, since inheriting the headman position from his deceased father a few years before. Why, people muttered, he and his eldest son ran Dharwar as if they were the zamindars of the place!

Kokila took all this in without too much concern, and spent as much time as she could with Bihari, who was learning the herbs the dai used as medicines. Thus when they were out collecting firewood, Bihari was also inspecting the forest floor and finding plants to bring back – bittersweet in sunny patches, whiteroot in wet shade, castor bean under saal trees among their roots, and so on. Back at their hut Kokila helped grind the dried plants, or otherwise prepare them, using oils or spirits, for use by Insef in her midwifery, for the most part: to stimulate contractions, relax the womb, reduce pain, open the cervix, slow bleeding and so on. There were scores of source plants and animal parts that the dai wanted them to learn. 'I'm old,' she would say, 'I'm thirty six, and my mother died at thirty. Her mother taught her the lore, and the dai who taught my grandmother was from a Dravidian village to the south, where names and even property were reckoned down through the women, and she taught my grandmother all the Dravidians know, and that goes back through all the dais of time to Saraswati, the goddess of learning herself, so we can't let it go forgotten, you must learn it and teach your daughters, so that birthing is made as easy as it can be, poor things, and as many kept alive as possible.' People said of Insef that she had a centipede in her head (this was mostly an expression said of eccentrics, although in fact mothers searched your ears for them if you had been lying with your head on the grass, and sometimes rinsed out your ears with oil, for centipedes detest oil), and she often talked as fast as you ever heard anyone talk, rambling on and on, mostly to herself, but Kokila liked to hear her.

And it took very little for Insef to convince Bihari of the importance of these things. She was a lively sweet girl with a good eye in the forest, a good memory for plants, and always a cheerful smile and a kind word for people. She was if anything too cheery and attractive, because in the year Kokila was to be married to Gopal, Shardul, his older brother, the eldest son of Shastri, soon to become Kokila's brother in law – one of those in her husband's family who would have the right to tell her what to do he started looking at Bihari in an interested way, and after that, no matter what she did, he watched her. It couldn't lead to any good, as Bihari was perhaps untouchable and therefore unmarriageable, and Insef did what she could to seclude her. But the festivals brought the single men and women together, and the daily life of the village afforded various glimpses and encounters as well. And Bihari was interested, anyway, even though she knew she was unmarriageable. She liked the idea of being normal, no matter how vehemently the dai warned her against it.

The day came when Kokila was married to Gopal and moved to Dharwan. Her new mother in law turned out to be withdrawn and irritable, and Gopal himself was no prize. An anxious man with little to say, dominated by his parents, never reconciled with his father, he at first tried to lord it over Kokila the way they did over him, but without much conviction, particularly after she had snapped at him a few times. He was used to that, and quickly enough she had the upper hand. She didn't much like him, and looked forward to dropping by to see Bihari and the dai in the forest. Really only the second son, Prithvi, seemed to her at all admirable in the headman's family, and he left early every day and had as little to do with his family as he could, keeping quiet with a distant air.

There was a lot of traffic between the two villages, more than Kokila had ever noticed before it became so important to her, and she made do – secretly taking a preparation that the dai had made for her, to keep from having a baby. She was fourteen years old but she wanted to wait.

Before long things went bad. The dai got so crippled by her swollen joints that Bihari had to take over her work, and she was much more frequently seen in Dharwar. Meanwhile Shastri and Shardul were conspiring to make money by betraying their village, changing the tax assessment with the agent of the zamindar, shifting it to the zamindar's great advantage, with Shastri skimming off some for himself. Basically they were colluding to change Dharwar over to the Muslim form of farm tax rather than the Hindu law. The Hindu law, which was a religious injunction and sacred, allowed a tax of no more than one sixth of all produce, while the Muslim claim was to everything, with whatever the farmers kept being a matter of the pleasure of the zamindar. In practice this often meant little difference, but Muslim allowances varied for crops and circumstance, and this is where Shastri and Shardul were helping the zamindar, by calculating what more could be taken without starving the villagers. Kokila lay there at night with Gopal, and through the open doorway as he slept she heard Shastri and Shardul going over the possibilities.

'Wheat and barley, two fifths when naturally watered, three tenths when watered by wheels.'

'That sounds good. Then dates, vines, green crops and gardens, onethird.'

'But summer crops one fourth.'

Eventually, to aid in this work, the zamindar gave Shardul the post of qanungo, assessor for the village; and he was already an awful man. And he still had an eye for Bihari. The night of the car festival he took her in the forest. From her account afterwards it was clear to Kokila that Bihari hadn't completely minded it, she relished telling the details, 'I was on my back in the mud, it was raining on my face and he was licking the rain off it, saying I love you I love you.'

'But he won't marry you,' Kokila pointed out, worried. 'And his brothers won't like it if they hear about this.'

'They won't hear. And it was so passionate, Kokila, you have no idea.' She knew Kokila was not impressed by Gopal.

'Yes yes. But it could lead to trouble. Is a few minutes' passion worth that?'

'It is, it is. Believe me.'

For a while she was happy, and sang all the old love songs, especially one they used to sing together, an old one: 'I like sleeping with somebody different, Often. It's nicest when my husband is in a far country, Far away. And there's rain in the streets at night and wind And nobody.'

But Bihari got pregnant, despite Insef's preparations. She tried to keep to herself, but with the dai crippled there were births that she had to attend, and so she went and her condition was noted, and people put together what they had seen or heard, and said that Shardul had got her with child. Then Prithvi's wife was giving birth and Bihari went to help, and the baby, a boy, died a few minutes after it was born, and outside their house Shastri struck Bihari in the face, calling her a witch and a whore.

All this Kokila heard about when she visited Prithvi's house, from Prithvi's wife, who said the birth had gone faster than anyone expected, and that she doubted Bihari had done anything bad. Kokila hurried off to the dai's hut, and found the gnarled old woman puffing with effort between Bihari's legs, trying to get the baby out. 'She's miscarrying,' she told Kokila. So Kokila took over and did what the dai told her to, forgetting her own family until night fell, when she remembered and exclaimed, 'I have to go!' and Bihari whispered, 'Go. It will be all right.'

Kokila rushed home through the forest to Dharwar, where her mother in law slapped her, but perhaps just to pre empt Gopal, who punched her hard in the arm and forbade her to return to the forest or Sivapur ever again, a ludicrous command given the realities of their life, and she almost said 'How will I fetch your water then?' but bit her lip and rubbed her arm, looking daggers at them, until she judged they were as frightened as they could get without beating her, after which she glared like Kali at the floor instead, and cleaned up after their impromptu dinner, which had been hobbled by her absence. They could not even cat without her. This fury was the thing she would remember for ever.

Before dawn next morning she slipped out with the water jugs and hurried through the wet grey forest, leaves scattered at every level from the ground to the high canopy overhead, and arrived at the dai's hut frightened and breathing hard.

Bihari was dead. The baby was dead, Bihari was dead, even the old woman lay stretched on her pallet, gasping with the pain of her exertions, looking as if she too might expire and leave this world at any minute. 'They went an hour ago,' she said. 'The baby should have lived, I don't know what happened. Bihari bled too much. I tried to stop it but I couldn't reach.'

'Teach me a poison.'

'What?'

'Teach me a good poison to use. I know you know them. Teach me the strongest one you know, right now.'

The old woman turned her head to the wall, weeping. Kokila pulled her around roughly and shouted, 'Teach me!'

The old woman looked over at the two bodies under a spread sari, but there was no one else there to be alarmed. Kokila began to raise a hand to threaten her, then stopped herself. 'Please,' she begged. 'I have to know.'

'It's too dangerous.'

'Not as dangerous as sticking a knife in Shastri.'

'No.'

'I'll stab him if you don't tell me, and they'll burn me on a bonfire.'

'They'll do that if you poison him.'

'No one will know.'

'They'll think I did it.'

'Everyone knows you can't move.'

'That won't matter. Or they'll think you did it.'

'I'll do it cleverly, believe me. I'll be at my parents'.'

'It won't matter. They'll blame us anyway. And Shardul is as bad as Shastri, or worse.'

'Tell me.'

The old woman looked into her face for a time. Then she rolled over, opened her sewing basket. She showed Kokila a small dried plant, then some berries. 'This is water hemlock. These are castor bean seeds. Grind the hemlock leaves to a paste, add seeds to the paste just before you place it. It's bitter, but you don't need much. A pinch in spicy food will kill without any taste. But it looks like poisoning afterwards, I warn you. It's not like being sick.'

So Kokila watched and made her plan. Shastri and Shardul continued their work for the zamindar, gaining new enemies every month. And it was rumoured Shardul had raped another girl in the forest, the night of Gaurl Hunnime, the woman's festival when mud images of Siva and Parvati are worshipped.

Meanwhile Kokila had learned every detail of their routine. Shastri and Shardul ate a leisurely breakfast, and then Shastri heard cases at the pavilion between his house and the well, while Shardul did accounting beside the house. In the heat of midday they napped and received visitors on the verandah facing north into the forest. In the afternoons of most days they ate a small meal while lying on couches, like little zamindars, then walked with Gopal or one or two associates to that day's market, where they 'did business' until the sun was low.

They returned to the village drunk or drinking, stumbling cheerfully through the dusk to their home and dinner. It was as steady a routine as any in the village.

So Kokila considered her plans while spending some of her firewood walks on the hunt for water hemlock and castor beans. These grew in the dankest parts of the forest, where it shaded into swamp, and hid every manner of dangerous creature, from mosquito to tiger. But at midday all such pests were resting; indeed in the hot months everything alive seemed sleeping at midday, even the drooping plants. Insects buzzed sleepily in the sleepy silence, and the two poison plants glowed in the dim light like little green lanterns. A prayer to Kali and she plucked them out, while she was bleeding, and pulled apart a bean pod for the seeds, and tucked them in the band of her sari, and hid them for the night in the forest near the defecation grounds, the day before the Durga Puja. That night she did not sleep at all, except for during short dreams, in which Bihari came to her and told her not to be sad. 'Bad things happen in every life,' Bihari said. 'No anger.' There was more but on waking it all slipped away, and Kokila went to her hiding place and found the plant parts and ground the hemlock leaves furiously together in a gourd with a stone, then cast the stone and gourd away in beds of ferns. With the paste on a leaf in her hand she went to Shastri's house, and waited until their afternoon nap, a day that seemed to last for ever; then put the little seeds in the paste, and smeared a tiny dab of the paste inside the doughballs made for Shastri and Shardul's afternoon snack. Then she ran from the house and through the forest, her heart taking flight like a deer ahead of her – too like a deer, in that she ran wild with the thrill of what she had done, and fell into an unseen deer snare, set by a man from Bhadrapur. By the time he found her, stunned and just starting to struggle in the lines, with some of the paste still on her fingers, and took her to Dharwar, Shastri and Shardul were dead, and Prithvi was the new headman of the village, and Kokila was declared a witch and poisoner and killed on the spot.

Two. Back in the Bardo

Back in the bardo Kokila and Bihari sat next to each other on the black floor of the universe, waiting their turn for judgment.

' You're not getting it,' said Bihari – also Bold, and Bel, and Borondi, and many, many other incarnations before, back to her original birth in the dawn of this Kali-yuga, this age of destruction, fourth of the four ages, when as a new soul she had spun out of the Void, an eruption of Being out of Non being, a miracle inexplicable by natural law and indicative of the existence of some higher realm, a realm above that even of the deva gods who now sat on the dais looking down at them. The realm that they all sought instinctively to return to.

Bihari continued: 'The dharma is a matter that can't be short changed, you have to work at it step by step, doing what you can in each given situation. You can't leap up to heaven.'

'I shit on all that,' Kokila said, making a rude gesture at the gods. She was still so angry she could spit, and terrified too, weeping and wiping her nose on the back of her hand, 'I'll be damned if I cooperate in such a horrible thing.'

'Yes, you will! That's why we keep almost losing you. That's why you never recognize your jati when you're in the world, why you keep doing your own family harm. We rise and fall together.'

'I don't see why.'

Now Shastri was being judged, kneeling with his hands together in supplication.

'He'd better be sent to hell!' Kokila shouted at the black god. 'The lowest nastiest level of hell!'

Bihari shook her head. 'It's step by step, as I said. Little steps up and down. And it's you they're likely to judge down, after what you did.'

'It was justice!' Kokila exclaimed with vehement bitterness. 'I took justice into my own hands because no one else would do it! And I would do it again, too.' She shouted up at the black god: 'Justice, damn it!'

'Shh!' Bihari said urgently. 'You'll get your turn. You don't want to be sent back as an animal.'

Kokila glared at her. 'We are animals already, and don't you forget it.' She took a slap at Bihari's arm and her hand went right through Bihari's which somewhat deflated her point. They were in the realm of souls, there was no denying it. 'Forget these gods,' she snarled, 'it's justice we need! I'll bring the revolt right into the bardo itself if that's what it takes!'

'First things first,' Bihari's said. 'One step at a time. just try to recognize your jati, and take care of them first. Then on from there.'

Three. Tiger Mercy

Kya the tiger moved through elephant grass, stomach full and fur warm in the sun. The grass was a green wall around her, pressing in on every side. Above her the grass tips waved in the breeze, crossing the blue of the sky. The grass grew in giant bunches, radiating out from their centre and bending over at the tops, and though the clumps were very close, her way forward was to find the narrow breaks at the bottom between clumps, pushing through the fallen stalks. Eventually she came to the edge of the grass, bordering a parklike maidan, burned annually by humans to keep it clear. Here grazed great numbers of chital and other deer, wild pig, and antelopes, especially the nilghai.

This morning there stood a lone wapiti doe, nibbling grass. Kya could imitate the sound of a wapiti stag, and when she was in heat, she did it just to do it; but now she simply waited. The doe sensed something and jolted away. But a young gaur wandered into the clearing, dark chestnut in colour, white socked. As it approached Kya lifted her left forepaw, straightened her tail back, and swayed slightly fore and back, getting her balance. Then she threw her tail up and leapt across the park in a series of twenty foot bounds, roaring all the while. She hit the gaur and knocked it down, bit its neck until it died.

She ate.

Ba loo ah!

Her kol babl, a jackal that had been kicked out of his pack and was now following her around, showed his ugly face at the far end of the maidan, and barked again. She growled at him to leave, and he slunk back into the grass.

When she was full she got up and padded downhill. The kol bahl and ravens would finish the gaur.

She came to the river that wound its way through this part of the country. The shallow expanse was studded with islands, each a little jungle under its canopy of sal and shisharn trees, and several of these held nests of hers, in the matted undergrowth of brake and creepers, under tamarisk trees overhanging the warm sand on the banks of the stream. The tiger padded over pebbles to the water's edge, drank. She stepped in the river and stood, feeling the current push her fur downstream. The water was clear and warmed by the sun. In the sand at the stream's edge were pawprints of a number of animals, and in the grass their scents: wapiti and mouse deer, jackal and hyena, rhinoceros and gaur, pig and pangolin; the whole village, but none in sight. She waded across to one of her islands, lay in the smashed grass of her bed, in the shade. A nap. No cubs this year, no need to hunt for another day or two: Kya yawned hugely in her bed. She fell asleep in the silence that extends out from tigers in the jungle.

She dreamed that she was a little brown village girl. Her tail twitched as she felt again the heat of a cooking fire, the feel of sex face to face, the impact of witch-killing stones. A sleeping rumble, big fangs exposed. The fear of it woke her up and she stirred, trying to fall back into a different dream.

Noises pulled her back into the world. Birds and monkeys were talking about the arrival of people, coming in from the west, no doubt to the ford they used downstream. Kya rose quickly and splashed off the island, slipped into thickets of elephant grass backing the curve of the stream. People could be dangerous, especially in groups. Individually they were helpless, it was only a question of picking one's moment and attacking from behind. But groups of them could drive animals into traps or ambushes, and that had been the end of many tigers, left skinned and beheaded. Once she had seen a male tiger try to walk a pole to some meat, slip on a slippery patch, and fall onto spikes hidden in leaves. People had arranged that.

But today, no drums, no shouts, no bells. And it was too late in the day for humans to hunt. More likely they were travellers. Kya slipped through the elephant grass unobtrusively, testing the air with ear and nose, and moving towards a long glade in the grass that would give her a view of their ford.

She settled down in a broken clump to watch them pass. She lay there with her eyes slitted.

There were other humans there, she saw, hiding like she was, scattered through the sal forest, lying in wait for the humans to arrive at the ford.

As she noticed this, a column of people reached the ford, and the hidden ones leapt out of their hiding places and screamed as they fired arrows at the others. A big hunt, it seemed. Kya settled down and watched more closely, ears flattened. She had come upon such a scene once before, and the number of humans killed had been surprising. It was where she had first tasted their flesh, as she had had twins to feed that summer. They were certainly the most dangerous beast in the jungle, apart from the elephant. They killed wantonly, like kol bahls sometimes did. There would be meat left here afterwards, no matter what else happened. Kya hunkered down and listened more than watched. Screams, cries, roars, shouts, trumpet blasts, death rattles; somewhat like the end of one of her hunts, only multiplied many times.

Eventually it grew quiet. The hunters left the scene. When they had been gone a long time, and the ordinary shush of the jungle had returned, Kya shifted onto her paws and looked around. The air reeked of blood, and her mouth watered. Dead bodies lay on both banks of the river, and were caught on snags against the banks of the stream, or had rolled into shallows. The tiger padded among them cautiously, pulled a large one into the shadows and ate some of it. But she was not very hungry. A noise caused her to slink swiftly back into the shadows, hair erect on her back, looking for the source of the sound, which had been a cracked branch. Now a footfall, over there. Ah. A human, still standing. A survivor.

Kya relaxed. Sated already, she approached the man out of no more than curiosity. He saw her and jumped backwards, startling her; his body had done it without his volition. He stood there looking at her in the way hurt animals sometimes did, accepting their fate; only in this one's face there was also a little roll of the eyes, as if to say, what else could go wrong, or, not this too. It was a gesture so like that of the girls she had watched gathering wood in the forest that she paused, unllungry. The hunters who had ambushed this man's group still occupied the trail to the nearest village. He would soon be caught and killed.

He expected her to do it. Humans were so sure of themselves, so sure they had the world worked out and were lords of it all. And with their monkey numbers and their arrows, so often they were right. This as much as anything was why she killed them when she did. They were a scrawny meal in all truth, which of course was not the main consideration, many a tiger had died trying to reach the tasty flesh of the porcupine; but humans tasted strange. With the things they ate, it was no surprise.

The confounding thing would be to help him; so she padded to his side. His teeth chattered with his trembling. He was no longer stunned, but holding his place on purpose. She nosed up one of his hands, rested it on her head between her ears. She held still until he stroked her head, then moved until he was stroking between her shoulders, and she was standing by his side, facing the same direction. Then very slowly she began to walk, indicating by her speed that he should come along. He did, hand stroking her back with every step.

She led him through the sal forest. Sunlight blinked through trees onto them. There was a sudden noise and clatter, then voices from the trail below, in the trees, and the hand clutched at her fur. She stopped and listened. Voices of the people-hunters. She growled, then coughed deeply, then gave a short roar.

Dead silence from below. In the absence of an organized beat, no human could find her up here. Sounds of them hurrying off came to her on the wind.

The way was now free. The man's hand was clenched in the fur between her shoulderblades. She turned her head and nuzzled his shoulder and he let go. He was more afraid of the other men than of her, which showed sense. He was like a helpless cub in some ways, but quick. Her own mother had held her by biting the same fold of skin between the shoulderblades that he had seized, and at the same pressure – as if he too had once been a tigress mother, and was making an unremembered appeal to her.

She walked the man slowly to the next ford, across it and along one of the deer trails. Wapiti were bigger than humans, and it was an easy trail. She took him to one of her entrances to the big nullah of the region, a steep and narrow ravine, so precipitous and cragbound that its floor was only accessible at a couple of points. This was one, and she led the man down to the ravine floor, then downstream towards a village where the people smelled much like he did. The man had to walk fast to match her gait, but she did not slow down. Only a few pools dotted the ravine floor, as it had been hot for a long time. Springs dripped over ferny rockfalls. As they padded and stumbled along she thought about it, and seemed to recall a hut, near the edge of the village she was headed for, that had smelled almost exactly like him. She led him through a dense grove of date palms filling the floor of the nullah, then still denser clumps of bamboo. Green coverts of jaman fruit bushes covered the sides of the ravine, mixed with the ber thorn bush, dotted with its acid orange fruit.

A gap in this fragrant shrubbery led her up and out of the nullah. She sniffed, a male tiger had been here recently, spraying the exit from the nullah to mark it as his. She growled, and the man clutched the fur between her shoulders again, held on for help as she climbed the last pitch out.

Back in the forested hills flanking the nullah, angling uphill, she had to nudge him with her shoulder – he wanted to contour the slope, or go directly down to the village, not up and around to it. A few bumps from her and he gave that up, and followed her without resistance. Now he had a male tiger to avoid too, but he did not know that.

She led him through the ruins of an old hill fort, overgrown with bamboo, a place that humans avoided, and that she had made her lair several winters running. She had borne her cubs here, near the human village and among human ruins, to make them safer from male tigers. The man recognized the place, and calmed down. They continued on towards the backside of the village.

At his pace it was a long way. His body hung from his joints, and she saw how hard it must be to walk on two feet. Never a moment's rest, always balancing, falling forwards and catching himself, as if always crossing a log over a creek. Shaky as a new cub, blind and wet.

But they reached the village margin, a barley field rippling in the afternoon light, and stopped in the last elephant grass under the sal trees. The barley field had furrows of earth into which they poured water,

Clever monkeys that they were, tiptoeing through life in their perpetual balancing act.

At the sight of the field, the exhausted creature looked up and around. He led the tiger now, around the field, and Kya followed him closer to the village than she would have dared in most situations, though the afternoon's mix of sun and shadow provided her with maximum cover, rendering her nearly invisible to others, a mere mind ripple in the landscape, if she moved quickly. But she had to keep to his faltering pace. It took a bit of boldness; but there were bold tigers and timid tigers, and she was one of the bold ones.

Finally she stopped. A hut lay before them, under a pipal tree. The man pointed it out to her. She sniffed; it was his home, sure enough. He whispered in his language, gave her a final squeeze expressing his gratitude, and then he was stumbling forwards through the barley, in the last stages of exhaustion. When he reached the door there were cries from inside, and a woman and two children rushed out and hugged him. But then to the tiger's surprise an older man strode out heavily and beat him across the back, several heavy blows.

The tiger settled down to watch.

The older man refused to allow her refugee into the hut. The woman and children brought out food to him. Finally he curled up outside the door, on the ground, and slept.

Through the following days he remained in disfavour with the old man, though he fed at the house, and worked in the fields around it. Kya watched and saw the pattern of his life, strange as it was. It seemed also that he had forgotten her; or would not risk the jungle to come out and look for her. Or did not imagine she was still there, perhaps.

She was surprised, therefore, when he came out one dusk with his hands held before him, a bird carcass plucked and cooked, it appeared even boned! He walked right to her, and greeted her very quietly and respectfully, holding out the offering. He was tentative, frightened; he did not know that when her whiskers were down she was feeling relaxed. The offered titbit smelled of its own hot juices, and some other mix of scents – nutmeg, lavender – she took it gently in her mouth and let it cool, tasting it between her teeth as it dripped hot on her tongue. A very odd perfumed meat. She chewed it, growling a little purr growl, and swallowed. He said his farewells and backed away, returning to the hut.

After that she came by from time to time in the lancing horizontal light of sunrise, when he was going off to work. After a while he usually came out with a gift for her, some scrap or morsel, nothing like the bird, but tastier than it had been, simple uncooked bits of meat; somehow he knew. He still slept outside the hut, and one cold night she slunk in and slept curled around him, till dawn greyed the skies. The monkeys in the trees were scandalized.

Then the old man beat him again, hard enough to make him bleed from one car. Kya went off to her hill fort then, growling and making long scratches in the ground. The huge mohua tree on the hill was dropping its great weight of flowers, and she ate some of the fleshy, intoxicating petals. She returned to the village perimeter, and deliberately sniffed out the old man, and found him on the well-travelled road to the village west of theirs. He had met several other men there, and they talked for a long time, drinking fermented drinks and getting drunk. He laughed like her kol bahl.

On his way home she struck him down and killed him with a bite to the neck. She ate part of his entrails, tasting again all the strange tastes; they ate such odd things that they ended up tasting peculiar themselves, rich and various. Not unlike the first offering her young man had brought out to her. An acquired taste; and perhaps she had acquired it.

Other people were hurrying towards them now, and she slipped away, hearing behind her their cries, shocked and then dismayed, although with that note of triumph or celebration one often heard in monkeys relating bad news – that whatever it was, it hadn't happened to them.

No one would care about that old man, he had left this life as lonely as a male tiger, unregretted even by those in his own hut. It was not his death but the presence of a man eating tiger that these people lamented. Tigers who learned to like manfiesh were dangerous; usually they were mothers who were having trouble feeding their cubs, or old males who had broken their fangs; so that they were likely to do it often. Certainly a campaign to exterminate her would now begin. But she did not regret the killing. On the contrary, she leapt through the trees and shadows like a young tigress just out on her own, licking her chops and growling. Kya, Queen of the jungle!

But the next time she came to visit her young man, he brought out a morsel of goat meat, and then tapped her gently on the nose, talking very seriously. He was warning ber of something, and was worried that the details of the warning were escaping her, which they were. Next time she came by he shouted at her to leave, and even threw rocks at her, but it was too late; she hit a trip line connected to spring loaded bows, and poisoned arrows pierced her and she died.

Four. Akbar

As they carried the body of the tigress into the village, four men working hard, huffing and puffing under its weight as it swung by its tied paws from a stout bamboo bouncing on their shoulders, Bistami understood: God is in all things. And God, may all his ninety nine names prosper and fall into our souls, did not want any killing. From the doorway of his older brother's hut, Bistami shouted through his tears, 'She was my sister, she was my aunt, she saved me from the Hindu rebels, you ought not to have killed her, she was protecting us all!'

But of course no one was listening. No one understands us, not ever.

And it was perhaps just as well, given that this tigress had undoubtedly killed his brother. But he would have given his brother's life ten times over for the sake of that tiger.

Despite himself he followed the procession into the village centre. Everyone was drinking rahkshi, and the drummers were running out of their homes with their drums, pounding happily. 'Kya Kya Kya Kya, leave us alone forevermore!' A tiger holiday was upon them, and the rest of the day and perhaps the next would be devoted to the impromptu festivalizing. They would burn its whiskers to make sure that its soul would not pass into a killer in another world. The whiskers were poisonous: one ground up in tiger meat would kill a man, while a whole one placed inside a tender bamboo shoot would give those who ate it cysts, leading to a slower death. Or so it was said. The hypochondriacal Chinese believed in the efficacious properties of almost everything, including every part of tigers, it seemed. Much of the body of this Kya would be saved and taken north by traders, no doubt. The skin would go to the zamindar.

Bistami sat miserably on the ground at the edge of the village centre. There was no one to explain himself to. He had done everything he could to warn the tigress off, but to no avail. He had addressed her not as Kya but as madam, or Madam Thirty, which was what the villagers called tigers when they were out in the jungle, so as not to offend them. He had given her offerings, and checked to make sure that the markings on her forehead did not form the letter 's', a sign that the beast was a were-tiger, and would change to human form for good at the moment of death. That had not happened, and indeed there had been no 's' on her forehead; the mark was more like a birdwing in flight. He had kept eye contact with ber, as one is supposed to do when coming on tigers unexpectedly; he had stayed calm, and been saved by her from death. Indeed all the stories he had heard of helpful tigers – the one that had led two lost children back to the village, the one who had kissed a sleeping hunter on the cheek – all these stories paled in comparison to his, although they had prepared him as well. She had been his sister, and now he was distraught with grief.

The villagers began to dismember her body. Bistami left the village, unable to watch. His brutal older brother was dead; his other relatives, like his brother, had no sympathy for his sufi interests. 'The high look to the high, and so they can see each other from a great distance off.' But he was so far away from anyone of wisdom, he could see nothing at all. He remembered what his sufi master Tutsami had told him when he left Allahabad: 'Keep the haj in your heart, and make your way to Mecca as Allah wills it. Slow or fast, but always on your tariqat, the path to enlightenment.'

He gathered his few possessions in his shoulder bag. The death of the tiger began to take on the cast of a destiny, a message to Bistami, to accept the gift of God and put it to use in his actions, and regret nothing. So that now it was time to say Thank you God, thank you Kya my sister, and leave his home village for ever.

Bistami walked to Agra, and there he spent the last of his money to buy a sufi wanderer's robe. He asked for shelter in the sufi lodge, a long old building in the southernmost district of the old capital, and he bathed in their pool, purifying himself inside and out.

Then he left the city and walked out to Fatepur Sikri, the new capital of Akbar's empire. He saw that the not yet completed city replicated in stone the vast tent camps of Mughal armies, even down to marble pillars standing free of the walls, like tent poles. The city was dusty, or muddy, its white stone already stained. The trees were all short, the gardens raw and new. The long wall of the Emperor's palace fronted the great avenue that bisected the city north and south, leading to a big marble mosque, and a dargah Bistami had heard about in Agra, the tomb of the sufi saint Shaikh Salim Chishti. At the end of his long life Chishti had instructed the young Akbar, and now his memory was said to be Akbar's strongest link to Islam. And this same Chishti in his youth had travelled in Iran, and studied under Shah Esmail, who had also instructed Bistami's master Tutsami.

So Bistami approached Chishti's great white tomb walking backwards, and reciting from the Quran. 'In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful. Be patient with those who call upon their Lord at morn and even, seeking his face: and let not thine eyes be turned away from them in quest of the pomp of this life; neither obey him whose heart we have made careless of the remembrance of Us, and who followeth his own lusts, and whose ways are unbridled.'

At the entry he prostrated himself towards Mecca and said the morning prayer, then entered the walled in courtyard of the tomb, and made his tribute to Chishti. Others were doing the same, of course, and when he had finished paying his respects he spoke to some of them, describing his journey all the way back to his time in Iran, eliding the stops along the way. Eventually he told this tale to one of the ulama of Akbar's own court, and emphasized his master's relation by teaching to Chishti, and returned to his prayers. He came back to the tomb day after day, establishing a routine of prayer, purification rites, the answering of questions from pilgrims who spoke only Persian, and socializing with all the people visiting the shrine. This finally led to the grandson of Chishti speaking to him, and this man then spoke well of him to Akbar, or so he heard. He ate his one meal a day at the sufi lodge, and persevered, hungry but hopeful.

One morning at the very first light, when he was already in the tomb's courtyard at prayers, the Emperor Akbar himself came in to the shrine, and took up an ordinary broom, and swept the courtyard. It was a cool morning, the night chill still in the air, and yet Bistami was sweating as Akbar finished his devotions, and Chishti's grandson arrived, and asked Bistami to come when he had finished his prayers, to be introduced.

'A great honour,' he replied, and returned to his prayers, murmuring them thoughtlessly as the things he might say raced through his head; and he wondered how long he should delay before approaching the Emperor, to show that prayer came first. The tomb was still relatively empty and cool, the sun just rising. When it cleared the trees entirely, Bistami stood and walked to the Emperor and Chishti's grandson, and bowed deeply. Greeting, obeisances, and then he was obeying a polite request to tell his story to the watchful young man in the imperial finery, whose unblinking gaze never left his face, or indeed his eyes. Study in Iran with Tutsami, pilgrimage to Qom, return home, a year's work as a teacher of the Quran in Gujarat, a journey to visit his family, ambush by Hindu rebels, salvation by tiger: by the end of the story Bistami had been approved, he could see it.

'We welcome you,' Akbar said. The whole city of Fatepur Sikri served to show how devout he was, as well as displaying his ability to create devotion in others. Now he had seen Bistami's devotion, exhibited in all the forms of piety, and as they continued their conversation, and the tomb began to fill with the day's visitors, Bistami managed to lead the discussion to the one hadith he knew that had come by way of Chishti to Iran, so that the isnad, or genealogy of the phrase, made a short link between his education and the Emperor's.

'I had it from Tutsami, who had it from the Shah Esmail, teacher of Shaikh Chishti, who had it from Bahr ibn Kaniz al Saqqa, that Uthman ibn Saj related to him, from Said ibn Jubair, God's mercy on him, who said, "Let him give a general greeting to all the Muslims, including the young boys and the adolescents, and when he has arrived at class, let him restrain whoever was sitting from standing up for him, since neglecting this is one of the banes of the soul. – Akbar frowned, trying to follow it. It occurred to Bistami that it could be interpreted as meaning that he had been the one who had refrained from asking for any kind of obeisance from the other. He began to sweat in the chill morning air.

Akbar turned to one of his retainers, standing unobtrusively against the marble wall of the tomb. 'Bring this man with us on our return to the palace.'

After another hour of prayer for Bistami, and consultations for Akbar, who was relaxed but increasingly terse as the morning wore on and the line of supplicants grew rather than shrank before him, the Emperor bid the line to disperse and come back again later. After that he led Bistami and his retinue through the raw worksites of the city, to his palace.

The city was being built in the shape of a big square, like any other Mughal military encampment – indeed, in the form of the empire itself, Bistami's guard told him, which was a quadrilateral protected by the four cities of Lahore, Agra, Allahabad and Ajimer. These were all big compared to the new capital, and Bistami's guard was particularly fond of Agra, where he had worked in the construction of the Emperor's great fort, now finished. 'Inside it are more than five hundred buildings,' he said as he must always have said when speaking of it. He was of the opinion that Akbar had founded Fatepur Sikri because the fort of Agra was mostly complete, and the Emperor liked beginning great projects. 'He is a builder, that one, he will remake the world itself before he is done, I assure you. Islam has never had such a servant as him.'

'It must be so,' Bistami said, looking around at the construction, white buildings rising out of cocoons of scaffolding, set in seas of black mud. 'Praise be to God.'

The guard, whose name was Husain Ali, looked at Bistami suspi ciously. Pious pilgrims were no doubt a commonplace. He led Bistami after the Emperor and through the gate of the new palace. Inside the outer wall were gardens that looked as if they had been in place for years: big pine trees over jasmines, flower beds in all directions. The palace itself was smaller than the mosque, or the tomb of Chishti, but exquisite in every detail. A white marble tent, broad and low, its interior filled by room after cool room, all surrounding a fountain filled central courtyard and garden. The whole wing at the back of the courtyard consisted of a long gallery walled with paintings: hunting scenes, the skies always turquoise; the dogs and deer and lions rendered to the life; the skirted hunters carrying bow or flintlock. Opposite these scenes were suites of white walled rooms, finished but empty. Bistami was given one of these to stay in.

That night's meal was a feast, set sumptuously in a long hall opening onto the central courtyard. As it proceeded, Bistami understood that it was simply the ordinary evening meal in the palace. He ate roast quail, cucumber yoghurts, shredded pork in curry, and tastes of many dishes he didn't recognize.

That began a dreamlike period for him, in which he felt like Manjushri in the tale, fallen upwards into the land of milk and honey. Food dominated his days and his thoughts. One day he was visited in his rooms by a team of black slaves dressed better than he was, who quickly brought him up to their level of raiment and beyond, outfitting him in a fine white gown that looked well but hung heavily on him. After that he was given another audience with the Emperor.

This meeting, surrounded by sharp eyed counsellors, generals and imperial retainers of all kinds, felt very different from the dawn meeting at the tomb, when two young men out to smell the morning air and see the sunrise, and sing the glory of Allah's world, had spoken to each other chest to chest. And yet in all these trappings, it was the same face looking at him – curious, serious, interested in what he had to say. Focusing on that face allowed Bistami to relax.

The Emperor said, 'We invite you to join us and share your knowledge of the law. In return for your wisdom, and the rendering of judg ments on certain cases and questions that will be brought before you, you will be made zamindar of the late Shah Muzaffar's estates, may Allah honour his name.'

'Praise be to God,' Bistami murmured, looking down. 'I will ask God's help in fulfilling this great task to your satisfaction.'

Even with his gaze steadfast to the ground, or returned to the Emperor's face, Bistami could sense that some of the imperial retinue were less than pleased by this decision. But afterwards, some who had seemed least pleased came up to him and introduced themselves, spoke kindly, led him around the palace, probed in a most gentle way concerning his background and history, and told him more about the estate he was to administer. This, it appeared, would mostly be overseen by local assistants on site, and was mainly his title and source of income. And in return he was to outfit and provide one hundred soldiers to the Emperor's armies, when required, and teach all he knew of the Quran, and judge various civil disputes given to his charge.

'There are disputes that only the ulama are fit to judge,' the Emperor's adviser Raja Todor Mai told him. 'The Emperor has great responsibilities. The empire itself is not yet secure from its enemies. Akbar's grandfather Babur came here from the Punjab, and established a Muslim kingdom only forty years ago, and the infidels still attack us from the south and the east. Every year some campaigns are necessary to drive them back. All the faithful in his empire are under his care, in theory, but the burden of his responsibilities means in practice he simp y oesn't have time.'

'Of course not.'

'Meanwhile, there is no other system of justice for disputes among people. As the law is based on the Quran, the qadis, the ulama and other holy men such as yourself are the logical choice to take on this burden.'

'Of course.'

In the weeks following, Bistami did indeed find himself sitting in judgment in disputes brought before him by some of the Emperor's slave assistants. Two men claimed the same land; Bistami asked where their fathers had lived, and their fathers' fathers, and determined that one's family had lived in the region longer than the other's. In ways like this he made his judgments.

More new clothes came from the tailors; a new house and complete retinue of servants and slaves were provided; he was given a trunk of gold and silver coins numbering one hundred thousand. And for all this he merely had to consult the Quran and recall the hadith he had learned (really very few, and even fewer relevant), and render judgments that were usually obvious to all. When they were not obvious, he made them as best he could and retired to the mosque and prayed uneasily, then attended the Emperor and the evening meal. He went on his own at dawn every day to the tomb of Chishti, and so saw the Emperor again in the same informal circumstances as their first meeting, perhaps once or twice a month enough to keep the very busy Emperor aware of his existence. He always had prepared the story he would relate to Akbar that day, when asked what he had been doing; each story was chosen for what it might teach the Emperor, about himself, or Bistami, or the empire or the world. Surely a decent and thoughtful lesson was the least he could do for the incredible bounty that Akbar had bestowed on him.

One morning he told him the story from Sura Eighteen, about the men who lived in a city that had forsaken God, and God took them apart to a cave, and made them to sleep as it were a single night, to them; and when they went out they found that three hundred and nine years had passed. 'Thus with your work, mighty Akbar, you shoot us into the future.'

Another morning he told him the story of El Khadir, the reputed vizier of Dhoulkarnain, who was said to have drunk of the fountain of life, by virtue of which he still lives, and will live till the day of judgment; who appeared, clad in green robes, to Muslims in distress, to help them. 'Thus your work here, great Akbar, will continue deathless through the years to help Muslims in distress.'

The Emperor appeared to appreciate these cool dewy conversations. He invited Bistami to join him in several hunts, and Bistami and his retinue occupied a big white tent, and spent the hot days riding horses as they crashed through the jungle after the howling dogs or beaters; or, more to Bistami's taste, sat on the howdah of an elephant, and watched the great falcons leave Akbar's wrist and soar high above, thence to dive in terrific stoops onto hare or fowl. Akbar fixed his attention on you in just the same way the falcons did.

Akbar loved his falcons, in fact, as kin, and always spent the days of the hunt in excellent spirits. He would call Bistami to his side to speak a blessing over the great birds, who looked off to the horizon, unimpressed. Then they were cast into the air, and flapped hard as they made their way quickly up to their hunting height, splaying wide their big wing feathers. When they were settled in their gyres overhead, a few doves were released. These birds flew as fast as they could for cover in trees or bush, but they were not usually fast enough to escape the attack of the hawks. Their broken bodies were returned by the great raptors to the feet of the Emperor's retainers, and then the falcons flew back to Akbar's wrist, where they were greeted with a stare as fixed as their own, and bits of raw mutton.

It was just such a happy day that was interrupted by bad news from the south. A messenger arrived saying that Adharn Khan's campaign against the Sultan of Malwa, Baz Bahadur, had succeeded, but that the Khan's army had gone on to slaughter all of the captured men, women and children of the town of Malwa, including many Muslim theologians, and even some Sayyids, that is to say direct descendants of the Prophet.

Akbar's fair complexion turned red all over his neck and face, leaving only the mole on the left side of his face untouched, like a white raisin embedded in his skin. 'No more,' he declared to his falcon, and then he began to give orders, the bird thrown to its falconer and the hunt forgotten. 'He thinks I am still under age.'

He rode off hard, leaving all his retinue behind except for Pir Muhammed Khan, his most trusted general. Bistami heard later that Akbar had personally relieved Adharn Khan of his command.

Bistami had the Chishti tomb to himself for a month. Then he found the Emperor there one morning, with a dark look. Adharn Khan had been replaced as vakil, the chief minister, by Zein. 'It will enrage him but it must be done,' Akbar said. 'We will have to put him under house arrest.'

Bistami nodded and continued to sweep the cool dry floor of the inner chamber. The idea of Adharn Khan under permanent guard, usually a prelude to execution, was disturbing to contemplate. He had a lot of friends in Agra. He might be so bold as to try to rebel. As the Emperor must very well know.

Indeed, two days later, when Bistami was standing at the edge of Akbar's afternoon group at the palace, he was frightened but not surprised to see Adharn Khan appear and stamp to the top of the stairs, armed, bloody, shouting that he had killed Zein not an hour before, in the man's own audience chamber, for usurping what was rightfully his.

Hearing this Akbar went red faced again, and struck the Khan hard on the side of the head with his drinking cup. He grabbed the man by the front of his jacket, and pulled him across the room. The slightest resistance from Adharn would have been instant death from the Emperor's guards, who stood at each side of them, swords at the ready; and so he allowed himself to be dragged out to the balcony, where Akbar flung him over the railing into space. Then Akbar, redder than ever, raced down the stairs, ran to the half conscious Khan, seized him by the hair and dragged him bodily up the stairs, armoured though he was, over the carpet and out to the balcony, where he heaved him over the rail again. Adhere Khan hit the patio below with a loose heavy thud.

Indeed he had been killed. The Emperor retired into his private quarters in the palace.

The next morning Bistami swept the shrine of Chishti with a tightness all through his body.

Akbar appeared, and Bistami's heart hammered in his chest. Akbar seemed calm, though distracted. The tomb was a place to give himself some serenity. But the vigorous brushing he gave the floor that Bistami had already cleaned belied the calm of his speech. He's the Emperor, Bistami thought suddenly, he can do what he wants.

But then again, as a Muslim emperor, he was subservient to God, and the sharia. All powerful and yet all submissive, all at once. No wonder he seemed thoughtful to the point of distraction, sweeping the shrine in the early morning. It was hard to imagine him mad with anger, like a bull elephant in must, throwing a man bodily to his death. There was within him a deep well of rage.

Rebellion of ostensibly Muslim subjects struck deepest into this well. A new rebellion in the Punjab was reported, an army sent to put it down. The innocents of the region were spared, and even those who had fought for the rebellion. But its leaders, some forty of them, were brought to Agra and placed in a circle of war elephants that had long blades like giant swords attached to their tusks. The elephants were unleashed on the traitors, who screamed as they were mowed down and trampled underfoot, their bodies then tossed high in the air by the blood maddened elephants. Bistami had not realized that elephants could be driven to such blood lust. Akbar stood high on a throne howdah perched on the biggest elephant of all, an elephant that stood still before the spectacle, the two of them observing the carnage.

Some days later, when the Emperor came to the tomb at dawn, it felt strange to sweep the shadowed courtyard of the tomb with him. Bistami swept assiduously, trying not to meet Akbar's gaze.

Finally he had to acknowledge the sovereign's presence. Akbar was already staring at him.

'You seem troubled,' Akbar said.

'No, mighty Akbar – not at all.'

'You don't approve of the execution of traitors to Islam?'

'Not at all, yes, of course I do.'

Akbar stared at him in the same way one of his falcons would have.

'But didn't Ibn Khaldun say that the caliph has to submit to Allah in the same way as the humblest slave? Didn't he say that the caliph has a duty to obey Muslim law? And doesn't Muslim law forbid torture of prisoners? Isn't that Khaldun's point?'

'Khaldun was just a historian,' Bistami said.

Akbar laughed. 'And what about the hadith, that has it from Abu Taiba by way of Murra Ibn Harridan by way of Sufyan al Thawri, who had it related to him by Ali Ibn Abi Talaib, that the Messenger of God, may God bless his name for ever, said, "You shall not torture slaves?" What about the lines of the Quran that command the ruler to imitate Allah and to show compassion and mercy to prisoners? Did I not break the spirit of these commandments, 0 wise sufi pilgrim?'

Bistami studied the flagstones of the courtyard. 'Perhaps so, great Akbar. Only you know.'

Akbar regarded him. 'Leave the tomb of Chishti,' he said.

Bistami hurried out of the gate.

The next time Bistami saw Akbar was at the palace, where he had been commanded to appear; as it turned out, to explain why, as the Emperor put it icily, 'your friends in Gujarat are rebelling against me'?

Bistami said uneasily, 'I left Ahmadabad precisely because there was so much strife. The mirzas were always having trouble. The King Muzaffar Shah the Third was no longer in control. You know all this. This is why you took Gujarat under your protection.'

Akbar nodded, seeming to remember that campaign. 'But now Husain Mirza has come back out of the Deccan, and many of the nobles of Gujarat have joined him in rebellion. If word spreads that I can be defied so easily, who knows what will follow?'

'Surely Gujarat must be retaken,' Bistami said uncertainly; perhaps, as last time, this was exactly what Akbar did not want to hear. What was expected of Bistami was not clear to him; he was an official of the court, a qadi, but his advice before had all been religious, or legal. Now, with a previous residence of his in revolt, he was apparently on the spot; not where one wanted to be when Akbar was angry.

'It may already be too late,' Akbar said. 'The coast is two months away.'

'Must it be?' Bistami asked. 'I have made the trip by myself in ten days. Perhaps if you took only your best hundreds, on female camels, you could surprise the rebels.'

Akbar favoured him with his hawk look. He called for Raja Todor Mal, and soon it was arranged as Bistami had suggested. A cavalry of three thousand soldiers, led by Akbar, with Bistami ordered along, covered the distance between Agra and Ahmadabad in eleven dusty long days, and this cavalry, made strong and bold by the swift march, shattered a ragtag horde of many thousands of rebels, fifteen thousand by one general's count, most of them killed in the battle.

Bistami spent that day on camelback, following the main charges of the front, trying to stay within sight of Akbar, and when that failed, helping wounded men into the shade. Even without Akbar's great siege guns, the noise of the battle was shocking – most of it created by the screaming of men and camels. Dust blanketing the hot air smelled of blood.

Late in the afternoon, desperately thirsty, Bistami made his way down to the river. Scores of wounded and dying were already there, staining the river red. Even at the upstream edge of the crowd it was impossible to drink a mouthful that did not taste of blood.

Then Raja Todor Mal and a gang of soldiers arrived among them, executing with swords the mirzas and Afghans who had led the rebellion. One of the mirzas caught sight of Bistami and cried out 'Bistami, save me! Save me!'

The next moment he was headless, his body pouring its blood onto the bankside from the open neck. Bistami turned away, Raja Todor Mal staring after him.

Clearly Akbar heard of this later, for all during the leisurely march back to Fatepur Sikri, despite the triumphant nature of the procession, and Akbar's evident high spirits, he did not call Bistami into his presence. This despite the fact that the lightning assault on the rebels had been Bistami's idea. Or perhaps this also was part of it. Raja Todor Mal and his cronies could not be pleased by that.

It looked bad, and nothing in the great victory festival on their return to Fatepur Sikri, only forty three days after their departure, made Bistami feel any better. On the contrary, he felt more and more apprehensive, as the days passed and Akbar did not come to the tomb of Chishti.

Instead, one morning, three guards appeared there. They had been assigned to guard Bistami at the tomb, also back at his own compound. They informed him that he was not allowed to go anywhere else but these two places. He was under house arrest.

This was the usual prelude to the interrogation and execution of traitors. Bistami could see in his guards' eyes that this time was no exception, and that they considered him a dead man. It was hard for him to believe that Akbar had turned on him; he struggled to understand it. Fear grew daily in him. The image of the mirza's headless body, gushing blood, kept recurring to him, and each time it did the blood in his own body would pound through him as if testing the means of escape, eager for release in a bursting red fountain.

He went to the Chishti tomb on one of these frightful mornings, and decided not to leave it. He sent orders for one of his retainers to bring him food every day at sundown, and after eating outside the gate of the tomb, he slept on a mat in the corner of the courtyard. He fasted through the days as if it were Ramadan, and alternated days reciting from the Quran and from Rumi's 'Mathnawi', and other Persian sufi texts. Some part of him hoped and expected that one of the guards would speak Persian, so that the words of the Mowlana, Rumi the great poet and voice of the sufis, would be understood as they came pouring out of him.

'Here are the miracle signs you want,' he would say in a loud voice, that you cry through the night and get up at dawn, asking that in the absence of what you ask for, your day gets dark, your neck thin as a spindle, that what you give away is all you own, that you sacrifice belongings, sleep, health, your head, that you often sit down in a fire like aloes wood, and often go out to meet a blade like a battered helmet. When acts of helplessness become habitual, those are the signs. You run back and forth listening for unusual events, peering into the faces of travellers. Why are you looking at me like a madman? I have lost a Friend. Please forgive me. Searching like that does not fail. There will come a rider who holds you close. You faint and gibber. The uninitiated say, he's faking. How could they know? Water washes over a beached fish.

'Blessed is that intelligence into whose heart's ear from heaven the sound of "come hither" is coming. The defiled ear hears not that sound – only the deserving gets his desserts. Defile not your eye with human cheek and mole, for that emperor of eternal life is coming; and if it has become defiled, wash it with tears, for the cure comes from those tears. A caravan of sugar has arrived from Egypt; the sound of a footfall and bell is coming. Ha, be silent, for to complete the ode our speaking King is coming.'

After many days of that, Bistami began to repeat the Quran sura by sura, returning often to the first sura, the Opening of the Book, the Fatiha, the Healer, which the guards would never fail to recognize: 'Praise be to God, Lord of the worlds! The compassionate, the merciful! King on the day of reckoning! Thee only do we worship, and to Thee do we cry for help. Guide Thou us on the straight path, the path of those to whom Thou has been gracious; – and with whom Thou are not angry, and who go not astray.'

This great opening prayer, so appropriate to his situation, Bistami repeated hundreds of times per day. Sometimes he repeated only the prayer 'Sufficient for us is God and excellent the Protector'; once he said it thirty three thousand times in a row. Then he switched to 'Allah is merciful, submit to Allah, Allah is merciful, submit to Allah', which he repeated until his mouth was parched, his voice hoarse, and the muscles of his face cramped with exhaustion.

All the while he swept the courtyard clear, and then all the rooms of the shrine, one by one, and he filled the lamps and trimmed the wicks, and swept some more, looking at the skies as they changed through the days, and he said the same things over and over, feeling the wind push through him, watching the leaves of the trees surrounding the shrine pulse, each in its own transparent light. Arabic is learning, but Persian is sugar. He tasted his food at sundown as he had never tasted food before. Nevertheless it became easy to fast, perhaps because it was winter and the days were a bit shorter. Fear still stabbed him frequently, causing his blood to surge in him at enormous pressure, and he prayed aloud in every waking moment, no doubt driving his guards mad with the droning of it.

Eventually the whole world contracted to the tomb, and he began to forget the things that had happened before to him, or the things that presumably were still happening in the world outside the shrine grounds. He forgot them. His mind was becoming clarified, indeed everything in the world seemed to be becoming slightly transparent. He could see into leaves, and sometimes through them, as if they were made of glass; and it was the same with the white marble and alabaster of the tomb, which glowed as if alive in the dusks; and with his own flesh. 'All save the face of God doth perish. To Him shall we return.' These were the words from the Quran embedded in the Mowlana's beautiful poem of reincarnation,

'I died as mineral and became a plant, I died as plant and rose as animal, I died as animal and I was Man. Why should I fear? When was I less by dying? Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar With angels blessed; but even from angelhood I must pass on: "All save the face of God doth perish." When I have sacrificed my angelic soul, I shall become what no mind has ever conceived, Oh, let me not exist! for non existence Proclaims in organ tones: "To Him shall we return".'

He repeated this poem a thousand times, always whispering the last part, for fear the guards would report to Akbar that he was preparing himself for death.

Days passed; weeks passed. He grew hungrier, and hypersensitive to all tastes and smells, then to the air and the light. He could feel the nights that stayed hot and steamy as if they were blankets swaddling him, and in the brief cool of dawn he walked around sweeping and praying, looking at the sky over the leafy trees growing lighter and lighter; and then one morning as dawn grew, everything began to turn into light. '0 he, 0 he who is He, 0 he who is naught but He!' Over and over he cried these words out into the world of light, and even the words were shards of light bursting out of his mouth. The tomb became a thing of pure white light, glowing in the cool green light of the trees, the trees of green light, and the fountain poured its water of light up into the lit air, and the walls of the courtyard were bricks of light, and everything was light, pulsing lightly. He could see through the Earth, and back through time, over a Khyber Pass made of slabs of yellow light, back to the time of his birth, in the tenth day of Moharram, the day when the Imam Hosain, the only living grandson of Mohammed, had died defending the faith, and he saw that whether or not Akbar had him killed he would live on, for he had lived before many times, and was not going to be done when this life ended. 'Why should I be afraid?

When did I ever lose by dying?' He was a creature of light as everything else was, and had once been a village girl, another time a horseman on the steppes, another time the servant of the Twelfth Imam, so that he knew how and why the Imam had disappeared, and when he would return to save the world. Knowing that, there was no reason to fear anything. 'Why should I be afraid? 0 he, 0 he who is He, sufficient is God and excellent the Protector, Allah the merciful, the beneficent!' Allah who had sent Mohammed on his isra, his journey into light, just as Bistami was being sent now, towards the ascension of miraj, when all would become a light utterly transparent and invisible.

Understanding this, Bistami looked through the transparent walls and trees and earth to Akbar, across the city in his clear palace, robed in light like an angel, a man surely more than half angel already, an angel spirit that he had known in previous lives, and that he would know again in future lives, until they all came to one place and Allah rang down the universe.

Except this Akbar of light turned his head, and looked through the lit space between them, and Bistami saw then that his eyes were black balls in his head, black as onyx; and he said to Bistami, We have never met before; I am not the one you seek; the one you seek is elsewhere.

Bistami reeled, fell back in the corner made by the two walls.

When he came to himself, still in a colourful glassine world, Akbar in the flesh stood there before him, sweeping the courtyard with Bistami's broom.

'Master,' Bistami said, and began to weep. 'Mowlana.'

Akbar stopped over him, stared down at him.

Finally he put a hand to Bistami's head. 'You are a servant of God,' he said.

'Yes, Mowlana.'

'"Now hath God been gracious to us",' Akbar recited in Arabic. For whoso feareth God and endureth, God verily will not suffer the reward of the righteous to perish. -

This was from Sura Twelve, the story of Joseph and his brothers. Bistami, encouraged, still seeing through the edges of things, including Akbar and his luminous hand and face, a creature of light pulsing through lives like days, recited verses from the end of the next sura, 'Thunder': Those who lived before them made plots; but all plotting is controlled by God: He knoweth the works of every one. -

Akbar nodded, looking to Chishti's tomb and thinking his own thoughts.

No blame be on you this day",' he muttered, speaking the words Joseph spoke as he forgave his brothers. God will forgive you, for He is the most merciful of those who show mercy."'

'Yes, mowlana. God gives us all things, God the merciful and compassionate, he who is He. 0 he who is He, 0 he who is He, 0 he who is He…' With difficulty he stopped himself.

'Yes.' Akbar looked back down at him again. 'Now, whatever may have happened in Gujarat, I don't wish to hear any more of it. I don't believe you had anything to do with the rebellion. Stop weeping. But Abul Fazl and Shaikh Abdul Nabi do believe this, and they are among my chief advisers. In most matters I trust them. I am loyal to them, as they are to me. So I can ignore them in this, and instruct them to leave you alone, but even if I do that, your life here will not be as comfortable as it was before. You understand.'

'Yes, master.'

'So I am going to send you away 'No, master!'

'Be silent. I am going to send you on the haj.'

Bistami's mouth fell open. After all these days of endless talking, his jaw hung from his face like a broken gate. White light filled everything, and for a moment he swooned.

Then colours returned, and he began to hear again: ' you will ride to Surat and sail on my pilgrim ship, llahi, across the Arabian Sea to Jiddah. The waqf has generated a good donation to Mecca and Medina, and I have appointed Wazir as the mir haj, and the party will include my aunt, Bulbadan Begam, and my wife Salima. I would like to go myself, but Abul FazI insists that I am needed here.'

Bistami nodded. 'You are indispensable, master.'

Akbar contemplated him. 'Unlike you.'

He removed his hand from Bistami's head. 'But the mir haj can always use another cladi. And I wish to establish a permanent Timurid school in Mecca. You can help with that.'

'But – and not come back?'

'Not if you value this existence.'

Bistami stared down at the ground, feeling a chill.

' Come now,' the Emperor said. 'For such a devout scholar as you, a life in Mecca should be pure joy.'

'Yes, master. Of course.' But his voice choked on the words.

Akbar laughed. 'It's better than beheading, you must admit! And who knows. Life is long. Perhaps you will come back one day.'

They both knew it was not likely. Life was not long.

'Whatever God wills,' Bistami murmured, looking around. This courtyard, this tomb, these trees, which he knew stone by stone, branch by branch, leaf by leaf this life, which had filled a hundred years in the last month – it was over. All that he knew so well would pass from him, including this beloved awesome young man. Strange to think that each true life was only a few years long that one passed through several in each bodily span. He said, 'God is great. We will never meet again.'

Five. The Haj to Mecca

From the port of jiddah to Mecca, the pilgrims' camels were continuous from horizon to horizon, looking as if they might continue unbroken all the way across Arabia, or the world. The rocky shallow valleys around Mecca were filled with encampments, and the mutton greased smoke of cooking fires rose into the clear skies at sunset. Cool nights, warm days, never a cloud in the whitish blue sky, and thousands of pilgrims, enthusiastically making the final rounds of the haj, everyone in the city participating in the same ecstatic ritual, all dressed in white, accented by the green turbans in the crowd, worn by the sayyids, those who claimed direct descent from the Prophet: a big family, if the turbans were to be believed, all reciting verses from the Quran following the people in front of them, who followed those before them, and those before them, in a line that extended back nine centuries.

On the voyage to Arabia, Bistami had fasted more seriously than ever in his life, even in the tomb of Chishti. Now he flowed through the stone streets of Mecca light as a feather, looking up at the palms dusting the sky with their gently waving green fronds, feeling so airy in God's grace that it sometimes seemed he looked down on the palm tops, or around the corners into the Kaaba, and he would have to stare at his feet for a while to regain his balance and his sense of self, though as he did so his feet began to seem like distant creatures of their own, thrusting forwards one after the other, time after time. 0 he, 0 he who is He…

He had separated himself from the representatives of Fatepur Sikri, as Akbar's family he found an unwelcome reminder of his lost master.

With them it was always Akbar this and Akbar that, his wife Salima (a second wife, not the Empress) plaintive in a self satisfied way, his aunt egging her on – no. Women were on their own pilgrimage in any case, but the men in the Mughal retinue were almost as bad. And Wazir the mir haj was an ally of Abul Fazl, and therefore suspicious of Bistami, dismissive of him to the point of contempt. There would be no place for Bistami in the Mughal school, assuming that they established one at all, rather than just disbursing some alms and city funds from an embassy, which was how it looked as if it would come about. Either way Bistami would not be welcome among them, that was clear.

But this was one of those blessed moments when the future was no matter for concern, when both past and future were absent from the world. That was what struck Bistami most, even at the time, even in the act of floating along in the line of belief, one of a million whiterobed hajjis pilgrims from all over Dar al Islam, from the Maghrib to Mindanao, from Siberia to the Seychelles: how they were all there together in this one moment, the sky and the town under it all glowing with their presence, not transparently as at Chishti's tomb, but full of colour, stuffed with all the colours of the world. All the people of the world were one.

This holiness radiated outwards from the Kaaba. Bistami moved with the line of humanity into the holiest mosque, and passed by the big smooth black stone, blacker than ebony or jet, black as the night sky without stars, like a boulder-shaped hole in reality. He felt his body and soul pulsing in the same rhythm as the line, as the world. Touching the black stone was like touching flesh. It seemed to revolve around him. The dream image of Akbar's black eyes came to him and he shrugged them away, aware they were distractions out of his own mind, aware of Allah's ban on images. The stone was all and it was just a stone, black reality itself, made solid by God. He kept his place in the line and felt the spirits of the people ahead of him lifting as they passed out of the square, as if they were climbing a stairway into heaven.

Dispersal; return to camp; the first sips of soup and coffee at sundown; all occurred in a silent cool evening under the evening star. Everyone at such peace. Washed clean inside. Looking around at all the faces, Bistami thought, Oh why don't we live like this all the time? What is important enough to take us away from this moment? Firelit faces, starry night overhead, ripples of song or soft laughter, peace, peace: no one seemed to want to fall asleep, to end this moment and wake up the next day, back in the sensible world.

Akbar's family and haj left in a caravan back to Jiddah Bistami went to the outskirts of town to see them off; Akbar's wife and aunt said goodbye to him, waving from camel back. The rest were already intent on the long journey to Fatepur Sikri.

After that Bistami was alone in Mecca, a city of strangers. Most were leaving now, in caravan after caravan. It was a lugubrious, uncanny sight: hundreds of caravans, thousands of people, happy but deflated, their white robes packed away or revealed suddenly to be dusty, fringed at the foot with brown dirt. So many were leaving that it seemed the city was being abandoned before some approaching disaster, as perhaps had happened once or twice, in time of war or famine or plague.

But a week or two later the ordinary Mecca was revealed, a whitewashed dusty little town of a few thousand people. Many of them were clerics or scholars or sufis or qadis or ulema, or heterodox refugees of one sort or another, claiming the sanctuary of the holy city. Most, however, were merchants and tradespeople. In the aftermath of the haj they looked exhausted, drained, almost stunned it seemed, and inclined to disappear into their blank walled compounds, leaving the remaining outsiders in town to fend for themselves for a month or two. For the remnant ulema and scholars, it was as if they were camping out in the empty heart of Islam, making it full by their own devotions, cooking over fires on the edges of town at dusk, trading for food with passing nomads. Many sang songs through most of the night.

The Persian speaking group was big, and congregated nightly around fires of its khitta on the eastern edge of town, where the canals came in from the hills. Thus they were the first to experience the spate that burst onto the town after storms to the north, which they heard but never saw. A wall of muddy black water slammed down the canals and spread out through the streets, rolling palm trunks and boulders like weapons into the upper half of the town. Everything flooded after that, until even the Kaaba itself stood in water up to the silver ring that held it in place.

Bistami threw himself with great pleasure into the efforts to drain the waters, and then to clean up the town. After the experience of the light in Chishti's tomb, and the supreme experience of the haj, there was little more he felt he could do in the mystic realm. He lived now in the aftermath of those events, and felt himself utterly changed; but what he wanted to do now was to read Persian poetry for an hour in the brief cool of the mornings, then work outside in the low hot winter sun in the afternoons. With the town broken and waist deep in mud, there was a lot of work to be done. Pray, read, work, eat, pray, sleep; this was the pattern of a good day. Day after day passed in this satisfying round.

Then as the winter wore on, he began to study at a sufi madressa established by scholars from the Maghrib, that western end of the world that was becoming more powerful, extending as it was both north into al Andalus and Firanja, and south into the Sahel. Bistami and the others there read and discussed not just Rumi and Shams, but also the philosophers Ibn Sina and Ibn Rashd, and the ancient Greek Aristotle, and the historian Ibn Khaldun. The Maghribis in the madressa were not as interested in contesting points of doctrine as they were in exchanging new information about the world; they were full of stories of the reoccupation of al Andalus and Firanja, and tales of the lost Frankish civilization. They were friendly to Bistami; they had no opinion of him one way or another; they thought of him as Persian, and so it was much more pleasant to be among them than with the Mughalis in the Timurid embassy, where he was regarded uneasily at best. Bistami saw that if his being stationed in Mecca was punishment in the form of exile from Akbar and Sind, then the other Mughalis assigned here had to wonder if they too were in disfavour, rather than honoured for their religious devotion. Seeing Bistami reminded them of this possibility, and so he was shunned like a leper. He therefore spent more and more of his time at the Maghribi madressa, and out in the Persian-speaking khitta, now set a bit higher in the hills above the canals east of town.

The year in Mecca always oriented itself in time to the haj, in just the same way that Islam oriented itself in space to Mecca. As the months passed, all began to make their preparations, and as Ramadan approached, nothing else in the world mattered but the upcoming haj. Much of the effort involved simply feeding the masses that would descend on the town. A whole system had developed to accomplish this miraculous feat, astonishing in its size and efficiency, here on this out of the way corner of a nearly lifeless desert peninsula. Though of course Aden and Yemen were rich, to the south below them. No doubt, Bistami thought as he walked by the pastures now filling up with sheep and goats, mulling over his readings in Ibn Khaldun, the system had grown with the growth of the haj itself. Which must have been rapid: Islam had exploded out of Arabia in the first century after the hegira, he was coming to understand. Al Andalus had been Islamicized by the year 100, the far reaches of the Spice Islands by the year 200; the whole span of the known world had been converted, only two centuries after the Prophet had received the Word and spread it to the people of this little land in the middle. Ever since then people had been coming here in greater and greater numbers.

One day he and a few other young scholars went to Medina, walking all the way, reciting prayers as they went, to see Mohammed's first mosque again. Past endless pens of sheep and goats, past cheese dairies, granaries, date palm groves, then into the outskirts of Medina, a sleepy, sandy, dilapidated little settlement when the haj was not there to bring it alive. In one stand of thick ancient palms, the little whitewashed mosque hid in the shade, as polished as a pearl. Here the Prophet had preached during his exile, and taken down most of the verses of the Quran from Allah.

Bistami wandered the garden outside this holy place, trying to imagine how it had happened. Reading Khaldun had made him understand: these things had all happened. In the beginning, the Prophet had stood in this grove, speaking in the open air. Later he had leaned against a palm tree when he spoke, and some of his followers had suggested a chair. He had agreed to it only as long as it was low enough that there was no suggestion he was claiming any sort of privilege for himself. The Prophet, perfect man that he had been, was modest. He had agreed to the construction of a mosque where he taught, but for many years it had gone roofless; Mohammed had declared there was more important business for the faithful to accomplish first. And then they had made their return to Mecca, and the Prophet had led twenty six military campaigns himself: the jihad. After that, how quickly the word had spread. Khaldun attributed this rapidity to a readiness in people for the next stage in civilization, and to the manifest truth of the Quran Bistami, troubled by something he could not pin down, wondered about this explanation. In India, civilizations had come and gone, come and gone. Islam itself had conquered India. But under the Mughals the ancient beliefs of the Indians endured, and Islam itself changed in its constant contact with them. This had become clearer to Bistami as he studied the pure religion in the madressa. Although sufism itself was perhaps more than a simple return to the pure source. An advance, or (could one say M) a clarification, even an improvement. An effort to bypass the ulemas. In any case, change. It did not seem that it could be prevented. Everything changed. As the sufi junnaiyd at the madressa said, the word of God came down to man as rain to soil, and the result was mud, not clear water. After the winter's great flood, this image was particularly vivid and troubling. Islam, spreading over the world like a spate of mud, a mix of God and man; it did not seem very much like what had happened to him in the tomb of Chishti, or at the moment of the haj, when it seemed the Kaaba had revolved around him. But even his memory of those events was changing. Everything changed in this world.

Including Medina and Mecca, which grew in population rapidly as the haj approached, and shepherds poured into town with their flocks, tradesmen with their wares – clothing, travelling equipment to replace things broken or lost, religious scripts, mementos of the haj, and so on. In the final month of preparation the early pilgrims began to arrive, long strings of camels carrying dusty, happy travellers, their faces alight with the feeling Bistami remembered from the year before, a year which seemed to have gone so fast and yet his own haj at the same time seemed as if it were on the far side of a great abyss in his mind. He could not call up in himself the feeling that he saw on their faces. He was no pilgrim this time, but a resident, and he found himself feeling some of the residents' resentment, that his peaceful village, like a big madressa really, was swelling to a ridiculous engorgement, as if a great family of enthusiastic relatives had descended on them all at once. Not a happy way of thinking of it, and Bistami set himself guiltily to a full round of prayers, fasting, and aid of the influx, especially those exhausted or sick: leading them to khittas and finas and caravanserai and hostelries, throwing himself into a routine to make himself feel he was more in the spirit of the haj. But daily exposure to the ecstatic faces of the pilgrims reminded him how far he was from that. Their faces were alight with God. He saw how clearly faces revealed the soul, they were like windows into a deeper world.

So he hoped that his pleasure at greeting the pilgrims from Akbar's court was obvious on his face. But Akbar himself had not come, nor any of his immediate family, and no one in the group looked at all happy to be there, or to see Bistami. The news from home was ominous. Akbar had become critical of his ulema. He received Hindu rajas, and listened sympathetically to their concerns. He had even begun openly to worship the sun, prostrating himself four times a day before a sacred fire, abstaining from meat, alcohol and sexual intercourse. These were Hindu practices, and indeed on every Sunday he was initiating twelve of his amirs in his service. The neophytes placed their heads directly on Akbar's feet during this ceremony, an extreme form of prostration known as sijdah, a form of submission to another human being that was blasphemous to Muslims. And he had not been willing to fund much of a pilgrimage; indeed, he had had to be convinced to send any at all. He had sent Shaikh Abdul Nabi and Malauna Abdulla as a way of exiling them, just as he had Bistami the year before. In short, he appeared to be falling away from the faith. Akbar, falling away from Islam!

And, Abdul Nabi told Bistami bluntly, many at the court blamed him, Bistami, for this change in Akbar. It was a matter of convenience only, Abdul Nabi assured him. 'Blaming someone who is far away is safest for all, you see. But now they have it that you were sent to Mecca with the idea of reforming you. You were babbling about the light, the light, and you were sent away, and now Akbar is worshipping the sun like a Zoroastrian or some pagan from the ancient times.'

'So I can't return,' Bistami said.

Abdul Nabi shook his head. 'Not only that, but I judge that it isn't even safe for you to stay here. If you do, the ulema may accuse you of heresy, and come and take you back for judgment. Or even judge you here.'

'You're saying I should leave here?'

Abdul Nabi nodded, slowly and deeply. 'Surely there are more interesting places for you than Mecca. A qadi like you can find good work to do, anywhere the ruler is a Muslim. Nothing will happen during the haj, of course. But when it's over.

Bistami nodded and thanked the shaikh for his honesty.

He realized that he wanted to leave anyway. He didn't want to stay in Mecca. He wanted to go back to Akbar, and the timeless hours in Chishti's tomb, and live in that space for ever; but if that was not possible, he would have to begin his tariqat again, and wander in search of his real life. He recalled what had happened to Shams when the disciples of Rumi got tired of Rumi's infatuation with his friend. Shams had disappeared, never to be seen again, some said tied to rocks and thrown in a river. If people in Fatepur Sikri thought that Akbar had found his Shams in Bistami – which struck Bistami as backwards – but they had spent a lot of time together, more than seemed explicable; and no one else knew what had gone on between them in those meetings, how much it had been a matter of Akbar teaching the teacher. It is always the teacher who must learn the most, Bistami thought, or else nothing real has happened in the exchange.

The rest of that haj was strange. The crowds seemed huge, inhuman, possessed, a pestilence consuming hundreds of sheep a day, and all the ulema like shepherds, organizing this cannibalism. Of course one could not speak of these things, but only repeat some of the phrases that had burned their way into his soul so deeply, 0 he who is He, 0 he who is He, Allah the Merciful the Compassionate. Why should I be afraid? God sets all in action. No doubt he was supposed to continue his tariclat until he found something more. After the haj one was supposed to move on.

The Maghribi scholars were the friendliest he knew, they exhibited the sufi hospitality at its finest, as well as a keen curiosity about the world. He could go back up to Isfahan, of course, but something drew him westwards. Clarified as he had been in the realm of light, he did not care to go back to the richness of the Iranian gardens. In the Quran the word for Paradise, and all of Mohammed's words for describing Paradise, came out of Persian words; while the word for Hell, in the very same suras, came from Hebrew, a desert language. That was a sign. Bistami did not want Paradise. He wanted something he could not define, a human challenge of some indefinable kind. Say the human was a mix of material and divine, and that the divine soul lived on; there must then be some purpose to this travel through the days, some movement up towards higher realms of being, so that the Khaldunian model of cycling dynasties, moving endlessly from youthful vigour to lethargic bloated old age, had to be altered by the addition of reason to human affairs. Thus the notion of the cycle being in fact a rising gyre, in which the possibility of the next young dynasty beginning at a higher level than the last time around was acknowledged and made a goal. This is what he wanted to teach, this is what he wanted to learn. Westwards, following the sun, he would find it, and all would be well.

Six. Al Andalus

Everywhere he went seemed the new centre of the world. When he was young, Isfahan had seemed the capital of everywhere; then Gujarat, then Agra and Fatepur Sikri; then Mecca and the black stone of Abraham, the true heart of all. Now Cairo appeared to him the ultimate metropolis, impossibly ancient, dusty and huge. The Marnlukes walked through the crowded streets with their retinues in train, powerful men wearing feathered helmets, confident in their mastery of Cairo, Egypt and most of the Levant. When Bistami saw them he usually followed for a while, as did many others, and he found himself both reminded of Akbar's pomp, and struck by how different the Marnlukes were, how they formed a jati that was brought into being anew with each generation. Nothing could be less imperial; there was no dynasty; and yet their control over the populace was even stronger than a dynasty's. It could be that everything Khaldun had said about dynastic cycling was rendered irrelevant by this new system of governance, which had not existed in his time. Things changed, so that even the greatest historian of all could not speak the last word.

Thus the days in the great old city were exciting. But the Maghribi scholars were anxious to begin their long journey home, and so Bistami helped them prepare their caravan, and when they were ready, he joined them continuing westwards on the road to Fez.

This part of the tariqat led them first north, to Alexandria ' They led their camels to a caravanserai and went down to have a look at the historic harbour, with its long curving dock against the pale water of the Mediterranean. Looking at it Bistami was struck by the feeling one sometimes gets, that he had seen this place before. He waited for the sensation to pass, and followed the others on.

As the caravan moved through the Libyan desert, the talk at night around the fires was of the Marnlukes, and of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Emperor who had recently died. Among his conquests had been the very coast they were now skirting, though there was no way to tell that, except for an extra measure of respect given to Ottoman officials in the towns and caravanserai they passed through. These people never bothered them, or put a tariff on their passing. Bistami saw that the world of the sufis was, among many other things, a refuge from worldly power. In each region of the earth there were sultans and emperors, Suleimans and Akbars and Marnlukes, all ostensibly Muslim, and yet worldly, powerful, capricious, dangerous. Most of these were in the Khaldunian state of late dynastic corruption. Then there were the sufis. Bistami watched his fellow scholars around the fire in the evenings, intent on a point of doctrine, or the questionable isnad of a hadith, and what that meant, arguing with exaggerated punctilio and little debater's jokes and flourishes, while a pot of thick hot coffee was poured with solemn attention into little glazed clay cups, all eyes gleaming with firelight and pleasure in the argument; and he thought, these are the Muslims who make Islam good. These are the men who have conquered the world, not the warriors. The armies could have done nothing without the word. Worldly but not powerful, devout but not pedantic (most of them, anyway); men interested in a direct relation to God, without any human authority's intervention; a relation to God, and a fellowship among men.

One night the talk turned to al Andalus, and Bistami listened with an extra measure of interest.

'It must be strange to re enter an empty land like that.'

Fishermen have been living on the coast for a long time now, and zott scavengers. The Zott and Armenians have moved inland as well.'

'Dangerous, I should think. The plague might return.'

'No one appears to be affected.'

'Khaldun says that the plague is an effect of overpopulation,' said Ibn Ezra, the chief scholar of Khaldun among them. 'In his chapter on dynasties in "The Muqaddimah", forty ninth section, he says that plagues result from corruption of the air caused by overpopulation, and the putrefaction and evil moistures that result from so many people living close together. The lungs are affected, and so disease is conveyed. He makes the ironic point that these things result from the early success of a dynasty, so that good government, kindness, safety, and light taxation lead to growth and thence to pestilence. He says, 'Therefore, science has made it clear that it is necessary to have empty spaces and waste regions interspersed between urban areas. This makes circulation of the air possible, and removes the corruption and putrefaction affecting the air after contact with living beings, and brings healthy air." If he is right, well – Firanja has been empty for a long time, and can be expected to be healthy again. No danger of plague should exist, until the time comes when the region is heavily populated once again. But that will be a long time from now.'

'It was God's judgment,' one of the other scholars said. 'The Christians were exterminated by Allah for their persecution of Muslims, and Jews too.'

'But al Andalus was still Muslim at the time of the plague,' Ibn Ezra pointed out. 'Granada was still Muslim, the whole south of Iberia was Muslim. And they too died. As did the Muslims in the Balkans, or so says al Gazzabi in his history of the Greeks. It was a matter of location, it seems. Firanja was stricken, perhaps from overpopulation as Khaldun says, perhaps from its many moist valleys, that held the bad air. No one can say.'

'It was Christianity that died. They were people of the Book, but they persecuted Islam. They made war on Islam for centuries, and tortured every Muslim prisoner to death. Allah put an end to them.'

'But al Andalus died too,' Ibn Ezra repeated. 'And there were Christians in the Maghrib and in Ethiopia that survived, and in Armenia. There are still little pockets of Christians in these places, living in the mountains.' He shook his head. 'I don't think we know what happened. Allah judges.'

'That's what I'm saying.'

'So al Andalus is reinhabited,' Bistami said.

'Yes.'

'And, sufis are there?'

'Of course. Sufis are everywhere. In al Andalus they lead the way, I have heard. They go north into still empty land, in Allah's name, exploring and exorcising the past. Proving the way is safe. Al Andalus was a great garden in its time. Good land, and empty.'

Bistami looked in the bottom of his clay cup, feeling the sparks in him of those two words struck together. Good and empty, empty and good. This was how he had felt in Mecca.

Bistami felt that he was now cast loose, a wandering sufi dervish, homeless and searching. On his tariqat. He kept himself as clean as the dusty, sandy Maghrib would allow, remembering the words of Mohammed concerning holy behaviour: one came to prosper after washing hands and face, and eating no garlic. He fasted often, and found himself growing light in the air, his vision altering each day, from the glassy clarity of dawn, to the blurred yellow haze of midday, to the semi-transparency of sunset, when glories of gold and bronze haloed every tree and rock and skyline. The towns of the Maghrib were small and handsome, often set out on hillsides, and planted with palms and exotic trees that made each town and rooftop a garden. Houses were square whitewashed blocks in nests of palm, with rooftop patios and interior courtyard gardens, cool and green and watered by fountains. Towns had been set where water leaked out of the hillsides, and the biggest town turned out to have the biggest springs: Fez, the end of their caravan.

Bistami stayed at the sufi lodge in Fez, and then he and Ibn Ezra travelled by camel north to Ceuta, and paid for a crossing by ship to Malaga. The ships here were rounder than in the Persian Sea, with pronounced high ended keels, smaller sails, and rudders under their centreposts. The crossing of the narrow strait at the west end of the Mediterranean was rough, but they could see al Andalus from the moment they left Ceuta, and the strong current pouring into the Mediterranean, combined with a westerly gale, bounced them over the waves at a great rate.

The coast of al Andalus proved cliffy, and above one indentation towered a huge rock mountain. Beyond it the coast curved to the north, and they took the offshore breezes in their little sails and heeled in towards Malaga. Inland they could see a distant white mountain range.

Bistami, exalted by the dramatic sea crossing, was reminded of the view of the Zagros Mountains from Isfahan, and suddenly his heart ached for a home he had almost forgotten. But here and now, bouncing on the wild ocean of this new life, he was about to set foot on a new land.

Al Andalus was a garden everywhere, green trees foresting the slopes of the hills, snowy mountains to the north, and on the coastal plains great sweeps of grain, and groves of round green trees bearing round orange fruit, lovely to taste. The sky dawned blue every day, and as the sun crossed the sky it was warm in the sun, cool in the shade.

Malaga was a fine little city, with a rough stone fort and a big ancient mosque filling the city centre. Wide tree shaded streets rayed away from the mosque, which was being refurbished, up to the hills, and from their slopes one looked out at the blue Mediterranean, sheeting off to the Maghrib's dry bony mountains, over the water to the south. Al Andalus!

Bistami and Ibn Ezra found a little lodge like the Persian ribats, in a kind of village at the edge of the town, between fields and orange groves. Sufis grew the oranges, and cultivated grapevines. Bistami went out in the mornings to help them work. Most of their time was spent in the wheat field stretching off to the west. The oranges were easy: 'We trim the trees to keep the fruit off the ground,' a ribat worker named Zeya told Bistami and Ibn Ezra one morning, 'as you see. I've been trying various degrees of thinning, to see what the fruit does, but the trees left alone develop a shape like an olive, and if you keep branches off the ground at the bottom, then the fruit can't pick up any groundbased rots. They are fairly susceptible to diseases, I must say. The fruit gets green or black moulds, the leaves go brittle or white or brown. The bark crusts over with orange or white fungi. Lady bugs help, and smoking with smudge pots, which is what we do to save the trees during frosts.'

'It gets that cold here?'

'Sometimes, in the late winter, yes. It's not paradise here you know.'

'I was thinking it was.'

The call of the muezzin came from the house, and they pulled out their prayer mats and knelt to the southeast, a direction Bistami had still not got used to. Afterwards Zeya led them to a stone stove holding a fire, and brewed them a cup of coffee.

'It does not seem like new land,' Bistami noted, sipping blissfully.

'It was Muslim land for many centuries. The Umayyads ruled here from the second century until the Christians took the region, and the plague killed them.'

'People of the Book,' Bistami murmured.

'Yes, but corrupt. Cruel taskmasters to free men or slave. And always fighting among themselves. It was chaos then.'

'As in Arabia before the Prophet.'

'Yes, exactly the same, even thought the Christians had the idea of one God. They were strange that way, contentious. They even tried to split God himself in three. So Islam prevailed. But then after a few centuries, life here was so easy that even Muslims grew corrupt. The Umayyads; were defeated, and no strong dynasty replaced them. The taifa states numbered more than thirty, and they fought constantly. Then the Almoravids invaded from Africa, in the fifth century, and in the sixth century the Almohads from Morocco ousted the Almoravids, and made Sevilla their capital. The Christians meanwhile had continued to fight in the north, in Catalonia and over the mountains in Navarre and Firanja, and they came back and retook most of al Andalus. But never the southernmost part, the Nasrid kingdom, including Malaga and Granada. These lands remained Islam to the very end.'

'And yet they too died,' Bistami said.

'Yes. Everyone died.'

'I don't understand that. They say Allah punished the infidels for their persecution of Islam, but if that were true, why would He kill the Muslims here as well?'

Ibn Ezra shook his head decisively. 'Allah did not kill the Christians. People are wrong about that.'

Bistami said, 'But even if He didn't, He allowed it to happen. He didn't protect them. And yet Allah is all powerful. I don't understand that.'

Ibn Ezra shrugged. 'Well, this is another manifestation of the problem of death and evil in the world. This world is not Paradise, and Allah, when he created us, gave us free will. This world is ours to prove ourselves devout or corrupt. This is very clear, because even more than Allah is powerful, He is good. He cannot create evil. And yet evil exists in the world. So clearly we create that ourselves. Therefore our destinies cannot have been fixed or predetermined by Allah. We must work them out for ourselves. And sometimes we create evil, out of fear, or greed, or laziness. That's our fault.'

'But the plague,' Zeya said.

'That wasn't us or Allah. Look, all living things cat each other, and often the smaller eats the larger. The dynasty ends and the little warriors cat it up. This fungus, for instance, eating this fallen orange. The fungus is like a field of a million small mushrooms. I can show you in a magni fying glass I have. And see the orange it's a blood orange, see, dark red inside. You people must have bred them for that, right?'

Zeya nodded.

'You get hybrids, like mules. Then with plants you can do it again, and again, until you've bred a new orange. That's just how Allah made us. The two parents mix their stock in the offspring. All traits are mixed, I suspect, though only some show. Some are carried unseen to a later generation. Anyway, say some mould like this, in their bread, or even living in their water, bred with another mould, and made some new creature that was poison. It spread, and being stronger than its parents, supplanted them. And so the people died. Maybe it drifted through the air like pollen in spring, maybe it lived inside the people it poisoned for weeks before it killed them, and passed on their breath, or at the touch. And then it was such a poison that in the end it killed off all its food, in effect, and then died out itself, for lack of sustenance.'

Bistami stared at the segments of blood red orange still in his hand, feeling faintly sick. The red fleshed segments were like wedges of bright death.

Zeya laughed at him. 'Come now, eat up! We can't live like angels! All that happened over a hundred years ago, and people have been coming back and living here without any problems for a long time. Now we are as free from the plague as any other country. I've lived here all my life. So finish your orange.'

Bistami did so, thinking it over. 'So it was all an accident.'

'Yes,' Ibn Ezra said. 'I think so.'

'It doesn't seem like Allah should allow it.'

'All living things are free in this world. Besides, it could be that it was not entirely accident. The Quran teaches us to live cleanly, and it could be that the Christians ignored the laws at their peril. They ate pigs, they kept dogs, they drank wine '

'We here don't believe that wine was the problem,' Zeya said with another laugh.'

Ibn Ezra smiled. 'But if they lived in their sewage, among the tanneries and shambles, and ate pork and touched dogs, and killed each other like the barbarians of the cast, and tortured each other, and had their way with boys, and left the dead bodies of their enemies hanging at the gates – and they did all these things then perhaps they made their own plague, do you see what I mean? They created the conditions that killed them.'

'But were they so different than anyone else?' Bistami asked, thinking of the crowds and filth in Cairo, or Agra.

Ibn Ezra shrugged. 'They were cruel.'

'More cruel than Temur the Lame?'

'I don't know.'

'Did they conquer cities and put every person to the sword?'

'I don't know.'

'The Mongols did that, and they became Muslim. Temur was a Muslim.'

'So they changed their ways. I don't know. But the Christians were torturers. Maybe it mattered, maybe it didn't. All living things are free. Anyway they're gone now, and we're here.'

'And healthy, by and large,' said Zeya. 'Of course sometimes a child catches a fever and dies. And everyone dies eventually. But it's a sweet life here, while it lasts.'

When the orange and grape harvests were over, the days grew short. Bistami had not felt such a chill in the air since his years in Isfahan. And yet in this very season, during the coldest nights, the orange trees blossomed, near the shortest day of the year: little white flowers all over the green round trees, fragrant with a smell reminiscent of their taste but heavier, and very sweet, almost cloying.

Through this giddy air came a cavalry, leading a long caravan of camels and mules, and then, in the evening, slaves on foot.

This was the Sultan of Carmona, near Sevilla, someone said; one Mawji Darya, and his travelling party. The Sultan was the youngest son of the new caliph, and had suffered a disagreement with his elder brothers in Sevilla and al Majriti, and had therefore decamped with his retainers with the intent of moving north across the Pyrenees, and establishing a new city. His father and elder brothers ruled in Cordoba, Sevilla and Toledo, and he planned to lead his group out of al Andalus, up the Mediterranean coast on the old road to Valencia, then inland to Saragossa, where there was a bridge, he said, over the River Ebro.

At the outset of this 'hegira of the heart', as the Sultan called it, a dozen or more like minded nobles and their people had joined him. And it became clear as the motley crowd filed into the ribat yard, that along with the young Sevillan nobles' families, retainers, friends and dependants, they had been joined by many more followers from the villages and farms that had sprung up in the countryside between Sevilla and Malaga. Sufi dervishes, Armenian traders, Turks, Jews, Zott, Berbers, all were represented; it was like a trade caravan, or some dream haj in which all the wrong people were on their way to Mecca, all the people who would never become hajjis Here there were a pair of dwarves on ponies, behind them a group of one handed and handless ex criminals, then some musicians, then two men dressed as women; this caravan had them all.

The Sultan spread a broad hand. 'They are calling us the Caravan of Fools, like the Ship of Fools. We will sail over the mountains to a land of grace, and be fools for God. God will guide us.'

From among them appeared his sultana, riding a horse. She dismounted from it without regard for the big servant there to help her down, and joined the Sultan as he was greeted by the Zeya and the other members of the ribat. 'My wife, the Sultana Katima, originally from al Majriti.'

The Castilian woman was bare headed, short and slender armed, her riding skirts fringed with gold that swung through the dust, ber long black hair swept back in a glossy curve from her forehead, held by a string of pearls. Her face was slender and her eyes a pale blue, making her gaze odd. She smiled at Bistami when they were introduced, and later smiled at the farm, and the water wheels, and the orange groves. Small things amused her that no one else saw. The men there began to do what they could to accommodate the Sultan and stay by his side, so that they could remain in her presence. Bistami did it himself. She looked at him and said something inconsequential, her voice like a Turkish oboe, nasal and low, and hearing it he remembered what the vision of Akbar had said to him during his immersion in the light: the one you seek is elsewhere.

Ibn Ezra bowed low when he was introduced. 'I am a sufi pilgrim, Sultana, and a humble student of the world. I intend to make the haj, but I like the idea of your hegira very much; I would like to see Firanja for myself. I study the ancient ruins.'

'Of the Christians?' the Sultana asked, fixing him with her look.

'Yes, but also of the Romans, who came before them, in the time before the Prophet. Perhaps I can make my haj the wrong way around.'

'All are welcome who have the spirit to join us,' she said.

Bistami cleared his throat, and Ibn Ezra smoothly brought him forward. 'This is my young friend Bistami, a sufi scholar from Sind, who has been on the haj and is now continuing his studies in the west.'

Sultana Katima looked at him closely for the first time, and stopped short, visibly startled. Her thick black eyebrows knitted together in concentration over her pale eyes, and suddenly Bistami saw that it was the birdwing mark that had crossed the forehead of his tiger, the mark that had always made the tigress look faintly surprised or perplexed, as it did with this woman.

' I am happy to meet you, Bistami. We always look forward to learning from scholars of the Quran.'

Later that same day she sent a slave asking him to join her for a private audience, in the garden designated hers for the duration of her stay. Bistami went, plucking helplessly at his robe, grubby beyond all aid.

It was sunset. Clouds shone in the western sky between the black silhouettes of cypresses. Lemon blossoms lent the air their fragrance, and seeing her standing alone by a gurgling fountain, Bistami felt as if he had entered a place he had been before; but everything here was turned around. Different in particulars, but more than anything, strangely, terribly familiar, like the feeling that had come over him briefly in Alexandria. She was not like Akbar, nor even the tigress, not really. But this had happened before. He became aware of his breathing.

She saw him standing under the arabesqued arches of the entryway, and beckoned him to her. She smiled at him. People said she had suffered a serious illness some years before, and that when she had recovered, she had seemed different.

'I hope you do not mind me not wearing the veil. I will never do so. The Quran says nothing about the veil, except for an injunction to veil the bosom, which is obvious. As for the face, Mohammed's wife Khadijeh never wore the veil, nor did the other wives of the Prophet after Khadijeh died. While she lived he was faithful to her alone, you know. If she had not died he never would have married any other woman, he says so himself. So if she didn't wear the veil, I feel no need to. The veil began when the caliphs in Baghdad wore them, to separate themselves from the masses, and from any khajirites who might be among them. It was a sign of power in danger, a sign of fear. Certainly women are dangerous to men, but not so much so that they need hide their faces. Indeed when you see faces you understand better that we are all the same before God. No veils between us and God, this is what each Muslim has gained by his submission, don't you agree?'

'I do,' Bistami said, still shocked by the sense of alreadyness that had overcome him. Even the shapes of the clouds in the west were familiar at this moment.

'And I don't believe there is any sanction given in the Quran for the husband to beat his wife, do you? The only possible suggestion of such a thing is Sura 4:34, "As to those women on whose part you fear disloyalty and ill conduct, admonish them, next refuse to share their beds", how horrible that would be, "last beat them lightly". Daraba, not darraba, which is really the word "to beat" after all. Daraba is nudge, or even stroke with a feather, as in the poem, or even to provoke while lovemaking, you know, daraba, daraba. Mohammed made it very clear.'

Shocked, Bistami managed to nod. He could feel that there was an astonished look on his face.

She saw it and smiled. 'This is what the Quran tells me,' she said. 'Sura 2:223 says that "your wives are as your farm to you, so treat her as you would your farm". The ulema have quoted this as if it meant you could treat women like the dirt under your feet, but these clerics, who stand as unneeded intercessors between us and God, are never farmers, and farmers read the Quran right, and see their wives are their food, their drink, their work, the bed they lie on at night, the very ground under their feet! Yes, of course you treat your wife as the ground under your feet! Give thanks to God for giving us the sacred Quran and all its wisdom.'

'Thanks to God,' Bistami said.

She looked at him and laughed out loud. 'You think I am forward.'

'Not at all.'

'Oh but I am forward, believe me. I am very forward. But don't you agree with my reading of the holy Quran? Have I not cleaved to its every phrase, as a good wife cleaves to her husband's every move?'

'So it seems to me, Sultana. I think the Quran… insists everywhere that all are equal before God. And thus, men and women. There are hierarchies in all things, but each member of the hierarchy has equal status before God, and this is the only status that really matters. So the high and the low in station here on Earth must have consideration for each other, as fellow members of the faith. Brothers and sisters in belief, no matter caliph or slave. And thus all the Quranic rules concerning treatment of others. Constraints, even of an emperor over his lowest slave, or the enemy he has captured.'

'The Christians' holy book had very few rules,' she said obliquely, following her own train of thought.

'I didn't know that. You have read it?'

'An emperor over his slave, you said. There are rules even for that. But still, no one would choose to be a slave rather than an emperor. And the ulema have twisted the Quran with all their hadith, always twisting it towards those in power, until the message Mohammed laid out so clearly, straight from God, has been reversed, and good Muslim women are made like slaves again, or worse. Not cattle quite, but not like men, either. Wife to husband portrayed as slave to emperor, rather than feminine to masculine, power to power, equal to equal.'

By now her cheeks were flushed, he could see their colour even in the dusk's poor light. Her eyes were so pale they seemed like little pools of the twilit sky. When servants brought out torches her blush was enhanced, and now there was a glitter in her pale eyes, the torchfire dancing in those windows to her soul. There was a lot of anger in there, hot anger, but Bistami had never seen such beauty. He stared at her, trying to fix the moment in his memory, thinking, You will never forget this, never forget this!

After the silence had gone on a while, Bistami realized that if he did not say something, the conversation might come to an end.

'The sufis,' he said, I speak often of the direct approach to God. It is a matter of illumination; I have… I have experienced it myself, in a time of extremity. To the senses it is like being filled with light; for the soul it is the state of baraka, divine grace. And this is available to all equally.'

'But do the sufis mean women when they say "all"?'

He thought it over. Sufis were men, it was true. They formed brotherhoods, they travelled alone and stayed in ribat or zawiya, the lodges where there were no women, nor women's quarters; if they were married they were sufis, and their wives were wives of sufis.

'It depends where you are,' he temporized, 'and which sufi teacher you follow.'

She looked at him with a small smile, and he realized he had made a move without knowing he had done it, in this game to stay near her.

'But the sufi teacher could not be a woman,' she said.

'Well, no. They sometimes lead the prayers.'

'And a woman could never lead prayers.'

'Well,' Bistami said, shocked. 'I have never heard of such a thing happening.'

'Just as a man has never given birth.'

'Exactly.' Feeling relieved.

'But men cannot give birth,' she pointed out. 'While women could very easily lead prayers. Within the harem I lead them every day.'

Bistami didn't know what to say. He was still surprised at the idea.

'And mothers always instruct their children what to pray.'

'Yes, that's true.'

'The Arabs before Mohammed worshipped goddesses, you know.'

'Idols.'

'But the idea was there. Women are powers in the realm of the soul.' 'Yes.'

'And as above, so below. This is true in everything.'

And she stepped towards him, suddenly, and put her hand to his bare arm.

'Yes,' he said.

'We need scholars of the Quran to come north with us, to help us to clear the Quran of these webs obscuring it, and to teach us about illumination. Will you come with us? Will you do that?'

'Yes.'

Seven. The Caravan of Fools

Sultan Mawji Darya was almost as handsome and gracious as his wife, and just as interested in talking about his ideas, which often returned to the topic of 'the convivencia'. Ibn Ezra informed Bistami that this was the current enthusiasm among some of the young nobles of al Andalus: to re create the golden age of the Umayyad caliphate of the sixth century, when Muslim rulers had allowed the Christians and Jews among them to flourish, and all together had created the beautiful civilization that had been al Andalus before the inquisition and the plague.

As the caravan in its ragged glory rode out of Malaga, Ibn Ezra told Bistami more about this period, which Khaldun had treated only very briefly, and the scholars of Mecca and Cairo not at all. The Andalusi Jews in particular had flourished, translating a great many ancient Greek texts into Arabic, with commentaries of their own, and also making original investigations in medicine and astronomy. Andalusi Muslim scholars had then used what they learned of Greek logic, chiefly Aristotle, to defend all the tenets of Islam with the full force of reason, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rashd being the two most important of these. Ibn Ezra was full of praise for the work of these men. 'I hope to extend it in my own small way, God willing, with a particular application to nature and to the ruins of the past.'

They fell back into the rhythms of caravan, known to them all. Dawn: stoke the campfires, brew the coffee, feed the camels. Pack and load, get the camels moving. Their column stretched out more than a league with various groups falling behind, catching up, stopping, starting; mostly moving slowly along. Afternoon: into camp or caravanserai, though as they went farther north they seldom found anything but deserted ruins, and even the road was nearly gone, overgrown by fully mature trees, as thick trunked as barrels.

The beautiful land they crossed was stitched by mountain ridges, between which stood high, broad plateaux. Crossing them, Bistami felt they had travelled up into a higher space, where sunsets threw long shadows over a vast, dark, windy world. Once when a last shard of sunset light shot under dark lowering clouds, Bistami heard from somewhere in their camp a musician playing a Turkish oboe, carving in the air a long plaintive melody that wound on and on, the song of the dusky plateau's own voice or soul, it seemed. The Sultana stood at the edge of camp, listening with him, her fine head turned like a hawk's as she watched the sun descend. It dropped at the very speed of time itself. There was no need to speak in this singing world, so huge, so knotted; no human mind could ever comprehend it, even the music only touched the hem of it, and even that strand they failed to understand – they only felt it. The universal whole was beyond them.

And yet; and yet; sometimes, as at this moment, at dusk, in the wind, we catch, with a sixth sense we don't know we have, glimpses of that larger world – vast shapes of cosmic significance, a sense of everything holy to dimensions beyond sense or thought or even feeling this visible world of ours, lit from within, stuffed vibrant with reality.

The Sultana stirred. The stars were shining in the indigo sky. She went to one of the fires. She had chosen him as their qadi, Bistami realized, to give herself more room for her own ideas. A community like theirs needed a sufi teacher rather than a mere scholar.

Well, it would become clearer as it happened. Meanwhile, the Sultana; the sound of the oboe; this vast plateau. These things only happen once. The force of this sensation struck him just as strongly as the feel of alreadyness had in the ribat garden.

Just as the Andalusi plateaux stood high under the sun, its rivers were likewise deep in ravines, like the wadi of the Maghrib, but always running. The rivers were also long, and crossing them was no easy matter. The town of Saragossa had grown in the past because of its great stone bridge, which spanned one of the biggest of these rivers, called the Ebro. Now the town was still substantially abandoned, with only some road merchants and vendors and shepherds clustered around the bridge, in stone buildings that looked as if they had been built by the bridge itself, in its sleep. The rest of the town was gone, overgrown by pine trees and shrubbery.

But the bridge remained. It was made of dressed stones, big squarish blocks worn so smooth they appeared bevelled, though they eventually met in lines that would not admit a coin or even a fingernail. The foundations on each bank were squat massive stone towers, resting on bedrock, Ibn Ezra said. He studied them with great interest as the backed up caravan crossed it and set camp on the other side. Bistami looked at his drawing of it. 'Beautiful, isn't it? Like an equation. Seven semi-circular arches, with a big one in the middle, over the deep part of the stream. Every Roman bridge I've seen is very nicely fitted to the site. Almost always they use semi circular arches, which make for strength, although they don't cover much distance, so they needed a lot of them. And always ashlar, that's the squared stones. So they sit squarely on each other, and nothing ever moves them. There's nothing tricky about it. We could do it ourselves, if we took the time and trouble. The only real problem is protecting the foundations from floods. I've seen some done really well, with iron tipped piles driven into the river bottom. But if anything's going to go, it's the foundations. When they tried to do those quicker, with a big weight of rock, they dammed the water, and increased its force against what they put in.'

'Where I come from bridges are washed out all the time,' Bistami said. 'People just build another one.'

'Yes, but this is so much more elegant. I wonder if they put any of this down on paper. I haven't seen any books of theirs. The libraries left behind here are terrible, all account books, with the occasional bit of pornography. If there was ever anything more it's been burned to start fires. Anyway, the stones tell the story. See, the stones were cut so well there was no need for mortar. The iron pegs you see sticking out were probably used to anchor scaffolding.'

'The Mughals build well in Sind,' Bistami said, thinking of the perfect joints in Chishti's tomb. 'But mostly the temples and forts. The bridges are usually bamboo, set in piles of stone.'

Ibn nodded. 'You see a lot of that. But maybe this river doesn't flood as much. It seems like dry country.'

In the evenings Ibn Ezra showed them a little model of the hoists the Romans must have used to move the great stones: stick tripods, string ropes. The Sultan and Sultana were his principal audience, but many others watched too, while others wandered in and out of the torchlight. These people asked Ibn Ezra questions, they made comments; they stayed around when the Sultan's cavalry head, Sharif jalil, came into the circle with two of his horsemen holding between them a third, who had been accused of theft, apparently not for the first time. As the Sultan discussed his case with Sharif, Bistami gathered that the accused man had an unsavoury reputation, for reasons known to them but left unsaid – an interest in boys perhaps. Apprehension very like dread filled Bistami, recalling scenes from Fatepur Sikri; strict sharia called for thieves' hands to be cut off, and sodomy, the infamous vice of the Christian crusaders, was punishable by death.

But Mawji Darya merely strode up to the man and yanked him down by the ear, as if chastising a child. 'You want for nothing with us. You joined us in Malaga, and need only work honestly to be part of our city.'

The Sultana nodded at this.

'If we wanted to, we would have the right to punish you in ways you would not like at all. Go talk to our handless penitents if you doubt me! Or we could simply leave you behind, and see how you fare with the locals. The Zott don't like anyone but themselves doing things like this. They would dispose of you quickly. I tell you now, this will happen if Sharif brings you before me again. You will be cast out of your family. Believe me 'glancing significantly towards his wife – 'you would regret that.'

The man blubbered something submissive (he was drunk, Bistami saw) and was hauled away. The Sultan told Ibn Ezra to continue his exposition on Roman bridges.

Later Bistami joined the Sultana in the big royal tent, and remarked on the general openness of their court.

'No veils,' Katima said sharply. 'Not the izar nor the hijab, the veil that kept the caliph from the people. The hijab was the first step on the road to the despotism of the caliph. Mohammed was never like that, never. He made the first mosque an assembly of friends. Everyone had access to him, and everyone spoke their mind. It could have stayed like that, and the mosque become the place of… of a different way. With both women and men speaking. This was what Mohammed began, and who are we to change it? Why follow the ways of those who build barriers, who turned into despots? Mohammed wanted group feeling to lead, and the person in charge to be no more than a hakam, an arbiter. This was the title he loved the most and was most proud of, did you know that?'

'Yes.'

'But when he was gone to Heaven, Muawiya established the caliphate, and put guards in the mosques to protect himself, and it has been tyranny ever since. Islam changed from submission to subjugation, and women were banned from the mosques and from their rightful place. It's a travesty of Islam!'

She was red cheeked, vibrant with suppressed emotion. Bistami had never seen such fervour and beauty together in one face, and he could hardly think; or, he was full of thought on several levels at once, so that focus on any one stream of ideas left him fluttering in all the others, restless and inclined to stop following that tributary; inclined merely to let all rivers of thought roll at once.

'Yes,' he said.

She stalked away towards the next fire, squatted down all at once in a fluff of skirts, in the group of handless and one handed men. They greeted her cheerfully and offered her one of their cups, and she drank deeply, then put it down and said, 'Come on then, it's time, you're looking ratty again.' They pulled out a stool, she sat on it, and one of them knelt before her, his broad back to her. She took the offered comb and a vial of oil, and began to work the comb through the man's long tangled hair. The motley crew of their ship of fools settled in around her contentedly.

North of the Ebro the caravan stopped growing. There were fewer towns on the old road to the north, and they were smaller, composed of recent Maghribi settlers, Berbers who had sailed straight across from Algiers and even Tunis. They were growing barley and cucumbers, and pasturing sheep and goats in the long fertile valleys with their rocky ridgelines,

Not far inland from the Mediterranean. Catalonia, this had been called, very fine land, heavily forested on the hills. They had left behind the taifa kingdoms to the south, and the people here were content; they felt no need to follow a dispossessed sufi sultan and his motley caravan, over the Pyrenees and into wild Firanja. And in any case, as Ibn Ezra pointed out, the caravan did not boast food enough to feed many more dependants, nor the gold or money to buy more food than they already were from the villages they passed.

So they continued on the old road, and at the head of a long narrowing valley they found themselves on a broad, dry, rocky plateau, leading up to the forested flanks of a range of mountains, formed of rock darker than the rock of the Himalaya. The old road wound up the flattest part of the tilted plateau, by the side of a gravelly streambed almost devoid of water. Further along it followed a cut in the hills, just above the bed of this small stream, wandering up into mountains that grew rockier and taller. Now when they camped at night they met no one at all, but bedded down in tents or under the stars, sleeping to the sound of the wind in the trees, and the clattering brooks, and the shifting horses against their harness lines. Eventually the road wound up among rocks, a flat way leading through a rockbound pass, then across a mountain meadow among the peaks, then up through another tight pass, flanked by granite battlements; and then down at last. Compared to the Khyber Pass it was not much of a struggle, Bistami thought, but many in the caravan were shivering and afraid.

On the other side of the pass, rockslides had buried the old road repeatedly, and each time the road became a mere foot trail, switchbacking at sharp angles across the rockslides. These were hard going, and the Sultana often got off her horse and walked, leading her women with no tolerance for ineptitude or complaint. Indeed she had a sharp tongue when she was annoyed, sharp and scornful.

Ibn Ezra inspected the roads every evening when they stopped, and the rockslides too when they passed them, making drawings of any exposed roadbeds, coping stones or drainage ditches. 'It's classic Roman,' he said one evening by the fire as they ate roast mutton. 'They knitted all the land around the Mediterranean with these roads. I wonder if this was their main route over the Pyrenees. I don't suppose so, it's so far to the west. It will lead us to the western ocean rather than the Mediterranean. But perhaps it's the easiest pass. It's hard to believe this is not the main road, it's so big.'

'Perhaps they're all that way,' said the Sultana.

'Possibly. They may have used things like these carts the people have found, so they needed their roads to be wider than ours. Camels of course need no road at all. Or this may be their main road after all. It may be the road Hannibal used on his way to attack Rome, with his army of Carthaginians and their elephants! I have seen those ruins, north of Tunis. It was a very great city. But Hannibal lost and Carthage lost, and the Romans pulled their city down and sowed salt in the fields, and the Maghrib dried up. No more Carthage.'

'So elephants may have walked this road,' the Sultana said. The Sultan looked down at the track, shaking his head in wonder. These were the kinds of things the two of them liked to know.

Coming down out of the mountains, they found themselves in a colder land. The midday sun cleared the peaks of the Pyrenees, but only just. The land was flat and grey, and often swathed in ground mist. The ocean lay to the west, grey and cold and wild with high surf.

The caravan came to a river that emptied into this western sea, flanked by the ruins of an ancient city. On the outskirts of the ruins stood some modest new buildings, fishermen's shacks they seemed, on each side of a newly built wooden bridge.

'Look how much less skilful we are than the Romans,' Ibn Ezra said, but hurried over to look at the new work anyway.

He came back. 'I believe this was a city called Bayonne. There's an inscription on the remaining bridge tower over there. The maps indicate there was a bigger city to the north, called Bordeaux. Water's Edge.'

The Sultan shook his head. 'We've come far enough. This will do. Over the mountains, but yet only a moderate journey back to al Andalus. That's just what I want. We'll settle here.'

Sultana Katima nodded, and the caravan began the long process of settling in.

Eight. Baraka

In general, they built upstream from the ruins of the ancient town, scavenging stone and beams until very little of the old buildings remained, except for the church, a big stone barn of a structure, stripped of all idols and images. It was not a beautiful structure compared to the mosques of the civilized world, being a rude squat rectangular thing, but it was big, and situated on a prominence overlooking a turn in the river. So after discussion among all the members of the caravan, they decided to make it their grand or Friday mosque.

Modifications began immediately. This project became Bistami's responsibility, and he spent a lot of time with Ibn Ezra, describing what he remembered of the Chishti shrine and the other great buildings of Akbar's empire, poring over Ibn Ezra's drawings to see what might be done to make the old church more mosque like. They settled on a plan to tear the roof off the old structure, which in any case was showing the sky in many places, and to keep the walls as the interior buttressing of a circular or rather egg shaped mosque, with a dome. The Sultana wanted the prayer courtyard to open onto a larger city square, to indicate the all embracing quality of their version of Islam, and Bistami did what he could to oblige her, despite signs that it would rain often in this region, and snow perhaps in the winter. It wasn't important; the place of worship would continue out from the grand mosque into a plaza and then the city at large, and by extension, the whole world.

Ibn Ezra happily designed scaffolding, hods, carts, braces, buttressing, cements and so on, and he determined by the stars and such maps as they had, the direction of Mecca, which would be indicated not only by the usual signs, but also by the orientation of the mosque itself. The rest of the town moved in towards the grand mosque, all the old ruins removed and used for new construction as people settled closer and closer. The scattering of Armenians and Zott who had been living in the ruins before their arrival either joined the community, or moved off to the north.

'We should save room near the mosque for a madressa,' Ibn Ezra said, 'before the town fills this whole district.'

Sultan Mawji thought this was a good idea, and he ordered those who had settled next to the mosque while working on it to move. Some of the workers objected to this, and then refused outright. In a meeting the Sultan lost his temper and threatened this group with expulsion from the town, though the fact was he commanded only a very small personal bodyguard, barely enough to defend himself, in Bistami's opinion. Bistami recalled the giant cavalries of Akbar, the Marnlukes' soldiers; nothing like that here for the Sultan, who now faced a mere dozen or two sullen recalcitrants, and yet could do nothing with them. And the open tradition of the caravan, the feel of it, was in danger.

But Sultana Katima rode up on her Arabian mare, and slid down from it and went to the Sultan's side. She put her hand to his arm, said something just to him. He looked startled, thinking fast. The Sultana shot a fierce glance at the uncooperative squatters, such a bitter rebuke that Bistami shuddered; not for the world would he risk such a glance from her. And indeed the miscreants paled and looked down in shame.

She said, 'Mohammed told us that learning is God's great hope for humanity. The mosque is the heart of learning, the Quran's home. The madressa is an extension of the mosque. It must be so in any Muslim community, to know God more completely. And so it will be here. Of course.'

She then led her husband away from the place, to the palace on the other side of the city's old bridge. In the middle of the night the Sultan's guards returned with swords drawn and pikes at the ready, to rouse the squatters and send them off; but the area was already deserted.

Ibn Ezra nodded with relief when he heard the news. 'In the future we must plan ahead well enough to avoid such scenes,' he said in a low voice to Bistami. 'This incident adds to the reputation of the Sultana, perhaps, in some ways, but at a cost.'

Bistami didn't want to think about it. 'At least now we will have mosque and madressa side by side.'

'They are two parts of the same thing, as the Sultana said. Especially if the study of the sensible world is included in the curriculum of the madressa. I hope so. I can't stand for such a place to be wasted on mere devotionals. God put us in this world to understand it! That is the highest form of devotion to God, as Ibn Sina said.'

This small crisis was soon forgotten, and the new town, named by the Sultana Baraka, that term for grace that Bistami had mentioned to her, took shape as if there could never have been any other plan. The ruins of the old town disappeared under the new city's streets and plazas, gardens and workshops; the architecture and city plan both resembled Malaga, and the other Andalusi coastal cities, but with higher walls, and smaller windows, for the winters here were cold, and a raw wind blew in from the ocean in the autumn and spring. The Sultan's palace was the only structure in the town as open and light as a Mediterranean building; this reminded people of their origins, and showed them that the Sultan lived above the usual demands of nature. Across the bridge from it, the plazas were small, the streets and alleyways narrow, so that a riverside medina or casbah developed that was, as in any Maghribi or Arabian city, a veritable warren of buildings, mostly three storeys tall, with the upper windows facing each other across alleyways so tight that one could, as was said everywhere, pass condiments from window to window across the streets.

The first time snow fell, everyone rushed out to the plaza before the grand mosque, dressed in most of their clothes. A great bonfire was lit, the muezzin made his call, prayers were recited, and the palace musicians played with blue lips and frozen fingers as people danced in the sufi way around the bonfire. Whirling dervishes in the snow: all laughed to see it, feeling they had brought Islam to a new place, a new climate. They were making a new world! There was plenty of wood in the undisturbed forests to the north, and a constant supply of fish and fowl; they would be warm, they would be fed; in the winters the life of the city would go on, under a thin blanket of wet melting snow, as if they lived in high mountains, and yet the river poured out its long estuary into the grey ocean, which pounded the beach with unrelenting ferocity, eating instantly the snowflakes that fell into the waves. This was their country.

One day in spring another caravan arrived, full of strangers and their possessions; they had heard of the new town Baraka, and wanted to move there. It was another ship of fools, come from the Armenian and Zott settlements in Portugal and Castile, its criminal tendencies made obvious by the high incidence of handlessness and musical instruments, puppeteers and fortune tellers.

'I'm surprised they made it over the mountains,' Bistami said to Ibn Ezra.

'Necessity made them inventive, no doubt. Al Andalus is a dangerous place for people like these. The Sultan's brother is proving a very strict caliph, I have heard, almost Almohad in his purity. The form of Islam he enforces is so pure that I don't believe it was ever lived before, even in the time of the Prophet. No, this caravan is made of people on the run. And so was ours.'

'Sanctuary,' Bistami said. 'That's what the Christians called a place of protection. Usually their churches, or else a royal court. Like some of the sufi ribat in Persia. It's a good thing. The good people come to you when the law elsewhere becomes too harsh.'

So they came. Some were apostates or heretics, and Bistami debated these in the mosque itself, trying as he spoke to create an atmosphere in which all these matters could be discussed freely, without a sense of danger hanging overhead – it existed, but far away, back over the Pyrenees – but also without anything blasphemous against God or Mohammed being affirmed. It did not matter whether one was Sunni or Shiite Arabian or Andalusi, Turk or Zott, man or woman; what mattered was devotion, and the Quran.

It was interesting to Bistami that this religious balancing act got easier to maintain the longer he worked at it, as if he were practising something physical, on a ledge or high wall. A challenge to the authority of the caliph? See what the Quran said about it. Ignore the hadith that had encrusted the holy book, and so often distorted it: cut through to the source. There the messages might be ambiguous, often they were.

But the book had come to Mohammed over a period of many years, and important concepts were usually repeated in it, in slightly different ways each time. They would read all the relevant passages, and discuss the differences. 'When I was in Mecca studying, the true scholars would say…' This was as much authority as Bistami would claim for himself; that he had heard true authorities speak. It was the method of the hadith, of course, but with a different content: that the hadith could not be trusted, only the Quran.

'I was speaking with the Sultana about this matter This was another common gambit. Indeed, he consulted with her about almost every question that came up, and without fail in all matters having to do with women or child rearing; concerning family life he always deferred to ber judgment, which he learned to trust more and more as the first years passed. She knew the Quran inside out, and had memorized every sura that aided her case against undue hierarchy, and her protectiveness for the weak of the city grew unabated. Above all she commanded the eye and the heart, wherever she went, and never more so than in the mosque. There was no longer any question of her right to be there, and occasionally even to lead the prayers. It would have seemed unnatural to bar such a being, so full of divine grace, from the place of worship in a city named Baraka. As she herself said, 'Did God make me? Did He give me a mind and a soul as great as any man's? Did men's children come out of a woman? Would you deny your own mother a place in heaven? Can anyone gain heaven who is not admitted to the sight of God on this Earth?'

No one who would answer these questions in the negative stayed long in Baraka. There were other towns being settled upstream and to the north, founded by Armenians and Zott who were less full of Muslim fervour. A fair number of the Sultan's subjects moved away as time passed. Nevertheless, the crowds at the grand mosque grew. They built smaller ones on the expanding outskirts of town, the usual neighbourhood mosques, but always the Friday mosque remained the meeting place of the city, its plaza and the madressa grounds filled by the whole population on holy days, and during the festivals and Ramadan, and on the first day of snow every year, when the bonfire of winter was lit. Baraka was a single family then, and Sultana Katima its mother and sister.

The madressa grew as fast as the town, or faster. Every spring, after the snows on the mountain roads had melted, new caravans arrived, guided by mountain folk. Some in each group had come to study in the madressa, which grew famous for Ibn Ezra's investigations into plants and animals, the Romans, building technique, and the stars. When they came from al Andalus they sometimes brought with them newly recovered books by Ibn Rashd or Maimonides, or new Arabic translations of the ancient Greeks, and they brought also the desire to share what they knew, and learn more. The new convivencia had its heart in Baraka's madressa, and word spread.

Then one bad day, late in the sixth year of the Barakan hegira, Sultan Mawji Darya fell gravely ill. He had grown fat in the previous months, and Ibn Ezra had tried to be his doctor, putting him on a strict diet of grain and milk, which seemed to help his complexion and energy; but then one night he took ill. Ibn Ezra woke Bistami from his bed: 'Come along. The Sultan is so ill he needs the prayers.'

This coming from Ibn Ezra was bad indeed, as he was not much of a one for prayer. Bistami hurried after him, and joined the royal family in their part of the big palace. Sultana Katima was white faced, and Bistami was shocked to see how unhappy his arrival made her. It wasn't anything personal, but she knew why Ibn Ezra had brought him at such an hour, and she bit her lip and looked away, the tears streaming down her cheeks.

Inside their bedroom the Sultan writhed, silent but for heavy, choked breathing. His face was a dark red colour.

'Has he been poisoned?' Bistami asked Ibn Ezra in a whisper.

'No, I don't think so. Their taster is fine,' indicating the big cat sleeping curled in its little bed in the corner. 'Unless someone pricked him with a poisoned needle. But I see no sign of that.'

Bistami sat by the roiling Sultan and took his hot hand. Before a word had escaped him, the Sultan gave a weak groan and arched back. His breathing stopped. Ibn Ezra grabbed his arms and crossed them before his chest and pressed hard, grunting himself. To no avail; the Sultan had died, his body still locked in its last paroxysm. The Sultana burst weeping into the room, tried to revive him herself, calling to him and to God, and begging Ibn Ezra to keep up his efforts. It took both men some time to convince her that it was all in vain; they had failed; the Sultan was dead.

Funerals in Islam harked back to earlier times. Men and women congregated in different areas during the ceremonies, and only mingled in the cemetery afterwards, during the brief interment.

But of course this was the first funeral for a sultan of Baraka, and the Sultana herself led the whole population into the grand mosque plaza, where she had ordered the body to lie in state. Bistami could only go along with the crowd and stand before them, saying the old prayers of the service as if they were always announced to all together. And why not? Certain lines of the service made sense only if said to eve one in the community: and suddenly, looking out at the stripped, desolate faces of every person in the city, he understood that the tradition had been wrong, that it was plainly wrong and even cruel to split the community apart at the very moment it needed to see itself all together as one. He had never felt such a heterodox opinion so strongly before; he had always agreed with the Sultana's ideas out of the unexamined principle that she ought always to be right. Shaken by this sudden conversion in his ideas, and by the sight of the beloved Sultan's body there in its coffin on its dais, he reminded them all that the sun only shone a certain number of hours on any life. He spoke the words of this impromptu sermon in a hoarse tearing voice which sounded even to him as if it were coming from some other throat; it was the same as it had been during those eternal days long ago, reciting the Quran under the cloud of Akbar's anger. This association was too much, and he began to weep, struggled to speak. All in the plaza wept, the wailing began again, many striking themselves in the self flagellation that took some of the pain away.

The whole town followed the cortege, Sultana Katima leading it on her bay mare. The crowd roared in its sorrow like the sea on its pebble beach. They buried him overlooking the great grey ocean, and after that it was black cloth and ashes for many months.

Somehow they never came out of that year of mourning. It was more than the death of the ruler; it was that the Sultana continued to rule on alone.

Now Bistami, and everyone else, would have said that Sultana Katima had been the true leader all along, and the Sultan merely her gracious and beloved consort. No doubt that was true. But now, when Sultana Katima of Baraka came into the grand mosque and spoke in the Friday prayers, Bistami was once again uneasy, and he could see the townspeople were as well. Katima had spoken before many times in this manner, but now all felt the absence of the covering angel provided by the lenient Sultan's presence across the river.

This unease communicated itself to Katima, of course, and her talks became more strident and plaintive. 'God wants relations in marriage between husband and wife to be between equals. What the husband can be the wife can be also! In the time of the chaos before the year one, in the zero time, you see, men treated women like domestic beasts. God spoke through Mohammed, and made it clear that women were souls equal to men, to be treated as such. They were given by God many specific rights, in inheritance, divorce, power of choice, power to command their children – given their lives, do you understand? Before the first hegira, before the year one, right in the middle of this tribal chaos of murder and theft, this monkey society, God told Mohammed to change it all. He said, Oh yes, of course you can marry more than one wife, if you want to – if you can do it without strife. Then the next verse says "But it cannot be done without strife!" What is this but a ban on polygamy stated in two parts, in the form of a riddle or a lesson, for men who could not otherwise imagine it?'

But now it was very clear that she was trying to change the way things worked, the way Islam worked. Of course they all had been, all along – but secretly, perhaps, not admitting it to anyone, not even to themselves. Now it faced them with the face of their only ruler, a woman. There were no queens in Islam. None of the hadith applied any more.

Bistami, desperate to help, made up his own hadith, and either supplied them with plausible but false isnads, attributing them to ancient sufi authorities made up out of whole cloth; or else he ascribed them to their Sultan, Mawji Darya, or to some old Persian sufi he knew about; or he left them to be understood as wisdom too common to need ascription. The Sultana did the same, following his lead, he thought, but took most of her refuge in the Quran itself, returning obsessively to the suras that supported her positions.

But everyone knew how things were done in al Andalus, and the Maghrib, and in Mecca, and indeed everywhere across Dar al Islam, from the western ocean to the eastern ocean (which Ibn Ezra now claimed were the two shores of the same ocean, spanning the greater part of the Earth, which was a globe covered mostly by water). Women did not lead prayers. When the Sultana did, it remained shocking, and triply so with the Sultan gone. Everyone said it; if she wished to continue along this path, she needed to remarry.

But she showed no sign of interest in that. She wore her widow's black, and held herself aloof from everyone in the town, and had no royal communications with anyone in al Andalus. The man other than Mawji Darya who had spent the most time in her company was Bistami himself; and when he understood the looks some townspeople were giving him, implying that lie might conceivably marry the Sultana and remove them from their difficulty, it made him feel light headed, almost nauseous. He loved her so much that he could not imagine himself married to her. It wasn't that kind of love. He didn't think she could imagine it either, so there was no question of testing the idea, which was both attractive and terrifying, and so in the end painful in the extreme. Once she was talking to Ibn Ezra when Bistami was present, asking him about his claims concerning the ocean fronting them.

'You say this is the same ocean as the one seen by the Moluccans and Sumatrans, on the other side of the world? How could this be?'

'The world is most certainly a globe,' said Ibn Ezra. 'It's round like the moon, or the sun. A spherical ball. And we have come to the western end of the land in the world, and around the globe is the eastern end of the land in the world. And this ocean covers the rest of the world, you see.'

'So we could sail to Sumatra?'

'In theory, yes. But I've been trying to calculate the size of the earth, using some calculations made by the ancient Greeks, and Brahmagupta of south India, and by my studies of the sky, and though I cannot be sure, I believe it must be some ten thousand leagues around. Brahmagupta said five thousand yoganda, which as I understand it is about the same distance. And the land mass of the world, from Morocco to the Moluccas, I reckon to be about five thousand leagues. So this ocean we look out on covers half the world, five thousand leagues or more. No ship could make it across.'

'Are you sure it is so big as that?'

Ibn Ezra waggled a hand uncertainly. 'Not sure, Sultana. But I think it must be something like that.'

'What about islands? Surely this ocean is not completely empty for five thousand leagues! Surely there are islands!'

'Undoubtedly, Sultana. I mean, it seems likely. Andalusi fishermen have reported running into islands when storms or currents carried them far to the west, but they don't describe how far, or in what direction.'

The Sultana looked hopeful. 'So we could perhaps sail away, and find the same islands, or others like them.'

Ibn Ezra waggled his hand again.

'Well?' she said sharply. 'Do you not think you could build a seaworthy ship?'

'Possibly, Sultana. But supplying it for a voyage that long… We don't know how long it would be.'

' Well,' she said darkly, 'we may have to find out. With the Sultan dead, and no one for me to remarry ' and she shot a single glance at Bistami – 'there will be Andalusi villains thinking to rule us.'

It was like a stab to his heart. That night Bistami lay twisting on his bed, seeing that short glance over and over. But what could he do? How could he be expected to help such a situation? He could not sleep, not the entire night long.

Because a husband would have helped. There was no longer a feeling of harmony in Baraka, and word of the situation certainly had made its way over the Pyrenees, for early in the following spring, when the rivers were still running high and the mountains protecting them still stood white and jagged edged to the south, horsemen came down the road out of the hills, just ahead of a cold spring storm, pouring in from the ocean: a long column of cavalry, in fact, with pennants from Toledo and Granada flying, and swords and pikes at their hips gleaming in the sun. They rode right into the mosque plaza at the centre of town, colourful under the lowering clouds, and lowered their pikes until they all pointed forwards. Their leader was one of the Sultan's elder brothers, Said Darya, and he stood in his silver stirrups so that he towered over the people gathering there, and said, 'We claim this town in the name of the Caliph of al Andalus, to save it from apostasy, and from the witch who threw her spell over my brother and killed him in his bed.'

'The crowd, growing by the moment, stared stupidly up at the horsemen. Some of the townspeople were red faced and tight lipped, some pleased, most confused or sullen. A few of the rabble from the original Ship of Fools were already pulling cobblestones out of the ground.

Bistami saw all this from the avenue leading to the river, and all of a sudden something about the sight struck him like a blow; those pikes and crossbows, pointing inwards: it was like the tiger trap, back in India. These people were like the Bagh mari, the professional tiger killing clans that went about the country disposing of problem tigers for a fee. He had seen them before! And not only with the tigress, but before that as well, some other time that he couldn't remember but remembered anyway, some ambush for Katima, a death trap, men stabbing her when she was tall and black skinned – oh, this had all happened before!

In a panic he ran across the bridge to the palace. Sultana Katima was about to get on her horse to go and confront the invaders, and he threw himself between her and the horse; she was furious and tried to brush by him, and he put his arm around her waist, as slender as a girl's, which shocked them both, and he cried, 'No, no, no, no, no! No, Sultana, I beg you, I beg you, don't go over there! They'll kill you, it's a trap! I've seen it! They will kill you!'

'I have to go,' she said, cheeks flushed. 'The people need me 'No they don't! They need you alive! We can leave and they can follow! They will follow! We have to let those people have this town, the buildings mean nothing, we can move north and your people will follow! Listen to me, listen!' And he caught her up by the shoulders and held her fast, looked ber in the eye: 'I have seen all this play out before. I have been given knowledge. We have to escape or we will be killed.'

Across the river they could hear screams. The Andalusi horsemen were not used to opposition from a population without any soldiers, without cavalry, and they were charging down the streets after mobs who threw stones as they fled. A lot of Barakis were crazy with rage, certainly the one handed ones would die to the man to defend her, and the invaders were not going to have as easy a time of it as they had thought. Snow was now twirling down through the dark air, flying sideways on the wind out of grey clouds streaming low overhead, and already there were fires in the city, the district around the grand mosque beginning to burn.

'Come on, Sultana, there's no time to waste! I've seen how this happens, they'll have no mercy, they're on their way here to the palace, we need to leave now! This has happened before! We can make a new city in the north, some of the people will come with us, gather a caravan and start over, defend ourselves properly!'

' All right!' Sultana Katima shouted suddenly, looking across at the burning town. The wind gusted, and they could just hear screaming in the town over the whoosh of the air. 'Damn them! Damn them! Get a horse then, come on, all of you come on! We'll need to ride hard.'

Nine. Another Meeting in the Bardo

And so it was that when they all reconvened in the bardo, many years later, after going north and founding the city of Nsara at the mouth of the Lawiyya River, and defending it successfully from the Andalusi taifa sultans coming up to attack them in after years, and building the beginnings of a maritime power, fishing all the way across the sea, and trading farther yet than that, Bistami was well pleased. He and Katima had never married, the matter had never come up again, but he had been Nsara's principal ulema for many years, and had helped to create a religious legitimacy for this new thing, a queen in Islam. And he and Katima had worked together on this project almost every day of those lives.

'I recognized you!' he reminded Katima. 'In the midst of life, through the veil of forgetting, when it mattered, I saw who you were, and you – you saw something too. You knew something from a higher reality was going on! We're making progress.'

Katima did not reply. They were sitting on the flagstones of a courtyard in a place very like Chishti's shrine in Fatepur Sikri, except that the courtyard was vastly bigger. People waited in a line to go in the shrine and be judged. They looked like hajjis in line to see the Kaaba. Bistami could hear Mohammed's voice inside, praising some, admonishing others. 'You need to try again,' be heard a voice like Mohammed's say to someone. Everything was quiet and subdued. It was the hour before sunrise, cool and damp, the air filled with distant birdsong. Sitting there beside her, Bistami could see very clearly now how Katima was not at all like Akbar. Akbar had no doubt been sent down to a lower realm, and was even now prowling the jungle hunting for his food, as Katima had been in the existence before last, when she had been a tigress, a killer who had nevertheless befriended Bistami. She had saved him from the Hindu rebels, then picked him out of the ribat in al Andalus: 'You recognized me too,' he said. 'And we both knew Ibn Ezra,' who was at this moment inspecting the wall of the courtyard, running his fingernail down the line between two blocks, admiring the stonework of the bardo.

'This is genuine progress,' Bistami repeated. 'We are finally getting somewhere!'

Katima gave him a sceptical glance. 'You call that progress? Chased to a hole at the far corner of the world?'

'But who cares where we were? We recognized each other, you didn't get killed '

'Wonderful.'

'It was wonderful! I saw through time, I felt the touch of the eternal. We made a place where people could love the good. Little steps, life after life; and eventually we will be there for good, in the white light.'

Katima gestured; her brother in law, Said Darya, was entering the palace of judgment.

'Look at him, a miserable creature, and yet he is not thrown down into hell, nor even become a worm or a jackal, as he deserves. He will return to the human realm, and wreak havoc all over again. He too is part of our jati, did you recognize him? Did you know he was part of our little band, like Ibn Ezra here?'

Ibn Ezra sat beside them. The line moved up and they shifted with it. 'The walls are solid,' he reported. 'Very well built, in fact. I don't think we're going to able to escape.'

'Escape!' Bistami cried. 'This is God's judgment! No one escapes that!'

Katima and Ibn Ezra looked at each other. Ibn Ezra said, 'My impression is that any improvement in the tenor of existence will have to be anthropogenic.'

'What?' Bistami cried.

'It's up to us. No one will help us.'

'I'm not saying they will. Although God always helps if you ask. But it is up to us, that's what I've been saying all along, and we are doing what we can, we are making progress.'

Katima was not at all convinced. 'We'll see,' she said. 'Time will tell. For now, I myself withhold judgment.' She faced the white tomb, drew herself up queenlike, spoke with a tigerish curl of the lip: 'And no one judges me.'

With a wave of the hand she dismissed the tomb. 'It's not here that matters. What matters is what happens in the world.'

* * *

In the thirty fifth year of his reign, the Wanli Emperor turned his feverish and permanently dissatisfied eye on Nippon. Ten years earlier the Nipponese general Hideyoshi had had the temerity to attempt the conquest of China, and when the Koreans had refused him passage, his army had invaded Korea as the first step in its path. It had taken a large Chinese army three years to drive the invaders off the Korean peninsula, and the twenty six million ounces of silver it had cost the Wanli Emperor had put his treasury in acute difficulties, difficulties from which it had never recovered. The Emperor was inclined to avenge this unprovoked assault (if you did not count the two unsuccessful attacks on Nippon made by Kublai Khan), and to remove the danger of any future problem arising from Nippon, by subjugating it to Chinese suzerainty. Hideyoshi had died, and leyasu, the head of a new Tokugawa. Shogunate, had successfully united all the Nipponese islands under his command, and then closed the country to foreigners. All Nipponese were forbidden to leave, and those who did were forbidden to return. The building of seaworthy ships was also forbidden, although the Wanli noted irritably in his vermilion memoranda that this did not stop hordes of Nipponese pirates attacking on the long Chinese coastline using smaller craft. He thought leyasu's retreat from the world signalled weakness, and yet at the same time, a fortress nation of warriors just offshore from the Middle Kingdom was not something to be tolerated either. It pleased the Wanli to think of returning this bastard child of Chinese culture to its rightful place under the Dragon Throne, joining there Korea, Annam, Tibet, Mindanao and the Spice Islands.

His advisers were not enthusiastic about the plan. For one thing, the treasury was still depleted. For another, the Ming court was already drained by all the previous dramatic events of the Wanli reign, not only the defence of Korea but also the racking dissension caused by the succession problem, still only nominally solved by the Wanli's choice of his elder son, and his younger son's banishment to the provinces; all that could change in a week. And around that highly combustible situation, like a civil war in waiting, constellated all the conflicts and jealous manoeuvrings of the court powers: the Empress Mother, the Empress, the senior civil servants, the eunuchs and the generals. Something in the Wanli's combination of intelligence and vacillation, his permanent discontent and his occasional bursts of vengeful fury, made the court of his old age a flayed and exhausted nest of intrigues. To his advisers, particularly the generals and the heads of the treasury, conquering Nippon did not seem even remotely possible.

The Emperor, true to form, insisted that it be done.

His senior generals came back with an alternative plan, which they hoped very much would satisfy his desire. They proposed that the Emperor's diplomats arrange a treaty with one of the minor Nipponese shoguns, the Tozama Daimyo, who were out of leyasu's favour because they had joined him only after his military victory at Sekigahara. The treaty would stipulate that this minor shogun would invite the Chinese to come to one of his ports, and open it permanently to Chinese trade. A Chinese navy would then land at this port in force, and in essence make the port a Chinese port, defended by the full power of the Chinese navy, grown so much bigger during the Wanli's reign in the attempt to defend the coast against pirates. Most of the pirates were from Nippon, so there was a kind of justice there; and a chance to trade with Nippon as well. After that, the treaty port could serve as the staging centre of a slower conquest of Nippon, conceived of as happening in stages rather than all at once. That would make it affordable.

The Wanli grumbled about his advisers' meagre, partial, eunuchlike enactments of his desires, but patient advocacy by his most trusted advisers of that period finally won him over, and he approved the plan. A secret treaty was arranged with a local lord, Omura, who invited the Chinese to land and trade at a small fishing village with an excellent harbour, called Nagasaki. Preparations for an expedition that would arrive there with overwhelming force were made in the rebuilt shipyards of Longjiang, near Nanjing, also on the Cantonese coast. The big new ships of the invading fleet were filled with supplies to enable the landing force to withstand a long siege, and they assembled for the first time off the coast of Taiwan, with no one in Nippon except for Omura and his advisers any the wiser.

The fleet was, by the Wanli's direct order, put under the command of one Admiral Kheim, of Annam. This admiral had already led a fleet for the Emperor, in the subjugation of Taiwan some years before, but he was still seen by the Chinese bureaucracy and military as an outsider, an expert in pirate suppression who had achieved his expertise by spending much of his youth as a pirate himself, plundering the Fujian coast. The Wanli Emperor did not care about this, and even regarded it as a point in Kheim's favour; he wanted someone who could get results, and if he came from outside the military bureaucracy, with its many entanglements at court and in the provinces, so much the better.

The fleet set out in the thirty eighth year of the Wanli, on the third day of the first month. The spring winds were constant from the northwest for eight days, and the fleet positioned itself in the Kuroshio, the Black River, that great ocean current which runs like a river a hundred li wide, up the long southern shores of the Nipponese islands.

This was as planned, and they were on their way; but then the winds died. Nothing in the air stirred. No bird was seen, and the paper sails of the fleet hung limp, their cross slats ticking the masts only because of the rippling of the Kuroshio itself, which carried them north and east past the main Nipponese islands, past Hokkaido, and out onto the empty expanse of the Dahai, the Great Ocean. This shoreless blue expanse was bisected by their invisible but powerful Black River, flowing relentlessly cast.

Admiral Kheim ordered all the captains of the Eight Great Ships and of the Lesser Eighteen Ships to row over to the flagship, where they consulted. Many of the most experienced ocean sailors of Taiwan, Annam, Fujian and Canton were among these men, and their faces were grave; to be carried off by the Kuroshio was a dangerous business. All of them had heard stories of junks that had been becalmed in the current, or dismasted by squalls, or had had to chop down their masts in order to avoid being capsized, and after that disappeared for years in onestory nine years, in another thirty – after which they had drifted back out of the southeast, bleached and empty, or manned by skeletons. These stories, and the eyewitness evidence of the flagship's doctor, I Chen, who claimed to have ridden around the Dahai successfully in his youth on a fishing junk disabled by a typhoon, led them to agree that there was probably a big circular current flowing around the vast sea, and. That if they could stay alive long enough, they might be able to sail around in it, back to home.

It was not a plan any of them would have chosen to undertake deliberately, but at that point they had no other option but to try it. The captains sat in the Admiral's cabin on the flagship and regarded each other unhappily. Many of the Chinese there knew the legend of Hsu Fu, admiral of the Han dynasty of ancient times, who had sailed off with his fleet in search of lands to settle on the other side of the Dahai, and never been heard from again. They knew as well the story of Kubla Khan's two attempts at invading Nippon, both demolished by unseasonable typhoons, which had given the Nipponese the conviction that there was a divine wind that would defend their home islands from foreign attack. Who could disagree? And it seemed all too possible that this divine wind was now doing its work in a kind of joke or ironic reversal, manifesting itself as a divine calm while they were in the Kuroshio, causing their destruction just as effectively as any typhoon. The calm after all was uncannily complete, its timing miraculously good; it could be they had got caught up in gods' business. That being the case, they could only give their fate over to their own gods, and hope to ride things out.

This was not Admiral Kheim's favoured mode of being. 'Enough,' he said darkly, ending the meeting. He had no faith in the sea gods' good will, and took no stock in old stories, except as they were useful. They were caught in the Kuroshio; they had some knowledge of the currents of the Dahai – that north of the equator they ran cast, south of the equator, west. They knew the prevailing winds tended to follow likewise. The doctor, I Chen, had successfully ridden the entirety of this great circle, his unprepared ship's crew living off fish and seaweed, drinking rainwater, and stopping for supplies at islands they passed. This was cause for hope. And as the air remained eerily calm, hope was all they had. It was not as if they had any other options; the ships were dead in the water, and the big ones were too big to row anywhere. In truth they had no choice but to make the best of it.

Admiral Kheim therefore ordered most of the men of the fleet to get on board the Eighteen Lesser Ships, and ordered half of these to row north, half south, with the idea they could row at an angle out of the Black Stream, and sail home when the wind returned, to get word to the Emperor concerning what had happened. The Eight Great Ships, manned by the smallest crews that could sail them, with as much of the fleet's supplies as could be fitted in their holds, settled in to wait out the ride around the ocean on the currents. If the smaller ones succeeded in sailing back to China, they were to tell the Emperor to expect the Great Eight to return at some later date, out of the southeast.

In a couple of days the smaller ships all disappeared over the horizon, and the Eight Great Ships drifted on, roped together in a perfect calm, off the maps to the unknown east. There was nothing else they could do.

Thirty days passed without the slightest breeze. Each day they rode the current farther to the cast.

No one had ever seen anything like it. Admiral Kheim rejected all talk of the Divine Calm, however; as he pointed out, the weather had gone strange in recent years, mostly much colder, with lakes freezing over that had never frozen before, and freak winds, such as certain whirlwinds that had stood in place for weeks at a time. Something was wrong in the heavens. This was just part of that.

When the wind returned at last, it was strong from the west, pushing them even farther along. They angled south across the prevailing wind, but cautiously now, hoping to stay within the hypothetical great circle current, as being the fastest way around the ocean and back home. In the middle of the circle there was rumoured to be a permanent zone of calm, perhaps the very centrepoint of the Dahai, as it was near the equator, and perhaps equidistant from shores east and west, though no one could say for sure about that. A doldrums that no junk could escape, in any case. They had to go out far enough to the east to get around that, then head south, then, below the equator, back west again.

They saw no islands. Seabirds sometimes flew over, and they shot a few with arrows and ate them for luck. They fished day and night with nets, and caught flying fish in their sails, and pulled in snarls of seaweed that grew increasingly rare, and refilled their water casks when it rained, setting funnels like inverted umbrellas over them. And they were seldom thirsty, and never hungry.

But never a sight of land. The voyage went on, day after day, week after week, month after month. The rattan and the rigging began to wear thin. The sails grew transparent. Their skin began to grow transparent.

The sailors grumbled. They no longer approved of the plan to ride the circle of currents around the great sea; but there was no turning back, as Kheim pointed out to them. So they passed through their grumbling, as through a storm. Kheim was not an admiral anyone wanted to cross.

They rode out storms in the sky, and felt the rocking of storms under the sea. So many days passed that their lives before the voyage grew distant and indistinct; Nippon, Taiwan, even China itself began to seem like dreams of a former existence. Sailing became the whole world: a water world, with its blue plate of waves under an inverted bowl of blue sky, and nothing else. They no longer even looked for land. A mass of seaweed was as astonishing as an island would once have been. Rain was always welcome, as the occasional periods of rationing and thirst had taught them painfully their utter reliance on fresh water. This mostly came from rain, despite the little stills that I Chen had constructed to clarify salt water, which gave them a few buckets a day.

All things were reduced to their elemental being. Water was ocean; air was sky; earth, their ships; fire, the sun, and their thoughts. The fires banked down. Some days Kheim woke, and lived, and watched the sun go down again, and realized that he had forgotten to think a single thought that whole day. And he was the admiral.

Once they passed the bleached wreckage of a huge junk, intertwined with seaweed and whitened with bird droppings, barely afloat. Another time they saw a sea serpent out to the east, near the horizon, perhaps leading them on.

Perhaps the fire had left their minds entirely, and was in the sun alone, burning above through rainless days. But something must have remained – grey coals, almost burnt out – for when land poked over the horizon to the cast, late one afternoon, they shouted as if it was all they had ever thought of, in every moment of the hundred and sixty days of their unexpected journey. Green mountainsides, falling precipitously into the sea, apparently empty; it didn't matter; it was land. What looked to be a large island.

The next morning it was still there ahead of them. Land ho!

Very steep land, however, so steep that there was no obvious place to make landfall: no bays, no river mouths of any size; just a great wall of green hills, rising wetly out of the sea.

Kheim ordered them to sail south, thinking even now of the return to China. The wind was in their favour for once, and the current also. They sailed south all that day and the next, without a single harbour to be seen. Then, as light fog lifted one morning, they saw they had passed a cape, which protected a sandy southern reach; and farther south there was a gap in the hills, dramatic and obvious. A bay. There was a patch of turbulent white water on the north side of this majestic entrance strait, but beyond that it was clear sailing, and the flood tide helping to usher them in.

So they sailed into a bay like nothing any of them had ever seen in all their travels. An inland sea, really, with three or four rocky islands in it, and hills all around, and marshes bordering most of its shores. The hills were rocky on top but mostly forested, the marshes lime green, yellowed by autumn colours. Beautiful land; and empty!

They turned north and anchored in a shallow inlet, protected by a hilly spine that ran down into the water. Then some of them spotted a line of smoke rising up into the evening air.

'People,' I Chen said. 'But I don't think this can be the western end of the Muslim lands. We haven't sailed far enough for that, if Hsing Ho is correct. We shouldn't even be close yet.'

'Maybe it was a stronger current than you thought.'

'Maybe. I can refine our distance from equator tonight.'

'Good.'

But a distance from China would have been better, and that was the calculation they could not make. Dead reckoning had been impossible during the long period of their drift, and despite I Chen's continual guesses, Kheim didn't think they knew their distance from China to within a thousand li.

As for distance from equator, I Chen reported that night, after measuring the stars, that they were at about the same line as Edo or Beijing a little higher than Edo, a little lower than Beijing. I Chen tapped his astrolabe thoughtfully. 'It's the same level as the hui countries in the far west, in Fulan where all the people died. If Hsing Ho's map can be trusted. Fulan, see? A harbour called Lisboa. But there's no Fulan chi here. I don't think this can be Fulan. We must have come upon an island.'

'A big island!'

'Yes, a big island.' I Chen sighed. 'If we could only solve the distancefrom China problem.'

It was an everlasting complaint with him, causing an obsession with clockmaking; an accurate clock would have made it possible to calculate longitude, using an almanac to give the star times in China, and timing from there. The Emperor had some fine timepieces in his palace, it was said, but they had no clock on their ship. Kheim left him to his muttering.

The next morning they woke to find a group of locals, men, women and children, dressed in leather skirts, shell necklaces, and feather headdresses, standing on the beach watching them. They had no cloth, it appeared, and no metal except small bits of hammered gold, copper and silver. Their arrowheads and spear tips were flaked obsidian, their baskets woven of reeds and pine needles. Great mounds of shells lay heaped on the beach above the high tide mark, and the visitors could see smoke rising from fires set inside wicker hovels, little shelters like those the poor farmers in China used for their pigs in winter.

The sailors laughed and chattered to see such people. They were partly relieved and partly amazed, but it was impossible to be frightened of these folk.

Kheim was not so sure. 'They're like the wild people on Taiwan,' he said. 'We had some terrible fights with them when we went after pirates in the mountains. We have to be careful.'

I Chen said, 'Tribes like that exist on some of the Spice Islands too, I've seen them. But even those people have more things than these.'

'No brick or wood houses, no iron that I can see, meaning no guns…'

'No fields for that matter. They must cat the clams,' pointing at the great shell heaps, 'and fish. And whatever they can hunt or glean. These are poor people.'

'That won't leave much for us.'

'No.'

The sailors were shouting down at them: 'Hello! Hello!'

Kheim ordered them to be quiet. He and I Chen got in one of the little rowing boats they had on the great ship, and had four sailors row them ashore.

From the shallows Kheim stood and greeted the locals, palms up and out, as one did in the Spice Islands with the wild ones. The locals didn't understand anything he said, but his gestures made plain his peaceful intent, and they seemed to recognize it. After a while he stepped ashore, confident of a peaceful welcome, but instructing the sailors to keep their flintlocks and crossbows below the seats at the ready, just in case.

On shore he was surrounded by curious people, babbling in their own tongue. Somewhat distracted by the sight of the women's breasts, he greeted a man who stepped forward, whose elaborate and colourful headdress perhaps confirmed him as their headman. Kheim's silk neck scarf, much salt damaged and faded, had the image of a phoenix on it, and Kheim untied it and gave it to the man, holding it flat so he could see the image. The silk itself interested the man more than the image on it. 'We should have brought more silk,' Kheim said to I Chen I Chen shook his head. 'We were invading Nippon. Get their words for things if you can.'

I Chen was pointing to one thing after another, their baskets, spears, dresses, headpieces, shell mounds; repeating what they said, noting it quickly on his slate. 'Good, good. Well met, well met. The Emperor of China and his humble servants send their greetings.'

The thought of the Emperor made Kheim smile. What would the Wanli, Heavenly Envoy, make of these poor shell grubbers?

'We need to teach some of them Mandarin,' I Chen said. 'Perhaps a young boy, they are quicker.'

'Or a young girl.'

'Don't let's get into that,' I Chen said. 'We need to spend some time here, to repair the ships and restock. We don't want the men here turning on us.'

Kheim mimed their intentions to the headman. Stay for a while camp on shore – cat, drink – repair ships – go back home, beyond the, sunset to the west. It seemed they eventually understood most of this. In return he understood from them that they ate acorns and courgettes, fish and clams and birds, and larger animals, probably they meant deer. They hunted in the hills behind. There was lots of food, and the Chinese were welcome to it. They liked Kheim's silk, and would trade fine baskets and food for more of it. Their ornamental gold came from hills to the east, beyond the delta of a big river that entered the bay across from them, almost directly cast; they indicated where it flowed through a gap in the hills, somewhat like the gap leading out to the ocean.

As this information about the land obviously interested I Chen, they conveyed more to him in a most ingenious way; though they had no paper, nor ink, nor writing nor drawing, except for the patterns in their baskets, they did have maps of a particular kind, made in the sand on the beach. The headman and some other notables crouched and shaped damp sand most minutely with their hands, smoothing flat the part meant to represent the bay, then getting into spirited discussions about the true shape of the mountain between them and the ocean, which they called Tamalpi, and which they indicated by gesture was a sleeping maiden, a goddess apparently, though it was hard to be sure. They used grass to represent a broad valley inland of the hills bracketing the bay on the east, and wetted the channels of a delta and two rivers, one draining the north, the other the south part of a great valley. To the east of this big valley were foothills rising to mountains much bigger than the coastal range, snow capped (indicated by dandelion fluff) and holding in their midst a big lake or two.

All this they marked out with endless disputations concerning the details, and care over fingernail creasings and bits of grass or pine sprays; and all for a map that would be washed away in the next high tide. But when they were done, the Chinese knew that their gold came from people who lived in the foothills; their salt from the shores of the bay; their obsidian from the north and from beyond the high mountains, whence came also their turquoise; and so on. And all without any language in common, merely things displayed in mime, and their sand model of their country.

In the days that followed, however, they exchanged words for a host of daily objects and events, and I Chen kept lists and started a glossary, and started teaching one of the local children, a girl of about six years who was the child of the headman, and very forward; a constant babbler in ber own tongue, whom the Chinese sailors named Butterfly, both for her manner and for the joke that perhaps at this point they were only her dream. She delighted in telling I Chen what was what, very firmly; and quicker than Kheim could have believed possible she was using Chinese as well as her own language, mixing them together sometimes, but usually reserving her Chinese for I Chen, as if it were his private tongue and he some sort of freak, or inveterate joker, always making up fake words for things neither opinion far from the truth. Certainly her elders agreed that I Chen was a strange foreigner, feeling their pulse and abdomens, looking in their mouths, asking to inspect their urine (this they refused), and so on. They had a kind of doctor themselves, who led them in ritual purifications in a simple steam bath. This elderly raddled wild eyed man was no doctor in the sense I Chen was, but I Chen took great interest in the man's herbarium and his explanations, as far as I Chen could make them out, using ever more sophisticated sign languages, and Butterfly's growing facility in Chinese. The locals' language was called Miwok, as the people also called themselves; the word meant 'people' or something like. They made it clear with their maps that their village controlled the watershed of the stream that flowed into the bay. Other Miwok lived in the nearly watersheds of the peninsula, between bay and ocean; other people with different languages lived in other parts of the country, each with its own name and territory, though the Miwok could argue among themselves over the details of these things endlessly. They told the Chinese that the great strait leading out to the ocean had been created by an earthquake, and that the bay had been fresh water before the cataclysm had let the ocean in. This seemed unlikely to I Chen and Kheim, but then one morning after they had slept on shore, they were awakened by a severe shaking, and the earthquake lasted many heartbeats, and came back twice that morning; so that after that they were not as sure about the strait as they had been before.

They both enjoyed listening to the Miwok speak, but only I Chen was interested in how the women made the bitter acorns of the jaggedleaved oaks edible, by grinding and leeching the acorn powder in beds of leaves and sand, giving them a sort of flour; I Chen thought it was most ingenious. This flour, and salmon both fresh and dried, were the staples of their diet, which they offered the Chinese freely. They also ate deer, a kind of giant deer, rabbits, and all manner of waterfowl. Indeed, as the autumn descended mildly on them, and the months passed, the Chinese began to understand that food was so plentiful in this place that there was no need for agriculture as practised in China. Despite which there were very few people living there. That was one of the mysteries of this island.

The Miwok's hunts were big parties in the hills, all day events that Kheim and his men were allowed to join. The bows used by the Miwok were weak but adequate. Kheim ordered his sailors to leave the crossbows and guns hidden on the ships, and the cannon were simply left to view but not explained, and none of the locals asked about them.

On one of these hunting trips Kheim and I Chen followed the headman, Ta Ma, and some of the Miwok men up the stream that poured through their village, up into hills to a high meadow that had a view of the ocean to the west. To the cast they could see across the bay, to range after range of green hills.

The meadow was marshy by the stream, grassy above it, with stands of oak and other trees tufting the air. There was a lake at the lower end of the meadow that was entirely covered with geese – a white blanket of living birds, all honking now, upset by something, complaining. Then the whole flock thrashed into the air, groups swirling and fragmenting, coming together, flying low over the hunters, squawking or silently concentrating, on flight, the distinctive creak of their pumping wing feathers loud in the air. Thousands on thousands.

The men stood and watched the spectacle, eyes bright. When the geese had all departed, they saw the reason they had left; a herd of giant deer had come to the lake to drink. The stags had huge racks of antlers. They stared across the water at the men, vigilant but undeterred.

For a moment, all was still.

In the end the giant deer stepped away. Reality awoke again. 'All sentient beings,' said I Chen, who had been muttering his Buddhist sutras all along. Kheim normally had no time for such claptrap, but now, as the day continued, and they hiked over the hills on their hunt, seeing great numbers of peaceful beaver, quail, rabbits, foxes, seagulls and crows, ordinary deer, a bear and two cubs, a slinky long tailed grey hunting creature, like a fox crossed with a squirrel – on and on – simply a whole country of animals, living together under a silent blue sky nothing disturbed, the land flourishing on its own, the people there just a small part of it – Kheim began to feel odd. He realized that he had taken China for reality itself. Taiwan and the Mindanaos and the other islands he had seen were like scraps of land, leftovers; China had seemed to him the world. And China meant people. Built up, cultivated, parcelled off ha by ha, it was so completely a human world that Kheim had never considered that there might once have been a natural world different to it. But here was natural land, right before his eyes, full as could be with animals of every kind, and obviously very much bigger than Taiwan; bigger than China; bigger than the world he had known before.

'Where on Earth are we?' he said to I Chen I Chen said, 'We have found the source of the peach blossom stream.'

Winter arrived, and yet it stayed warm during the days, cool at night. The Miwok gave them cloaks of sea otter pelts sewn together with leather thread, and nothing could have been more comfortable against the skin, they were as luxurious as the clothes of the jade Emperor. During storms it rained and was cloudy, but otherwise it was bright and sunny. This was all happening at the same latitude as Beijing, according to I Chen, and at a time of year when it would have been bitterly cold and windy there, so the climate was much remarked on by the sailors. Kheim could scarcely believe the locals when they said it was like this every winter.

On the winter solstice, a sunny warm day like all the rest, the Miwok invited Kheim and I Chen into their temple, a little round thing like a dwarves' pagoda, the floor sunken into the earth and the whole thing covered with sod, the weight of which was held up by some tree trunks forking up into a nest of branches. It was like being in a cave, and only the fire's light and the smoky sun shafting down through a smokehole in the roof illuminated the dim interior. The men were dressed in ceremonial feather headdresses and many shell necklaces, which gleamed in the firelight. To a constant drum rhythm they danced round the fire, taking turns as night followed day, going on until it seemed to the stupefied Kheim that they might never stop. He struggled to stay awake, feeling the importance of the event for these men who looked somehow like the animals they fed on. This day marked the return of the sun, after all. But it was hard to stay awake. Eventually he struggled to his feet and joined the younger dancers, and they made room for him as he galumphed about, his sea legs bandying out to the sides. On and on he danced, until it felt right to collapse in a corner, and only emerge at the last part of dawn, the sky fully lit, the sun about to burst over the hills backing the bay. The happy loose limbed band of dancers and drummers was led by a group of the young unmarried women to their sweat lodge, and in his stupefied state Kheim saw how beautiful the women were, supremely strong, as robust as the men, their feet unbound and their eyes clear and without deference – indeed they appeared to laugh heartily at the weary men as they escorted them into the steam bath, and helped them out of their headdresses and finery, making what sounded like ribald commentary to Kheim, though it was possible he was only making it up out of his own desire. But the burnt air, the sweat pouring out of him, the abrupt clumsy plunge into their little river, blasting him awake in the morning light; all only increased his sense of the women's loveliness, beyond anything he could remember exper encing in China, where a sailor was always being taken by the precious blown flower girls in the restaurants. Wonder and lust and the river's chill battled his exhaustion, and then he slept on the beach in the sun.

He was back on the flagship when I Chen came to him, mouth tight. 'One of them died last night. They brought me to see. It was the pox.'

'What! Are you sure?'

I Chen nodded heavily, as grim as Kheim had ever seen him.

Kheim rocked back. 'We will have to stay on board the ships.'

'We should leave,' I Chen said. 'I think we brought it to them.'

'But how? No one had pox on this trip.'

'None of the people here have any pox scars at all. I suspect it is new to them. And some of us had it as children, as you can see. Li and Peng are heavily pocked, and Peng has been sleeping with one of the local women, and it was her child died of it. And the woman is sick too.'

'No.'

'Yes. Alas. You know what happens to wild people when a new sickness arrives. I've seen it in Aozhou. Most of them die. The ones who don't will be balanced against it after that, but they may still be able to tip others of the unexposed off their balance, I don't know. In any case, it's bad.'

They could hear little Butterfly squealing up on the deck, playing some game with the sailors. Kheim gestured above. 'What about her?'

'We could take her with us, I suppose. If we return her to shore, she'll probably die with the rest.'

'But if she stays with us she may catch it and die too.'

'True. But I could try to nurse her through it.'

Kheim frowned. Finally he said, 'We're provisioned and watered. Tell the men. We'll sail south, and get in position for a spring crossing back to China.'

Before they left, Kheim took Butterfly and rowed up to the village's beach and stopped well offshore. Butterfly's father spotted them and came down quickly, stood knee deep in the slack tidal water and said something. His voice croaked, and Kheim saw the pox blisters on him. Kheim's hands rowed the boat out a stroke.

'What did he say?' he asked the girl.

'He said people are sick. People are dead.'

Kheim swallowed. 'Say to him, we brought a sickness with us.'

She looked at him, not comprehending.

'Tell him we brought a sickness with us. By accident. Can you say that to him? Say that.'

She shivered in the bottom of the boat.

Suddenly angry, Kheim said loudly to the Miwok headman, 'We brought a disease with us, by accident!'

Ta Ma stared at him.

'Butterfly, please tell him something. Say something.'

She raised her head up and shouted something. Ta Ma took two steps out, going waist deep in the water. Kheim rowed out a couple of strokes, cursing. He was angry and there was no one to be angry at.

'We have to leave!' he shouted. 'We're leaving! Tell him that,' he said to Butterfly furiously. 'Tell him!'

She called out to Ta Ma, sounding distraught.

Kheim stood up in the boat, rocking it. He pointed at his neck and face, then at Ta Ma. He mimicked distress, vomiting, death. He pointed at the village and swept his hand as if erasing it from a slate. He pointed at Ta Ma and gestured that he should leave, that all of them should leave, should scatter. Not to other villages but into the hills. He pointed at himself, at the girl huddling in the boat. He mimed rowing out, sailing away. He pointed at the girl, indicating her happy, playing, growing up, his teeth clenched all the while.

Ta Ma appeared to understand not a single part of this charade. Looking befuddled, he said something.

'What did he say?'

'He said, what do we do?'

Kheim waved at the bills again, indicating dispersion. 'Go!' he said loudly. 'Tell him, go away! Scatter!'

She said something to her father, miserably.

Ta Ma said something.

'What did he say, Butterfly? Can you tell me?'

'He said, fare well.'

The men regarded each other. Butterfly looked back and forth between them, frightened.

'Scatter for two months!' Kheim said, realizing it was useless but speaking anyway. 'Leave the sick ones and scatter. After that you can regather, and the disease won't strike again. Go away. We'll take Butterfly and keep her safe. We'll keep her on a ship without anyone who has ever had smallpox. We'll take care of her. Go!'

He gave up. 'Tell him what I said,' he asked Butterfly. But she only whimpered and snivelled on the bottom of the boat. Kheim rowed them back to the ship and they sailed away, out the great mouth of the bay on the ebb tide, away to the south.

Butterfly cried often for the first three days after they sailed, then ate ravenously, and after that began to talk exclusively in Chinese. Kheim felt a stab every time he looked at her, wondering if they had done the right thing to take her. She would probably have died if they had left her, I Chen reminded him. But Kheim wasn't sure even that was justification enough. And the speed of her adjustment to her new life only made him more uneasy. Was this what they were, then, to begin with? So tough as this, so forgetful? Able to slip into whatever life was offered? It made him feel strange to see such a thing.

One of his officers came to him. 'Peng isn't on board any of the ships. We think he must have swum ashore and stayed with them.'

Butterfly too fell ill, and I Chen sequestered her in the bow of the flagship, in an airy nest under the bowsprit and over the figurehead, which was a gold statue of Tianfei. He spent many hours tending the girl through the six stages of the disease, from the high fever and floating pulse of the Greater Yang, through the Lesser Yang and Yang Brightness, with chills and fever coming alternately; then into Greater Yin. He took her pulse every watch, checked all her vital signs, lanced some of the blisters, dosed her from his bags of medicines, mostly an admixture called Gift of the Smallpox God, which contained ground rhinoceros horn, snow worms from Tibet, crushed jade and pearl; but also, when it seemed she was stuck in the Lesser Yin, and in danger of dying, tiny doses of arsenic. The progress of the disease did not seem to Kheim to be like the usual pox, but the sailors made the appropriate sacrifices to the smallpox god nevertheless, burning incense and paper money over a shrine that was copied on all eight of the ships.

Later, I Chen said that he thought being out on the open sea had proven the key to her recovery. Her body lolled in its bed on the groundswell, and her breathing and pulse fell into a rhythm with it, he noticed, four breaths and six beats per swell, in a fluttering pulse, over and over. This kind of confluence with the elements was extremely helpful. And the salt air filled her lungs with qi, and made her tongue less coated; he even fed her little spoonfuls of ocean water, as well as all she would take of fresh water, just recently removed from her home stream. And so she recovered and got well, only lightly scarred by pox on her back and neck.

They sailed south down the coast of the new island all this while, and every day they became more amazed that they were not reaching the southern end of it. One cape looked as if it would be the turning point, but past it they saw the land curved south again, behind some baked empty islands. Farther south they saw villages on the beaches, and they knew enough now to identify the bath temples. Kheim kept the fleet well offshore, but he did allow one canoe to approach, and he had Butterfly try speaking to them, but they didn't understand her, nor she them. Kheim made his dumb show signifying sickness and danger, and the locals paddled quickly away.

They began to sail against a current from the south, but it was mild, and the winds were constant from the west. The fishing here was excellent, the weather mild. Day followed day in a perfect circle of sameness. The land fell away cast again, then ran south, most of the way to the equator, past a big archipelago of low islands, with good anchorages and good water, and seabirds with blue feet.

They came at last to a steeply rising coastline, with great snowy volcanoes in the distance, like Fuji only twice as big, or more, punctuating the sky behind a steep coastal range, which was already tall. This final giganticism put paid to anyone's ability to think of this place as an island.

'Are you sure this isn't Africa?' Kheim said to I Chen.

I Chen was not sure. 'Maybe. Maybe the people we left up north are the only survivors of the Fulanchi, reduced to a primitive state. Maybe this is the west coast of the world, and we sailed past the opening to their middle sea in the night, or in a fog. But I don't think so.'

'Then where are we?'

I Chen showed Kheim where he thought they were on the long strips of their map; east of the final markings, out where the map was entirely blank. But first he pointed to the far western strip. 'See, Fulan and Africa look like this on their west sides. The Muslim cartographers are very consistent about it. And Hsing Ho calculated that the world is about seventy five thousand li around. If he's right, we only sailed half as far as we should have, or less, across the Dahai to Africa and Fulan.'

'Maybe he's wrong then. Maybe the world occupies more of the globe than he thought. Or maybe the globe is smaller.'

'But his method was good. I made the same measurements on our trip to the Moluccas, and did the geometry, and found he was right.'

'But look!' Gesturing at the mountainous land before them. 'If it isn't Africa, what is it?'

'An island, I suppose. A big island, far out in the Dahai, where no one has ever sailed. Another world, like the real one. An eastern one like the western one.'

'An island no one has ever sailed to before? That no one ever knew about?' Kheim couldn't believe it.

'Well?' I Chen said, stubborn in the face of the idea. 'Who else before us could have got here, and got back to tell about it?'

Kheim took the point. 'And we're not back, either.'

'No. And no guarantee we will be able to do it. Could be that Hsu Fu got here and tried to return, and failed. Maybe we'll find his descendants on this very shore.'

'Maybe.'

Closing on the immense land, they saw a city on the coast. It was nothing very big compared to back home, but substantial compared to the tiny villages to the north. It was mud coloured for the most part, but several gigantic buildings in the city and behind it were roofed by gleaming expanses of beaten gold. These were no Miwok!

So they sailed inshore warily, feeling unnerved, their ships' cannons loaded and primed. They were startled to see the primitive boats pulled up on the beaches fishing canoes like those some of them had seen in the Moluccas, mostly two prowed and made of bundled reeds. There were no guns to be seen; no sails; no wharves or docks, except for one og pier that seemed to float, anchored out away from the beach. It was perplexing to see the terrestrial magnificence of the gold roofed buildings combined with such maritime poverty. I-Chen said, 'It must have been an inland kingdom to start with.'

'Lucky for us, the way those buildings look.'

'I suppose if the Han dynasty had never fallen, this is what the coast of China would look like.'

A strange idea. But even mentioning China was a comfort. After that they pointed at features of the town, saying 'That's like in Cham,' or 'They build like that in Lanka,' and so forth; and though it still looked bizarre, it was clear, even before they made out people on the beach gaping at them, that it would be people and not monkeys or birds populating the town.

Though they had no great hope that Butterfly would be understood here, they took her near the shore with them nevertheless, in the biggest landing boat. They kept the flintlocks and crossbows concealed under their seats while Kheim stood in the bow making the peaceful gestures that had won over the Miwok. Then he got Butterfly to greet them kindly in her language, which she did in a high, clear, penetrating voice. The crowd on the beach watched, and some with hats like feathered crowns spoke to them, but it was not Butterfly's language, nor one that any of them had ever heard.

The elaborate headdresses of part of the crowd seemed faintly military to Kheim, and so he had them row offshore a little bit, and keep a lookout for bows or spears or any other weapons. Something in the look of these people suggested the possibility of an ambush.

Nothing of the sort happened. In fact, the next day when they rowed in, a whole contingent of men, wearing checked tunics and feathered headdresses, prostrated themselves on the beach. Uneasily Kheim ordered a landing, on the lookout for trouble.

All went well. Communication by gesture, and quick basic language lessons, was fair, although the locals seemed to take Butterfly to be the visitors' leader, or rather talisman, or priestess, it was impossible to say; certainly they venerated her. Their mimed interchanges were mostly made by an older man in a headdress with a fringe hanging over his forehead to his eyes, and a badge extending high above the feathers. These communications remained cordial, full of curiosity and good will. They were offered cakes made of some kind of dense, substantial flour; also huge tubers that could be cooked and eaten; and a weak sour beer, which was all they ever saw the locals drink. Also a stack of finely woven blankets, very warm and soft, made of a wool from sheep that looked like sheep bred with camels, but were clearly some entirely other creature, unknown to the real world.

Eventually Kheim felt comfortable enough to accept an invitation to leave the beach and visit the local king or emperor, in the huge goldroofed palace or temple on the hilltop behind the city. It was the gold that had done it, Kheim realized as he prepared for the trip, still feeling uneasy. He loaded a short flintlock and put it in a shoulder bag tucked under his arm, hidden by his coat; and he left instructions with I Chen for a relief operation if one proved necessary. Off they went, Kheim and Butterfly and a dozen of the biggest sailors from the flagship, accompanied by a crowd of local men in checked tunics.

They walked up a track past fields and houses. The women in the fields carried their babies strapped to boards on their backs, and they spun wool as they walked. They hung looms from ropes tied to trees, to get the necessary tension to weave. Checked patterns seemed the only ones they used, usually black and tan, sometimes black and red. Their fields consisted of raised mounds, rectangular in shape, standing out of wetlands by the river. Presumably they grew their tubers in the mounds. They were flooded like rice fields, but not. Everything was similar but different. Gold here seemed as common as iron in China, while on the other hand there was no iron at all to be seen.

The palace above the city was huge, bigger than the Forbidden City in Beijing, with many rectangular buildings arranged in rectangular patterns. Everything was arranged like their cloth. Stone plinths in the courtyard outside the palace were carved into strange figures, birds and animals all mixed up, painted all colours, so that Kheim found it hard to look at them. He wondered if the strange creatures represented on them would be found living in the back country, or were their versions of dragon and phoenix. He saw lots of copper, and some bronze or brass, but mostly gold. The guards standing in rows around the palace held long spears tipped with gold, and their shields were gold too; decorative, but not very practical. Their enemies must not have had iron either.

Inside the palace they were led into a vast room with one wall open onto a courtyard, the other three covered in gold filigree. Here blankets were spread, and Kheim and Butterfly and the other Chinese were invited to sit on one.

Into the room came their emperor. All bowed and then sat on the ground. The Emperor sat on a checked cloth next to the visitors, and said something politely. He was a man of about forty years, white toothed and handsome, with a broad forehead, high prominent cheekbones, clear brown eyes, a pointed chin and a strong hawkish nose. His crown was gold, and was decorated with small gold heads, dangling in holes cut into the crown, like pirates' beads at the gates of Hangzhou.

This too made Kheim uneasy, and he shifted his pistol under his coat, looking around surreptitiously. There were no other signs to trouble him. Of course there were hard looking men there, clearly the Emperor's guard, ready to pounce if anything threatened him; but other than that, nothing; and that seemed an ordinary precaution to take when strangers were around.

A priest wearing a cape made of cobalt blue bird feathers came in, and performed a ceremony for the Emperor, and after that they feasted through the day, on a meat like lamb, and vegetables and mashes that Kheim did not recognize. The weak beer was all they drank, except for a truly fiery brandy. Eventually Kheim began to feel drunk, and he could see his men were worse. Butterfly did not like any of the flavours, and ate and drank very little. Out on the courtyard, men danced to drums and reed pipes, sounding very like Korean musicians, which gave Kheim a start; he wondered if these people's ancestors had drifted over from Korea ages ago, carried on the Kuroshio. Perhaps just a few lost ships had populated this whole land, many dynasties before; indeed the music sounded like an echo from a past age. But who could say? He would talk to I Chen about it when he got back to the ship.

At sundown Kheim indicated their desire to return to their ships. The Emperor only looked at him, and gestured to his caped priest, and then rose. Everyone stood and bowed again. He left the room.

When he had gone, Kheim stood and took Butterfly by the hand, and tried to lead ber out the way they had come (although he was not sure he could remember it); but the guards blocked them, their goldtipped spears held crossways, in a position as ceremonial as their dances had been.

Kheim mimed displeasure, very easy to do, and indicated that Butterfly would be sad and angry if she were kept from their ships. But the guards did not move.

So. There they were. Kheim cursed himself for leaving the beach with such strange people. He felt the pistol under his coat. One shot only. He would have to hope that I Chen could rescue them. It was a good thing he had insisted the doctor stay behind, as he felt I Chen would do the best job of organizing such an operation.

The captives spent the night huddled together on their blanket, surrounded by standing guards who did not sleep, but spent their time chewing small leaves they took from shoulder bags tucked under their chequered tunics. They watched bright eyed. Kheim huddled around Butterfly, and she snuggled like a cat against him. It was cold. Kheim got the others to crowd around, all of them together, protecting her by a single touch or at least the proximity of their warmth.

At dawn the Emperor returned, dressed like a giant peacock or phoenix, accompanied by women wearing gold breast cones, shaped uncannily like real breasts, with ruby nipples. The sight of these women gave Kheim an absurd hope that they would be all right. Then behind them entered the caped high priest, and a chequered masked figure, whose headdress dangled everywhere with tiny gold skulls. Some form of their death god, there was no mistaking it. He was there to execute them, Kheim thought, and the realization jolted him into a heightened state of awareness, in which all the gold sheeted white in the sun, and the space they walked through had an extra dimension of depth and solidity, the chequered people as solid and vivid as festival demons.

They were led out into the misty horizontal light of dawn, cast and uphill. Uphill all that day, and the next day too, until Kheim gasped as he climbed, and looked back amazed from the occasional ridge, down and down to the sea, which was a blue textured surface, extremely flat and very far below. He had never imagined he could get so far above the ocean, it was like flying. And yet there were higher hills still ahead to the cast, and on certain crests of the range, massive white volcanoes, like super Fujis.

They walked up towards these. They were fed well, and given a tea as bitter as alum; and then, in a musical ritual ceremony, given little bags of the tea leaves, the same ragged edged green leaves their guards had been chewing on the first night. The leaves also were bitter to the taste, but they soon numbed the mouth and throat, and after that Kheim felt better. The leaves were a stimulant, like tea or coffee. He told Butterfly and his men to chew theirs down as well. The thin strength that poured through his nerves gave him the qi energy to think about the problem of escape.

It did not seem likely that I Chen would be able to get through the mud and gold city to follow them, but Kheim could not stop hoping for it, a kind of furious hope, felt every time he looked at Butterfly's face, unblemished yet by doubt or fear; as far as she was concerned this was just the next stage of a journey that was already as strange as it could get. This part was interesting to her, in fact, with its bird-throat colours, its gold and its mountains. She didn't seem affected by the height to which they had climbed.

Kheim began to understand that clouds, which often now lay below them, existed in a colder and less fulfilling air than the precious salty soup they breathed on the sea surface. Once he caught a whiff of that sea air, perhaps just the salt still in his hair, and he longed for it as for food. Hungry for air! He shuddered to think how high they were.

Yet they had not finished. They climbed to a ridge covered by snow. The trail was pounded glistening into the hard white stuff. They were given soft wood soled boots with fur on the inside, and heavier tunics, and blankets with holes for the head and arms, all elaborately checked, with small figures filling small squares. The blanket given to Butterfly was so long it looked as if she was wearing a Buddhist nun's dress, and it was made of such fine cloth that Kheim grew suddenly afraid. There was another child travelling with them, a boy Kheim thought, though he was not sure; and this child too was dressed as finely as the caped priest.

They came to a campsite made of flat rocks set on the snow. They made a big fire in a sunken pit in this platform, and around it erected a number of yurts. Their captors settled on their blankets and ate a meal, followed by many ritual cups of their hot tea, and beer and brandy, after which they performed a ceremony to honour the setting sun, which fell into clouds scudding over the ocean. They were well above the clouds now, yet above them to the east a great volcano poked into the indigo sky, its snowy flanks glowing a deep pink in the moments after sunset.

That night was frigid. Again Kheim held Butterfly, fear waking him whenever she stirred. The girl even seemed to stop breathing from time to time, but she always started again.

At dawn they were roused, and Kheim was thankful to be given more of the hot tea, then a substantial meal, followed by more of the little green leaves to chew; though these last were handed to them by the executioner god.

They started up the side of the volcano while it was still a grey snow slope under a white dawn sky. The ocean to the west was covered by clouds, but they were breaking up, and the great blue plate lay there far, far below, looking to Kheim like his home village or his childhood.

It got colder as they ascended, and hard to walk. The snow was brittle underfoot, and icy bits of it clinked and glittered. It was extremely bright, but everything else was too dark: the sky blue black, the row of people dim. Kheim's eyes ran, and the tears were cold on his face and in his thin grey whiskers. On he hiked, placing his feet carefully in the footsteps of the guard ahead of him, reaching back awkwardly to hold Butterfly's hand and pull her along.

Finally, after he had forgotten to look up for a while, no longer expecting anything ever to change, the slope of the snow laid back. Bare black rocks appeared, thrusting out of the snow left and right, and especially ahead, where he could see nothing higher.

Indeed, it was the peak: a broad jumbled wasteland of rock like torn and frozen mud, mixed with ice and snow. At the highest point of the tortured mass a few poles obtruded, cloth streamers and flags flying from them, as in the mountains of Tibet. Perhaps these were Tibetans then.

The caped priest and the executioner god and the guards assembled at the foot of these rocks. The two children were taken to the priest, guards restraining Kheim all the while. He stepped back as if giving up, put his hands under his blanket as if they were cold, which they were; they fumbled like ice for the handle of his flintlock. He cocked the lock and pulled the pistol free of his coat, hidden only under the blanket.

The children were given more hot tea, which they drank willingly. The priest and his minions sang facing the sun, drums pounding like the painful pulse behind Kheim's half blinded eyes. He had a bad headache, and everything looked like a shadow of itself.

Below them on the snowy ridge, figures were climbing fast. They wore the local blankets, but Kheim thought they looked like I Chen and his men. Much farther below them, another group straggled up in pursuit.

Kheim's heart was already pounding; now it rolled inside him like the ceremonial drums. The executioner god took a gold knife out of an elaborate carved wooden scabbard, and cut the little boy's throat. The blood he caught in a gold bowl, where it steamed in the sun. To the sound of the drums and pipes and sung prayers, the body was wrapped in a mantle of the soft chequered cloth, and lowered tenderly into the peak, in a crack between two great rocks.

The executioner and the caped priest then turned to Butterfly, who was tugging uselessly to get away. Kheim pulled his pistol free of the blanket and checked the flint, then aimed it with both hands at the executioner god. He shouted something, then held his breath. The guards were moving towards him, the executioner had looked his way. Kheim pulled the trigger and the pistol boomed and blossomed smoke, knocking Kheim two steps back. The executioner god flew backwards and skidded over a patch of snow, bleeding copiously from the throat. The gold knife fell from his opened hand.

All the onlookers stared at the executioner god, stunned; they didn't know what had happened.

Kheim kept the pistol pointed at them, while he rooted in his belt bag for charge, plunger, ball, wad. He reloaded the pistol right in front of them, shouting sharply once or twice, which made them jump.

Pistol reloaded, he aimed it at the guards, who fell back. Some kneeled, others stumbled away. He could see I Chen and his sailors toiling up the snow of the last slope. The caped priest said something, and Kheim aimed his pistol carefully at him and shot.

Again the loud bang of the explosion, like thunder in the car, and the plume of white smoke jetting out. The caped priest flew back as if struck by a giant invisible fist, tumbled down and lay writhing in the snow, his cape stained with blood.

Kheim strode through the smoke to Butterfly. He lifted her away from her captors, who quivered as if paralysed. He carried her in his arms down the trail. She was only semi conscious; very possibly the tea had been drugged.

He came to I Chen, who was huffing and puffing at the head of a gang of their sailors, all armed with flintlocks, a pistol and musket for each. 'Back to the ships,' Kheim ordered. 'Shoot any that get in the way.'

Going down the mountain was tremendously easier than going up had been, indeed it was a danger in that it felt so easy, while at the same time they were still light headed and half blinded, and so tired that they tended to slip, and more and more as it warmed and the snow softened and smashed under their feet. Carrying Butterfly, Kheim had his view of his footing obscured as well, and he slipped often, sometimes heavily. But two of his men walked at his sides when it was possible, holding him up by the elbows when he slipped, and despite all they made good time.

Crowds of people gathered each time they approached one of the high villages, and Kheim then gave over Butterfly to the men, so that he could hold the pistol aloft for all to see. If the crowds got in their way, he shot the man with the biggest headdress. The boom of the shot appeared to frighten the onlookers even more than the sudden collapse and bloody death of their priests and headmen, and Kheim thought it was probably a system in which local leaders were frequently executed for one thing or another by the guards of the Emperor.

In any case, the people they passed seemed paralysed mostly by the Chinese command of sound. Claps of thunder, accompanied by instant death, as in a lightning strike – that must have happened often enough in these exposed mountains to give them an idea of what the Chinese had mastered. Lightning in a tube.

Eventually Kheim gave Butterfly to his men, and marched down heavily at their head, reloading his gun and firing at any crowd close enough to hit, feeling a strange exultation rise in him, a terrible power over these ignorant primitives who could be awed to paralysis by a gun.

He was their executioner god made real, and he passed through them as if they were puppets whose strings had been cut.

He stopped his crew late in the day, to seize food from a village and eat it, then continued down again until nightfall. They took refuge in a storage building, a big stone walled wooden roofed barn, stuffed to the rafters with cloth, grain and gold. The men would have killed themselves carrying gold on their backs, but Kheim restricted them to one item apiece, either jewellery or a single disc ingot. 'We'll all come back some day,' he told them, I and end up richer than the Emperor.' He chose for himself a hummingbird moth figured in gold.

Though exhausted, he found it hard to lie down, or even to stop walking. After a nightmare interval, sitting half asleep by Butterfly's side, he woke them all before dawn and began the march downhill again, their guns all loaded and ready.

As they descended to the coast it became apparent that runners had passed them in the night, and warned the locals below of the disaster on the summit. A fighting force of men held the crossroads just above the great coastal city, shouting to the beat of drums, brandishing clubs, shields, spears and pikes. The descending Chinese were obviously outnumbered, the fifty men I Chen had brought approaching some four or five hundred local warriors.

'Spread out,' Kheim told his men. 'March right down the road at them, singing "Drunk Again on the Grand Canal" Get all the guns out front, and when I say stop, stop and aim at their leaders whoever has the most feathers on their head. All of you shoot together when I say fire, and then reload. Reload as fast as you can, but don't shoot again unless you hear me say so. If I do, fire and reload yet again.'

So they marched down the road, roaring the old drinking song at the top of their lungs, then stopped and fired a volley, and their flintlocks might as well have been a row of cannon, they had such an effect: many men knocked down and bleeding, the survivors among them running in a complete panic.

It had only taken one volley, and the coastal city was theirs. They could have burned it to the ground, taken anything in it; but Kheim marched them through the streets as quickly as possible, still singing as loudly as they could, until they were on the beach among the Chinese landing boats, and safe. They never even had to fire a second time.

Kheim went to I Chen and shook his hand. 'Many thanks,' he said to him formally before all the others. 'You saved us. They would have sacrificed Butterfly like a lamb, and killed the rest of us like flies.'

It seemed to Kheim only reasonable that the locals would soon recover from the shock of the guns, after which they would be dangerous in their numbers. Even now crowds were gathering at a safe distance to observe them. So after getting Butterfly and most of the men onto the ships, Kheim consulted with I Chen and their ships' provision masters, to see what they were still lacking for a voyage back across the Dahai. Then he took a big armed party ashore one last time, and after the ships' cannons were fired at the city, he and his men marched straight for the palace, singing again and stepping to the beat of their drums. At the palace they raced around the wall, and caught a group of priests and women escaping at a gate on the other side, and Kheim shot one priest, and had his men tie the others up.

After that he stood before the priests, and mimed his demands. His head still pounded painfully, he remained floating in the strange exhil aration of killing, and it was remarkable how easy it was to convey by mime alone a fairly elaborate list of demands. He pointed to himself and his men, then to the west, and made one hand sail away on the wind of the other one. He held up samples of food and the bags of tea leaves, indicated that these were wanted. He mimed them being brought to the beach. He went to the chief hostage and imitated untying him and waving farewell. If the goods didn't arrive… He pointed the gun at each hostage. But if they did, the Chinese would release everyone and sail away.

He acted out each step of the process, looking the hostages in the eyes and speaking only a little, as he judged it would only be a distraction to their comprehension. Then he had his men release all the women captured, and a few of the men without headdresses, and sent them out with clear instructions to get the required goods. He could tell by their eyes that they understood exactly what they were to do.

After that he marched the hostages to the beach, and they waited. That same afternoon men appeared in one of the main streets, bags slung down their backs from lines hung around their foreheads. They deposited these bags on the beach, bowing, and then retreated, still facing the Chinese. Dried meat; grain cakes; the little green leaves; gold discs and ornaments (though Kheim had not asked for these); blankets and bolts of the soft cloth. Looking at it all spread on the beach, Kheim felt like a tax collector, heavy and cruel; but also relieved; powerful in a tenuous fashion only, as it was by a magic he didn't understand or control. Above all he felt content. They had what they needed to get home.

He untied the hostages himself, gestured for them to go. He gave each of them a pistol ball, curling their unresponsive fingers around them. 'We'll be back some day,' he said to them. 'Us, or people worse than us.' He wondered briefly if they would catch smallpox, like the Miwok; his sailors had slept on the locals' blankets at the palace.

No way to tell. The locals stumbled away, clutching their pistol balls or dropping them. Their women stood at a safe distance, happy to see that Kheim had kept his pantomimed promise, happy to see their men freed. Kheim ordered his men into the boats. They rowed out to the ships and sailed away from the big mountain island.

After all that, sailing the Great Ocean felt very familiar, very peaceful. The days passed in their rounds. They followed the sun west, always west. Most days were hot and sunny. Then for a month clouds grew every day and broke in the afternoons, in grey thundershowers that quickly dissipated. After that the winds always blew from the southeast, making their way easy. Their memories of the great island behind them began to seem like dreams, or legends they had heard about the realm of the asuras. If it weren't for Butterfly's presence it would have been hard to believe they had done all that.

Butterfly played on the flagship. She swung through the rigging like a little monkey. There were hundreds of men on board, but the presence of one little girl changed everything: they sailed under a blessing. The other ships stayed close to the flagship in the hope of catching sight of her, or being blessed by an occasional visit. Most of the sailors believed she was the goddess Tianfei, travelling with them for their own safety, and that this was why the return voyage was going so much easier than the voyage out had. The weather was kinder, the air warmer, the fish more plentiful. Three times they passed small atolls, uninhabited, and were able to take on coconuts and palm hearts, and once water. Most importantly, Kheim felt, they were headed west, back home to the known world. It felt so different from the voyage out that it seemed strange it was the same activity. That orientation alone could make such a difference! But it was hard to sail into the morning sun, hard to sail away from the world.

Sailing, day after day. Sun rising at the stern, sinking at the bow, drawing them on. Even the sun was helping them – perhaps too much – it was now the seventh month, and infernally hot; then windless for most of a month. They prayed to Tianfei, ostentatiously not looking at Butterfly as they did so.

She played in the rigging, oblivious to their sidelong glances. She spoke Chinese pretty well now, and had taught I Chen all the Miwok she could remember. I Chen had written down every word, in a dictionary that he thought might be useful to subsequent expeditions to the new island. It was interesting, he told Kheim, because usually he was just choosing the ideogram or combination of ideograms that sounded most like the Miwok word as spoken, and writing down as precise a definition of its Miwok meaning as he could, given the source of information; but of course when looking at the ideographs for the sounds it was impossible not to hear the Chinese meanings for them as well, so that the whole Miwok language became yet another set of homonyms to add to the already giant number that existed in Chinese. Many Chinese literary or religious symbols relied on pure accidents of homonymity to make their metaphorical connection, so that one said the tenth day of the month, shi, was the birthday of the stone, shi; or a picture of a heron and lotus, lu and lian, by homynym became the message 'may your path (lu) be always upward (lian)'; or the picture of a monkey on the back of another one could be read in a similar way as 'may you rank as a governor from generation to generation'. Now to I Chen the Miwok words for 'going home' looked like wu ya, five ducks, while the Miwok for 'swim' looked like Peng zu, the legendary character who had lived for eight hundred years. So he would sing 'five ducks swimming home, it will only take eight hundred years', or 'I'm going to jump off the side and become Peng zu', and Butterfly would shriek with laughter. Other similarities in the two languages' maritime words made I Chen suspect that Hsu Fus expedition to the cast had made it to the ocean continent of Ying zhou after all, and left there some Chinese words if nothing else; if, indeed, the Miwok themselves were not the descendants of his expedition.

Some men already spoke of returning to the new land, usually to the golden kingdom in the south, to subdue it by arms and take its gold back to the real world. They did not say, We will do this, which would be bad luck, obviously, but rather, if one were to do this. Other men listened to this talk from a distance behind their eyes, knowing that if Tianfei allowed them to reach home, nothing ever again would induce them to cross the great ocean.

Then they became entirely becalmed, in a patch of ocean devoid of rain, cloud, wind or current. It was as if a curse had fallen on them, possibly from the loose talk of return for gold. They began to bake. There were sharks in the water, so they could not swim freely to cool off, but had to set a sail in the water between two of the ships, and let it sink until they could jump off into a pool, very warm, about chest deep. Kheim had Butterfly wear a shift and let her jump in. To refuse her wish would have been to astound and infuriate the crew. It turned out she could swim like an otter. The men treated her like the goddess she was, and she laughed to see them sporting like boys. It was a relief to do something different, but the sail couldn't sustain the wetness and bouncing on it, and gradually came apart. So they only did it once.

The doldrums began to endanger them. They would run out of water, then food. Possibly subtle currents continued to carry them west, but I Chen was not optimistic. 'It's more likely we've wandered into the centre of the big circular current, like a whirlpool's centre.' He advised sailing south when possible, to get back into both wind and current, and Kheim agreed, but there was no wind to sail. It was much like the first month of their expedition, only without the Kuroshio. Again they discussed putting out the boats and rowing the ships, but the vast junks were too big to move by oar power alone, and I Chen judged it dangerous to tear the skin off the palms of the men when they were already so dried out. There was no recourse but to clean their stills, and keep them in the sun and primed all day long, and ration what water remained in the casks. And keep Butterfly fully watered, no matter what she said about doing like all the rest. They would have given her the last cask in the fleet.

It had come to the point at which I Chen was proposing that they save their dark yellow urine and mix it with their remaining water supplies, when black clouds appeared from the south, and it quickly became clear that their problem was going to change very swiftly from having too little water to having too much. Wind struck hard, clouds rolled over them, water fell in sheets and the funnels were deployed over the casks, which refilled almost instantly. Then it was a matter of riding out the storm. Only junks as big as theirs were high enough and flexible enough to survive such an onslaught for long; and even the Eight Great Ships, desiccated above the water as they had been in the doldrums, now swelled in the rain, snapping many of the ropes and pins holding them together, so that riding out the storm became a continuous drenched frantic stemming of leaks, and fixing of broken spars and staves and ropes.

All this time the waves were growing bigger, until eventually the ships were rising and falling as over enormous smoking bills, rolling south to north at a harried but inexorable, even majestic pace. In the flagship they shot up the face of these and crested in a smear of white foam over the deck, after which they had a brief moment's view of the chaos from horizon to horizon, with perhaps two or three of the other ships visible, bobbing in different rhythms and being blown away into the watery murk. For the most part there was nothing to do but hunker down in the cabins, drenched and apprehensive, unable to hear each other over the roar of wind and wave.

At the height of the storm they entered the fish's eye, that strange and ominous calm in which disordered waves sloshed about in all directions, crashing into each other and launching solid bolts of white water into the dark air, while all around them low black clouds obscured the horizon. A typhoon, therefore, and none was surprised. As in the yin yang symbol, there were dots of calm at the core of the wind. It would soon return from the opposite direction.

So they worked on repairs in great haste, feeling, as one always did, that having got halfway through it they should be able to reach the end. Kheim peered through the murk at the nearest ship to them, which appeared to be in difficulty. The men crowded its railing, staring longingly at Butterfly, some even crying out to her. No doubt they thought their trouble resulted from the fact they did not have her on board with them. Its captain shouted to Kheim that they might have to cut down their masts in the second half of the storm to keep from being rolled over, and that the others should hunt for them if necessary, after it had passed.

But when the other side of the typhoon struck, things went badly on the flagship as well. An odd wave threw Butterfly into a wall awkwardly, and after that the fear in the men was palpable. They lost sight of the other ships. The huge waves again were torn to foam by the wind, and their crests crashed over the ship as if trying to sink it. The rudder snapped off at the rudder post, and after that, though they tried to get a yard over the side to replace the rudder, they were in effect a hulk, struck in the side by every passing wave. While men fought to get steerage and save the ship, and some were swept overboard, or drowned in the lines, I Chen attended to Butterfly. He shouted to Kheim that she had broken an arm and apparently some ribs. She was gasping for breath, Kheim saw. He returned to the struggle for steerage, and finally they got a sea anchor over the side, which quickly brought their bow around into the wind. This saved them for the moment, but even coming over the bow the waves were heavy blows, and it took every effort they could make to keep the hatches from tearing off and the ship's compartments from filling. All done in an agony of apprehension about Butterfly; men shouted angrily that she should have been cared for better, that it was inexcusable that something like this should happen. Kheim knew that was his responsibility.

When he could spare a moment he went to her side, in the highest cabin on the rear deck, and looked beseechingly at I Chen, who would not reassure him. She was coughing up a foamy blood, very red, and I Chen was sucking her throat clear of it from time to time with a tube he stuck down her mouth. 'A rib has punctured a lung,' he said shortly, keeping his eyes on her. She meanwhile was conscious, wide-eyed, in pain but quiet. She said only, 'What's happening to me?' After I Chen cleared her throat of another mass of blood, he told ber what he had told Kheim. She panted like a dog, shallow and fast.

Kheim went back into the watery chaos above decks. The wind and waves were no worse than before, perhaps a bit better. There were scores of problems large and small to attend to, and he threw himself at them in a fury, muttering to himself, or shouting at the gods; it didn't matter, no one could hear anything above decks, unless it was shouted directly in their ears. 'Please, Tianfei, stay with us! Don't leave us! Let us go home. Let us return to tell the Emperor what we have found for him. Let the girl live.'

They survived the storm: but Butterfly died the next day.

There were only three ships that found each other and regathered on the quiet blank of the sea. They sewed Butterfly's body in a man's robe and tied two of the gold discs from the mountain empire into it, and let it slide over the side into the waves. All the men were weeping, even I Chen, and Kheim could barely speak the words of the funeral prayer. Who was there to pray to? It seemed impossible that after all they had gone through, a mere storm could kill the sea goddess; but there she was, slipping under the waves, sacrificed to the sea just as that island boy had been sacrificed to the mountain. Sun or seafloor, it was all the same.

'She died to save us,' he told the men shortly. 'She gave that avatar of herself to the storm god, so he would let us be. Now we have to carry on to honour her. We have to get back home.'

So they repaired the ship as best they could, and endured another month of desiccated life. This was the longest month of the trip, of their lives. Everything was breaking down, on the ships, in their bodies. There wasn't enough food and water. Sores broke out in their mouths and on their skin. They had very little qi, and could hardly eat what food was left.

Kheim's thoughts left him. He found that when thoughts leave, things just did themselves. Doing did not need thinking.

One day he thought: sail too big cannot be lifted. Another day he thought: more than enough is too much. Too much is less. Therefore least is most. Finally he saw what the Daoists meant by that.

Go with the way. Breathe in and out. Move with the swells. Sea doesn't know ship, ship doesn't know sea. Floating does itself. A balance in balance. Sit without thinking.

The sea and sky melded. All blue. There was no one doing, nothing being done. Sailing just happened.

Thus, when a great sea was crossed, there was no one doing it.

Someone looked up and noticed an island. It turned out to be Mindanao, and after the rest of its archipelago, Taiwan, and all the familiar landfalls of the Inland Sea.

The three remaining Great Ships sailed into Nanking almost exactly twenty months after their departure, surprising all the inhabitants of the city, who thought they had joined Hsu Fu at the bottom of the sea. And they were happy to be home, no doubt about it, and bursting with stories to tell of the amazing giant island to the cast.

But any time Kheim met the eye of any of his men, he saw the pain there. He saw also that they blamed him for her death. So he was happy to leave Nanking and travel with a gang of officials up the Grand Canal to Beijing. He knew that his sailors would scatter up and down the coast, go their ways so they wouldn't have to see each other and remember; only after years had passed would they want to meet, so that they could remember the pain when it had become so distant and faint that they actually wanted it back, just to feel again they had done all those things, that life had held all those things.

But for now it was impossible not to feel they had failed. And so when Kheim was led into the Forbidden City, and brought before the Wanli Emperor to accept the acclaim of all the officials there, and the interested and gracious thanks of the Emperor himself, he said only, 'When a great sea has been crossed, there is no one to take credit.'

The Wanli Emperor nodded, fingering one of the gold disc ingots they had brought back, and then the big hummingbird moth of beaten gold, its feathers and antennae perfectly delineated with the utmost delicacy and skill. Kheim stared at the Heavenly Envoy, trying to see in to the hidden Emperor, the Jade Emperor inside him. Kheim said to him, 'That far country is lost in time, its streets paved with gold, its palaces roofed with gold. You could conquer it in a month, and rule over all its immensity, and bring back all the treasure that it has, endless forest and furs, turquoise and gold, more gold than there is yet now in the world; and yet still the greatest treasure in that land is already lost.'

Snowy peaks, towering over a dark land. The first blinding crack of sunlight flooding all. He could have made it then everything was so bright, he could have launched himself into pure whiteness at that moment and never come back, flowed out for ever into the All. Release, release. You have to have seen a lot to want release that much.

But the moment passed and he was on the black stage floor of the bardo's hall of judgment, on its Chinese side, a nightmare warren of numbered levels and legal chambers and bureaucrats wielding lists of souls to be remanded to the care of meticulous torturers. Above this hellish bureaucracy loomed the usual Tibet of a dais, occupied by its menagerie of demonic gods, chopping up condemned souls and chasing the pieces off to hell or a new life in the realm of preta or beast. The lurid glow, the giant dais like the side of a mesa towering above, the hallucinatorily colourful gods roaring and dancing, their swords flashing in the black air; it was judgment – an inhuman activity – not the pot calling the kettle black, but true judgment, by higher authorities, the makers of this universe. Who were the ones, after all, that had made humans as weak and craven and cruel as they so often were – so that there was a sense of doom enforced, of loaded dice, karma lashing out at whatever little pleasures and beauties the miserable subdivine sentiences might have concocted out of the mud of their existence. A brave life, fought against the odds? Go back as a dog! A dogged life, persisting despite all? Go back as a mule, go back as a worm. That's the way things work.

Thus Kheim reflected as he strode up through the mists in a growing rage, as he banged through the bureaucrats, smashing them with their own slates, their lists and tallies, until he caught sight of Kali and her court, standing in a semi circle taunting Butterfly, judging her – as if that poor simple soul had anything to answer for, compared to these butcher gods and their cons of evil evil insinuated right into the heart of the cosmos they themselves had made!

Kheim roared in wordless fury, and charged up and seized a sword from one of the death goddess's six arms, and cut off a brace of them with a single stroke; the blade was very sharp. The arms lay scattered and bleeding on the floor, flopping about – then, to Kheim's unutterable consternation, they were grasping the floorboards and moving themselves crabwise by the clenching of the fingers. Worse yet, new shoulders were growing back behind the wounds, which still bled copiously. Kheim screamed and kicked them off the dais, then turned and chopped Kali in half at the waist, ignoring the other members of his jati who stood up there with Butterfly, all of them jumping up and down and shouting 'Oh no, don't do that Kheim, don't do that, you don't understand, you have to follow protocol,' even I-Chen, who was shouting loudly over the rest of them, 'At least we might direct our efforts at the dais struts, or the vials of forgetting, something a little more technical, a little less direct!' Meanwhile Kali's upper body fisted itself around the stage, while her legs and waist staggered, but continued to stand; and the missing halves grew out of the cut parts like snail horns. And then there were two Kalis advancing on him, a dozen arms flailing swords.

He jumped off the dais, thumped down on the bare boards of the cosmos. The rest of his jati crashed down beside him, crying out in pain at the impact. 'You got us in trouble,' Shen whined.

'It doesn't work like that,' Butterfly informed him as they panted off together into the mists. 'I've seen a lot of people try. They lash out in fury and cut the hideous gods down, and how they deserve it – and yet the gods spring back up, redoubled in other people. A karmic law of this universe, my friend. Like conservation of yin and yang, or gravity. We live in a universe ruled by very few laws, but the redoubling of violence by violence is one of the main ones.'

'I don't believe it,' Kheim said, and stopped to fend off the two Kalis now pursuing them. He took a hard swing and decapitated one of the new Kalis. Swiftly another head grew back, swelling on top of the gusher on the neck of the black body, and the new white teeth of her new head laughed at him, while her bloody red eyes blazed. He was in trouble, he saw; he was going to be backed to pieces. For resisting these evil unjust absurd and horrible deities he was going to be hacked to pieces and returned to the world as a mule or a monkey or a maimed old geezer.

Transmutation

Now it so happened that as the time approached for the great alchemist's red work to reach its culmination, in the final multiplication, the projection of the sophic hydrolith into the ferment, causing tincture – that is to say, the transmuting of base metals into gold – the son in law of the alchemist, one Bahram al Bokhara, ran and jostled through the bazaar of Samarqand on last minute errands, ignoring the calls of his various friends and creditors. 'I can't stop,' he called to them, 'I'm late!'

'Late paying your debts!' said Divendi, whose coffee stall was wedged into a slot next to Iwang's workshop.

'True,' Bahram said, but stopped for a coffee. 'Always late but never bored.'

'Khalid keeps you hopping.'

'Literally so, yesterday. The big pelican cracked during a descension, and it all spilled right next to me – vitriol of Cyprus mixed with sal ammoniac.'

'Dangerous?'

'Oh my God. Where it splashed on my trousers the cloth was eaten away, and the smoke was worse. I had to run for my life!'

'As always.'

'So true. I coughed my guts out, my eyes ran all night. It was like drinking your coffee.'

'I always make yours from the dregs.'

'I know,' tossing down the last gritty shot. 'So are you coming tomorrow?'

'To see lead turned into gold? I'll be there.'

Iwang's workshop was dominated by its brick furnace. Familiar sizzle and smell of bellowed fire, tink of hammer, glowing molten glass, Iwang twirling the rod attentively: Bahram greeted the glassblower and silversmith, 'Khalid wants more of the wolf.'

'Khalid always wants more of the wolf.' Iwang continued turning his blob of hot glass. Tall and broad and big faced, a Tibetan by birth, but long a resident of Samarqand, he was one of Khalid's closest associates. 'Did he send payment this time?'

'Of course not. He said to put it on his tab.'

Iwang pursed his lips. 'He's got too many tabs these days.'

'All paid after tomorrow. He finished the seven hundred and seventyseventh distillation.'

Iwang put down his work and went to a wall stacked with boxes. He handed Bahram a small leather pouch, heavy with small beads of lead. 'Gold grows in the earth,' he said. 'Al Razi himself couldn't grow it in a crucible.'

'Khalid would debate that. And Al Razi lived a long time ago. He couldn't get the heat we can now.'

'Maybe.' Iwang was sceptical. 'Tell him to be careful.'

'Of burning himself?'

'Of the Khan burning him.'

'You'll be there to see it?'

Iwang nodded reluctantly.

The day of the demonstration came, and for a wonder the great Khalid Ali Abu al Samarqandi seemed nervous; and Bahram could understand why. If Sayyed Abdul Aziz Khan, ruler of the khanate of Bokhara, immensely rich and powerful, chose to support Khalid's enterprises, all would be well; but he was not a man you wanted to disappoint. Even his closest adviser, his treasury secretary Nadir Devanbegi, avoided distressing him at all costs. Recently, for instance, Nadir had caused a new caravanserai to be built on the east side of Bokhara, and the Khan had been brought out for its opening ceremony, and being a bit inattentive by nature, he had congratulated them for building such a fine madressa; and rather than correct him on the point, Nadir had ordered the complex turned into a madressa. That was the kind of khan Sayyed Abdul Aziz was, and he was the khan to whom Khalid was going to demonstrate the tincture. It was enough to make Bahram's stomach tight and his pulse fast, and while Khalid sounded like he always did, sharp and impatient and sure of himself, Bahram could see that his face was unusually pale.

But he had worked on the projection for years, and studied all the alchemical texts he could obtain, including many bought by Bahram in the Hindu caravanserai, including 'The Book of the End of the Search' by jildaki, and jabir Ibn Hayyam's 'Book of Balances', as well as 'The Secret of Secrets', once thought to be lost, and the Chinese text 'Reference Book for the Penetration of Reality'; and Khalid had in his extensive workshops the mechanical capacity to repeat the required distillations at high heat and very good clarities, all seven hundred and seventy-seven times. Two weeks earlier he had declared that his final efforts had borne fruit, and now all was ready for a public demonstration, which of course had to include regal witnesses to matter.

So Bahram hurried around in Khalid's compound on the northern edge of Samarqand, sprawling by the banks of the Zeravshan River, which provided power to the foundries and the various workshops. The walls of the establishment were ringed by great heaps of charcoal waiting to be burned, and inside there were a number of buildings, loosely grouped around the central work area, a yard dotted with vats and discoloured chemical baths. Several different stinks combined to form the single harsh smell that was particular to Khalid's place. He was the khanate's principal gunpowder producer and metallurgist, among other things, and these practical enterprises supported the alchemy that was his ruling passion.

Bahram wove through the clutter, making sure the demonstration area was ready. The long tables in the open walled shops were crowded with an orderly array of equipment; the walls of the shops were neatly hung with tools. The main athanor was roaring with heat.

But Khalid was not to be found. The puffers had not seen him; Bahram's wife Esmerine, Khalid's daughter, had not seen him. The house at the back of the compound seemed empty, and no one answered Bahram's calls. He began to wonder if Khalid had run away in fear.

Then Khalid appeared out of the library next to his study, the only room in the compound with a door that locked.

'There you are,' Bahram said. 'Come on, Father, Al Razi and Mary the Jewess will be no help to you now. It's time to show the world the thing itself, the projection.'

Khalid, startled to see him, nodded curtly. 'I was making the last preparations,' he said. He led Bahram into the furnace shed, where the geared bellows, powered by the waterwheel on the river, pumped air into the roaring fires.

The Khan and his party arrived quite late, when much of the afternoon was spent. Twenty horsemen thundered in, their finery gleaming, and then a camel train fifty beasts long, all foaming at the gallop. The Khan dismounted from his white bay and walked across the yard with Nadir Devanbegi at his side, and several court officials at their heels.

Khalid's attempt at a formal greeting, including the presentation of a gift of one of his most cherished alchemical books, was cut short by Sayyed Adbul Aziz. 'Show us,' the Khan commanded, taking the book without looking at it.

Khalid bowed. 'The alembic I used is this one here, called a pelican. The base matter is mostly calcinated lead, with some mercurials. They have been projected by continuous distillation and re distillation, until all the matter has passed through the pelican seven hundred and seventy seven times. At that point the spirit in the lion well, to put it in more worldly terms, the gold condenses out at the highest athanor heat. So, we pour the wolf into this vessel, and put that in the athanor, and wait for an hour, stirring meanwhile seven times.'

'Show us.' The Khan was clearly bored by the details.

Without further ado Khalid led them into the furnace shed, and his assistants opened the heavy thick door of the athanor, and after allowing the visitors to handle and inspect the ceramic bowl, Khalid grabbed up tongs and poured the grey distillate into the bowl, and placed the tray in the athanor and slid it into the intense heat. The air over the furnace shimmered as Sayyed Abdul Aziz's mullah said prayers, and Khalid watched the second hand of his best clock. Every five minutes he gestured to the puffers, who opened the door and pulled out the tray, at which point Khalid stirred the liquid metal, now glowing orange, with his ladle, seven times seven circles, and then back into the heat of the fire. In the last minutes of the operation, the crackle of the charcoal was the only sound in the yard. The sweating observers, including many acquaintances from the town, watched the clock tick out the last minute of the hour in a silence like that of sufis in a trance of speechlessness, or like, Bahram thought uneasily, hawks inspecting the ground far below.

Finally Khalid nodded to the puffers, and he himself hefted the bowl off the tray with big tongs, and carried it to a table in the yard, cleared for this demonstration. 'Now we pour off the dross, great Khan,' paddling the molten lead out of the bowl into a stone tub on the table. 'And at the bottom we see – ah…'

He smiled and wiped his forehead with his sleeve, gestured at the bowl. 'Even when molten it gleams to the eye.'

At the bottom of the bowl the liquid was a darker red. With a spatula Khalid carefully skimmed off the remaining dross, and there at the bottom of the bowl lay a cooling mass of liquid gold.

'We can pour it into a bar mould while it is still soft,' Khalid said with quiet satisfaction. 'It looks to be perhaps ten ounces. That would be one seventh of the stock, as predicted.'

Sayyed Abdul Aziz's face shone like the gold. He turned to his secretary Nadir Devanbegi, who was regarding the ceramic bowl closely.

Without expression, Nadir gestured for one of the Khan's guards to come forward. The rest of them rustled behind the alchemist's crew. Their pikes were still upright, but they were now at attention.

'Seize the instruments,' Nadir told the head guard.

Three soldiers helped him take possession of all the tools used in the operation, including the great pelican itself. When they were all in hand, Nadir went to one guard and took up the ladle Khalid had used to stir the liquid metals. In a sudden move he smashed it down on the table. It rang like a bell. He looked over at Sayyed Abdul Aziz, who stared at his secretary, puzzled. Nadir gestured with his head to one of the pikemen, then put the ladle on the table.

'Cut it.'

The pike came down hard, and the ladle was sliced just above its scoop. Nadir picked up the handle and the scoop and inspected them. He showed them to the Khan.

'You see – the shaft is hollow. The gold was in the tube inside the handle, and when he stirred, the heat melted the gold, and it slid out and into the lead in the bowl. Then as he continued to stir, it moved to the bottom of the bowl.'

Bahram looked at Khalid, shocked, and saw that it was true. His father in law's face was white, and he was no longer sweating. Already a dead man.

The Khan roared wordlessly, then leaped at Khalid and struck him down with the book he had been given. He beat him with the book, and Khalid did not resist.

'Take him!' Sayyed Abdul Aziz shouted at his soldiers. They picked up Khalid by the arms and dragged him through the dust, not allowing him to get to his feet, and threw him over a camel. In a minute they were all gone from the compound, leaving the air filled with smoke and dust and echoing shouts.

The Mercy of the Khan

No one expected Khalid to be spared after this debacle. His wife Fedwa was in a state of mourning already, and Esmerine was inconsolable. All the work of the yard stopped. Bahram fretted in the strange silence of the empty workshops, waiting to be given the word that they could collect Khalid's body. He realized he didn't know enough to run the compound properly.

Eventually the call came; they were ordered to attend the execution. Iwang joined Bahram for the trip to Bokhara and the palace there. Iwang was both sad and irritated. 'He should have asked me, if he was so short of cash. I could have helped him.'

Bahram was a little surprised at this, as Iwang's shop was a mere hole in the wall of the bazaar, and did not seem so very prosperous. But he said nothing. When all was said and done he had loved his father in law, and the black grief he felt left little room for thinking about Iwang's finances. The impending violent death of someone that close to him, his wife's father – she would be distraught for months, perhaps for years – a man so full of energy; the prospect emptied him of other thought, and left him sick with apprehension.

The next day they reached Bokhara, shimmering in the summer heat, its array of brown and sandy tones capped by its deep blue and turquoise mosque domes. Iwang pointed at one minaret. 'The Tower of Death,' he noted. 'They'll probably throw him off that.'

The sickness grew in Bahram. They entered the cast gate of the city and made their way to the palace. Iwang explained their business. Bahram wondered if they too would be taken and killed as accomplices. This had not occurred to him before, and he was shaking as they were led into a room that opened onto the palace grounds.

Nadir Devanbegi arrived shortly thereafter. He looked at them with his usual steady gaze: a short elegant man, black goatee, pale blue eyes, a sayyed himself, and very wealthy.

' You are said to be as great an alchemist as Khalid,' Nadir said abruptly to Iwang. 'Do you believe in the philosopher's stone, in projection, in all the so called red work? Can base metals be transmuted to gold?'

Iwang cleared his throat. 'Hard to say, effendi. I cannot do it, and the adepts who claimed they could, never said precisely how in their writing. Not in ways that I can use.'

'Use,' Nadir repeated. 'That's a word I want to emphasize. People like you and Khalid have knowledge that the Khan might use. Practical things, like gunpowder that is more predictable in power. Or stronger metallurgy, or more effective medicine. These could be real advantages in the world. To waste such abilities on fraud… Naturally the Khan is very angry.'

Iwang nodded, looking down.

'I have spoken with him at length about this matter, reminding him of Khalid's distinction as an armourer and alchemist. His past contributions as master of arms. His many other services to the Khan. And the Khan in his wisdom has decided to show a mercy that Mohammed himself must have approved.'

Iwang looked up.

'He will be allowed to live, if he promises to work for the khanate on things that are real.'

' I am sure he will agree to that,' Iwang said. 'That is merciful indeed.'

'Yes. He will of course have his right hand chopped off for thievery, as the law requires. But considering the effrontery of his crime, this is a very light punishment indeed. As he himself has admitted.'

The punishment was administered later that day, a Friday, after the market and before prayers, in the great plaza of Bokhara, by the side of the central pool. A big crowd gathered to witness it. They were in high spirits as Khalid was led out by guards from the palace, dressed in white robes as if celebrating Ramadan. Many of the Bokharis shouted abuse at Khalid, as a Samarqandi as well as a thief.

He knelt before Sayyed Abdul Aziz, who proclaimed the mercy of Allah, and of he himself, and of Nadir Devanbegi for arguing to spare the miscreant's life for his heinous fraud. Khalid's arm, looking from a distance like a bird's scrawny leg and claw, was lashed to the executioner's block. Then a soldier hefted a big axe overhead and dropped it on Khalid's wrist. Khalid's hand fell from the block and blood spurted onto the sand. The crowd roared. Khalid toppled onto his side, and the soldiers held him while one applied hot pitch from a pot on a brazier, using a short stick to plaster the black stuff to the end of the stump.

Bahram and Iwang took him back to Samarqand, laid out in the back of Iwang's bullock cart, which Iwang had had built in order to move weights of metal and glass that camels couldn't carry. It bumped horribly over the road, which was a broad dusty track worn in the earth by centuries of camel traffic between the two cities. The big wooden wheels jounced in every dip and over every hump, and Khalid groaned in the back, semi conscious and breathing stertorously, his left hand holding his pallid, burned right wrist. Iwang had forced an opium laced potion down him, and if it hadn't been for his groans it would have seemed he was asleep.

Bahram regarded the new stump with a sickened fascination. Seeing the left hand clutching the wrist, he said to Iwang, 'He'll have to eat with his left hand. Do everything with his left hand. He'll be unclean for ever.'

'That kind of cleanliness doesn't matter.'

They had to sleep by the road, as darkness caught them out. Bahram sat by Khalid, and tried to get him to eat some of Iwang's soup. 'Come on, Father. Come on, old man. Eat something and you'll feel better. When you feel better it'll be all right.' But Khalid only groaned and rolled from side to side. In the darkness, under the great net of stars, it seemed to Bahram that everything in their lives had been ruined.

Effect of the Punishment

But as Khalid recovered, it seemed that he didn't see it that way. He boasted to Bahram and Iwang about his behaviour during his punishment: 'I never said a word to any of them, and I had tested my limits in jail, to see how long I could hold my breath without fainting, so when I saw the time was near I simply held my breath, and I timed it so well that I was fainting anyway when the stroke fell. I never felt a thing. I don't even remember it.'

'We do,' said Iwang, frowning.

'Well, it was happening to me,' Khalid said sharply.

'Fine. You can use the method again when they chop off your head. You can teach it to us for when they throw us off the Tower of Death.'

Khalid stared at him. 'You're angry with me, I see.' Truculent and hurt in his feelings.

Iwang said, 'You could have got us all killed. Sayyed Abdul would command it without a second thought. If it weren't for Nadir Devanbegi, it might have happened. You should have talked to me. To Bahram here, and to me. We could have helped you.'

' Why were you in such trouble, anyway?' asked Bahram, embold ened by Iwang's reproaches. 'Surely the works here make a lot of money for you.'

Khalid sighed, ran his stump over his balding head. He got up and went to a locked cabinet, unlocked it and drew out a book and a box.

'This came from the Hindu caravanserai two years ago,' he told them, showing them the book's old pages. 'It's the work of Mary the Jewess, a very great alchemist. Very ancient. Her formula for projection was very convincing, I thought. I needed only the right furnaces, and a lot of sulphur and mercury. So I paid a lot for the book, and for the preparations. And once in debt to the Armenians, it only got worse. After that, I needed the gold to pay for the gold.' He shrugged with disgust.

'You should have said so,' Iwang repeated, glancing through the old book.

'You should always let me do the trading at the caravanserai,' Bahram added. 'They know you really want things, while I am ignorant, and so trade from the strength of indifference.'

Khalid frowned.

Iwang tapped the book. 'This is just warmed over Aristotle. You can't trust him to tell you anything useful. I've read the translations out of Baghdad and Sevilla, and I judge he's wrong more often than he's right.'

'What do you mean?' Khalid cried indignantly. Even Bahram knew Aristotle was the wisest of the ancients, the supreme authority for all alchemists.

'Where is he not wrong?' Iwang said dismissively. 'The least country doctor in China can do more for you than Aristotle can. He thought the heart did the thinking, he didn't know it pumped the blood he has no idea of the spleen or the meridian lines, and he never says a word about the pulse or the tongue. He did some fair dissections of animals, but never dissected a human as far as I can tell. Come with me to the bazaar and I can show you five things he got wrong, any Friday you like.'

Khalid was frowning. 'Have you read Al Farudi's "Harmony Between Aristotle and Plato"?'

'Yes, but that is a harmony that can't be made. Al Farudi only made the attempt because he didn't have Aristotle's "Biology". If he knew that work, he would see that for Aristotle it all remains material. His four elements all try to reach their levels, and as they try, our world results. Obviously it's not that simple.' He gestured around at the bright dusty day and the clangour of Khalid's shop, the mills, the waterworks powering the big blast furnaces, the noise and movement. 'The Platonists knew that. They know it is all mathematical. Things happen by number. They should be called Pythagoreans, to be accurate. They are like Buddhists, in that for them the world is alive. As is obviously the case. A great creature of creatures. For Aristotle and Ibn Rashd, it's more like a broken clock.'

Khalid grumbled at this, but he was not in a good position to argue. His philosophy had been cut off with his hand.

He was often in some pain, and smoked hashish and drank Iwang's opiated potions to dull the pain, which also dulled his wits, which dulled his spirits. He could not leap in to teach the boys the proper uses of the machinery; he could not shake people's hands, or cat with others, having only his unclean hand left to him; he was permanently unclean. That was part of the punishment.

The realization of this, and the shattering of all his philosophical and alchemical inquiries, finally caught up with him, and cast him into a melancholia. He left his sleeping quarters late in the mornings, and moped around the works watching all the activity like a ghost of himself. There everything continued much as it had before. The great mills wheeled on the river's current, powering the ore stamps and the bellows of the blast furnaces. The crews of workers came in directly after the morning prayers, making their marks on the sheets that kept record of their work hours, then scattering through the compound to shovel salt or sift saltpetre, or perform any other of the hundred activities that Khalid's enterprises demanded, under the supervision of the group of old artisans who had helped Khalid to organize the various works.

But all this was known, accomplished, routinized, and meant nothing to Khalid any more. Wandering around aimlessly or sitting in his study, surrounded by his collections like a magpie in its nest with a broken wing, he would stare at nothing for hours, or else page through his manuscripts, Al Razid and jildaki and jami, looking at who knew what. He would flick a finger against the objects of wonder that used to fascinate him so – a chunk of pitted coral, a unicorn horn, ancient Indian coins, nested polygons of ivory and horn, a goblet made of a rhinoceros horn chased with gold leaf, stone shells, a tiger legbone, a gold tiger statue, a laughing Buddha made of some unidentified black material, Nipponese netsuke, forks and crucifixes from the lost civilization of Frengistan – all these objects, which used to give him such delight, and which he would discuss for hours in a manner that grew tedious to his regulars, now only seemed to irritate him. He sat amid his treasures and he was no longer on the hunt, as Bahram used to think of it, seeking resemblances, making conjectures and speculations. Bahram had not understood before how important this was to him.

As his mood grew blacker, Bahram went to the sufi ribat in the Registan, and asked Ali, the sufi master in charge of the place, about it. 'Mowlana, he has been punished worse than he thought at first. He's no longer the same man.'

'He is the same soul,' said Ali. 'You are simply seeing another aspect of him. There is a secret core in everyone that not even Gabriel can know by trying to know. Listen now. The intellect derives from the senses, which are limited, and come from the body. The intellect therefore is also limited, and it can never truly know reality, which is infinite and eternal. Khalid wanted to know reality with his intellect, and he can't. Now he knows that, and is downcast. Intellect has no real mettle, you see, and at the first threat, into a hole it scuttles. But love is divine. It comes from the realm of the infinite, and is entrusted to the heart as a gift from God. Love has no calculating in it. "God loves you" is the only possible sentence! So it's love you must follow to the heart of your father in law. Love is the pearl of an oyster living in the ocean, and intellect lives on the shore and cannot swim. Bring up the oyster, sew the pearl onto your sleeve for all to see. It will bring courage to the intellect. Love is the king that must rescue his coward slave. Do you understand?'

'I think so.'

'You must be sincere and open, your love must be bright as the lightning flash itself! Then his inner consciousness might see it, and be snatched from itself in a twinkling. Go, feel the love course through you, and out to him.'

Bahram tried this strategy. Waking in his bed with Esmerine, he felt the love rising in him, for his wife and her beautiful body, the child after all of the mutilated old man he regarded so fondly. Full of love, he would make his way through the workshops or into town, feeling the cool of the springtime air on his skin, and the trees around the pools would gleam dustily, like great living jewels, and the intense white clouds would accentuate the deep blue of the sky, echoed underneath by the turquoise and cobalt tiles of the mosque domes.

Beautiful town on a beautiful morning, at the very centre of the world and the bazaar its usual massed chaos of noise and colour, all human intercourse there to be seen at once, and yet pointless as an anthill, unless it was infused with love. Everyone did what they did for love of the people in their lives, day after day – or so it seemed to Bahram on those mornings, as he took on more of Khalid's old assignments at the compound – and in the nights too, as Esmerine enfolded him.

But he could not seem to convey this apprehension to Khalid. The old man snarled at any expression of high spirits, much less love, and became irritated at any gesture of affection, not just from Bahram but from his wife Fedwa, or Esmerine, or Bahram and Esmerine's children, Fazi and Laila, or anyone else. The bustle of the workshops would surround them in the sunlight with their clangour and stink, all the protocols of metalworking and gunpowder making that Khalid had formulated going on before them as if in a giant loud dance, and Bahram would make a gesture encompassing it all and say, 'Love fills all this so full!' and Khalid would snarl, 'Shut up! Don't be a fool!'

One day he slammed out of his study with his single hand holding two of his old alchemical texts, and threw them into the door of a blazing athanor. 'Complete nonsense,' he replied bitterly when Bahram cried out for him to stop. 'Get out of my way, I'm burning them all.'

'But why?' Bahram cried. 'Those are your books! Why, why, why?'

Khalid took a lump of dusty cinnabar in his one hand, and shook it before Bahram. 'Why? I'll tell you why! Look at this! All the great alchemists, from jabir to al Razi to Ibn Sina, all agree that all the metals are various combinations of sulphur and mercury. Iwang says the Chinese and Hindu alchemists agree on this matter. But when we combine sulphur and mercury, as pure as we can make them, we get exactly this: cinnabar! What does that mean? The alchemists who actually speak to this problem, who are very few I might add, say that when they talk about sulphur and mercury, they don't really mean the substances we usually call sulphur and mercury, but rather purer elements of dryness and moisture, that are like sulphur and mercury, but finer! Well!' He threw the chunk of cinnabar across the yard at the river. 'What use is that? Why even call them that? Why believe anything they say?' He waved his stump at his study and alchemical workshop, and all the apparatus littering the yard outside. 'It's all so much junk. We don't know anything. They never knew what they were talking about.'

'All right, Father, maybe so, but don't burn the books! There may be something useful in some of them, you need to make distinctions. And besides, they were expensive.'

Khalid only snarled and made the sound of spitting.

Bahram told Iwang about this incident the next time he was in town. 'He burned a lot of books. I couldn't talk him out of it. I try to get him to see the love filling everything, but he doesn't see it.'

The big Tibetan blew air through his lips like a camel. 'That approach will never work with Khalid,' he said. 'It's easy for you to be full of love, being young and whole. Khalid is old and one handed. He is out of balance, yin and yang are disarranged. Love has nothing to do with it.' Iwang was no sufi.

Bahram sighed. 'Well, I don't know what to do then. You need to help me, Iwang. He's going to burn all his books and destroy all his apparatus, and then who knows what will happen to him.'

Iwang grumbled something inaudible.

'what?'

'I'll think it over. Give me some time.'

'There isn't much time. He'll break all the apparatus next.'

Aristotle was Wrong

The very next day Khalid ordered the blacksmith apprentices to move everything in the alchemical shops out into the yard to be destroyed. He had a black and wild look as he watched it all shed dust in the sunlight. Sand baths, water baths, descensory furnaces, stills, cucurbits, flasks, alumbixes, alembics with double or even triple spouts; all stood in a haze of antique dust. The largest battery alembic had last been used for distilling rose water, and seeing it Khalid snorted. 'That's the only thing we could make work. All this stuff, and we made rose water.'

Mortars and pestles, phials, flasks, basins and beakers, glass crystallizing dishes, jugs, casseroles, candle lamps, naphtha lamps, braziers, spatulas, tongs, ladles, shears, hammers, aludels, funnels, miscellaneous lenses, filters of hair, cloth and linen: finally everything was out in the sun. Khalid waved it all away. 'Burn it all, or if it won't burn, break it up and throw it in the river.'

But just then Iwang arrived, carrying a small glass and silver mechanism. He frowned when he saw the display. 'Some of this you could at least sell,' he said to Khalid. 'Don't you still have debts?'

'I don't care,' Khalid said. 'I won't sell lies.'

'It's not the apparatus that lies,' Iwang said. 'Some of this stuff could prove very useful.'

Khalid glared at him blackly. Iwang decided to change the subject, and raised his device to Khalid's attention. 'I brought you a toy that refutes all Aristotle.'

Surprised, Khalid examined the thing. Two iron balls sat in an arna ture that looked to Bahram like one of the waterwheel triphammers in miniature.

'Water poured here will weight the rocker, here, and the two doors are one, and open at the same time. One side can't open before the other, see?'

'Of course.'

'Yes, obvious, but consider, Aristotle says that a heavier mass will fall faster than a lighter mass, because it has more of the predilection to join the Earth. But look. Here are the two iron balls, one big and one small, heavy and light. Place them on the doors, set the device level, using a bubble level, high on your outside wall, where there is a good distance to fall. A minaret would be better, the Tower of Death would be better yet, but even from your wall it will work.'

They did as he suggested, Khalid climbing the ladder slowly to inspect the arrangement.

'Now, pour water in the funnel, and watch.'

The water filled the lower basin until the doors suddenly fell open. The two balls fell. They hit the ground at the same time.

'Ho,' Khalid said, and clambered down the ladder to retrieve the balls and try it again, after hefting them, and even weighing them precisely on one of his scales.

'You see?' Iwang said. 'You can do it with balls of unequal size or the same size, it doesn't matter. Everything falls at the same rate, except if it is so light and broad, like a feather, that it floats down on the air.'

Khalid tried it again.

Iwang said, 'So much for Aristotle.'

'Well,' said Khalid, looking at the balls, then lofting them in his left hand. 'He could be wrong about this and right about other things.'

'No doubt. But everything he says has to be tested, if you ask me, and also compared with what Hsing Ho and Al Razi say, and the Hindus. Demonstrated to be true or false, in the full light of day.'

Khalid was nodding. 'I would have some questions, I admit.'

Iwang gestured at the alchemical equipment in the yard. 'It's the same for all this – you could test them, see what's useful and what's not.'

Khalid frowned. Iwang returned his attention to the falling balls. The two men dropped a number of different items from the device, chattering away all the while.

'Look, something has to be bringing them down,' Khalid said at one point. 'Bringing them, forcing them, drawing them, what have you.'

'Of course,' said Iwang. 'Things happen by causes. An attraction must be caused by an agent, acting according to certain laws. What the agent might be, however…'

'But this is true of everything,' Khalid said, muttering. 'We know nothing, that's what it comes down to. We live in darkness.'

'Too many conjoined factors,' Iwang said.

Khalid nodded, hefting a carved block of ironwood in his hand. 'I'm tired of it, though.'

'So we try things. You do something, you get something else. It looks like a causal chain. Describable as a logical sequence, even as a mathematical operation. So that you might say, reality manifests itself thus. Without worrying too much about defining what force it is.'

'Perhaps love is the force,' Bahram offered. 'The same attraction as of persons to persons, extended between things in a general way.'

'It would explain how one's member rises away from the Earth,' Iwang said with a smile.

Bahram laughed, but Khalid said only, 'A joke. What I am speaking of could not be less like love. It is as constant as the stars in their places, a physical force.'

'The sufis say that love is a force, filling everything, impelling everything.'

'The sufis,' Khalid said scornfully. 'Those are the last people on Earth I would consult if I wanted to know how the world works. They moon about love and drink lots of wine and spin themselves. Bah! Islam was an intellectual discipline before the sufis came along, studying the world as it is, we had Ibn Sina and Ibn Rashd and Ibn Khaldun and all the rest, and then the sufis appeared and there hasn't been a single Muslim philosopher or scholar since then who has advanced our understanding of things by a single whit.'

'They have too,' Bahram said. 'They've made it clear how important love is in the world.'

'Love, oh yes, all is love, God is love, but if everything is love and all is one with Allah, then why do they have to get so drunk every day?'

Iwang laughed. Bahram said, 'They don't really, you know.'

'They do! And the good fellowship halls fill up with good fellows looking for a good time, and the madressas grow emptier, and the khans give them less, and here we are in the year 1020 arguing over the ideas of the ancient Frengis, without a single idea why things act the way they do. We know nothing! Nothing!'

'We have to start small,' Iwang said.

'We can't start small! Everything is all tied together!'

'Well, then we need to isolate one set of actions that we can see and control, and then study that, and see if we can understand it. Then work onwards from there. Something like this falling, just the simplest movement. If we understood movement, we could study its manifestations in other things.'

Khalid thought about that. He had finally stopped dropping things through the device.

'Come here with me,' Iwang said. 'Let me show you something that makes me curious.'

They followed him towards the shop containing the big furnaces. 'See how you obtain such hot fires now. Your waterworks drive the bellows faster than any number of puffers ever could, and the heat of the fire is accordingly higher. Now, Aristotle says fire is trapped in wood, and released by heat. Fair enough, but why does more air inake the fire burn hotter? Why does wind drive a wildfire so? Does it mean air is essential to fire? Could we find out? If we built a chamber in which the air was pulled out by the bellows rather than pushed in, would the fire burn less?'

'Suck air out of a chamber?' Khalid said.

'Yes. Arrange a valve that lets air out but won't let it back in. Pump out what's there, and then hold any replacement air out.'

'Interesting! But what would remain in the chamber then?'

Iwang shrugged. 'I don't know. A void? A piece of the original void, perhaps? Ask the lamas about that, or your sufis. Or Aristotle. Or just make a glass chamber, and look in it.'

' I will,' Khalid said.

'And motion is easiest of all to study,' Iwang said. 'We can try all manner of things with motion. We can time this attraction of things to the Earth. We can see if the speed is the same up in the hills and down in the valleys. Things speed up as they fall, and this might be measurable too. Light itself might be measurable. Certainly the angles of refraction are constant, I've measured those already.'

Khalid was nodding. 'First this reverse bellows, to empty a chamber. Although surely it cannot be a true void that results. Nothingness is not possible in this world, I think. There will be something in there, thinner than air.'

'That is more Aristotle,' Iwang said. Natureabhors the void." But what if it doesn't? We will only know when we try.'

Khalid nodded. If he had had two hands he would have been rubbing them together.

The three of them walked out to the waterworks. Here a canal brought a hard flow from the river, its gliding surface gleaming in the morning light. The water powered a mill, which geared out to axles turning a bank of heavy metal working hammers and stamps, and finally the rotating bellows handles that powered the blast furnaces. It was a noisy place, filled with sounds of falling water, smashed rock, roaring fire, singed air; all the elements raging with transmutation, hurting their cars and leaving a burnt smell in the air. Khalid stood watching the waterworks for a while. This was his achievement, he was the one who had organized all the artisans' skills into this enormous articulated machine, so much more powerful than people or horses had ever been. They were the most powerful people in all the history of the world, Bahram thought, because of Khalid's enterprise; but with a wave Khalid dismissed it all. He wanted to understand why it worked.

He led the other two back to the shop. 'We'll need your glassblowing, and my leather and iron workers,' he said. 'The valve you mention could perhaps be made of sheep intestines.'

'It might have to be stronger than that,' said Iwang. 'A metal gate of some sort, pressed into a leather gasket by the suck of the void.'

'Yes.'

No Jinn in This Bottle

Khalid set his artisans to the task, and Iwang did the glassblowing, and after a few weeks they had a two part mechanism: a thick glass globe to be emptied, and a powerful pump to empty it. There were any number of collapses, leaks and valve failures, but the old mechanists of the compound were ingenious, and attacking the points of failure, they ended up with five very similar versions of the device, all very heavy. The pump was massive and lathed to newly precise fits of plunger, tube and valves; the glass globes were thick flasks, with necks even thicker, and knobs on the inside surfaces from which objects could be hung, to see what would happen to them when the air in the globe was evacu ated. When they solved the leakage problems, they had to build a rackand pinion device to exert enough force on the pump to evacuate the final traces of air from the globe. Iwang advised them not to create such a perfect void that they ended up sucking in the pump, the compound, or perchance the whole world, like jinni returning to their confinement; and as always, Iwang's stone face did not give them any clue as to whether he was joking or serious.

When they had the mechanisms working fairly reliably (occasionally one would still crack its glass, or break a valve), they set one on a wooden frame, and Khalid began a sequence of trials, inserting things in the glass globes, pumping out the air, and seeing what resulted. All philosophical questions on the nature of what remained inside the globe after the air was removed, he now refused to address. 'Let's just see what happens,' he said. 'It is what it is.' He kept big blank paged books on the table beside the apparatus, and he or his clerks recorded every detail of the trials, timing them on his best clock.

After a few weeks of learning the apparatus and trying things, he asked Iwang and Bahram to arrange a small party, inviting several of the qadi and teachers from the madressas in the Registan, particularly the mathematicians and astronomers of Sher Dor Madressa, who were already involved in discussions of ancient Greek and classical caliphate notions of physical reality. On the appointed day, when all those invited had gathered in the open walled workshop next to Khalid's study, Khalid introduced the apparatus to them, describing how it worked and indicating what they could all see, that he had hung an alarm clock from a knob inside the glass globe, so that it swung freely at the end of a short length of silk thread. Khalid cranked the piston of the rack and pinion down twenty times, working hard with his left arm. He explained that the alarm clock was set to go off at the sixth hour of the afternoon, shortly after the evening prayers would be sung from Samarqand's northernmost minaret.

'To be sure the alarm is truly sounding,' Khalid said, 'we have exposed the clapper, so that you can see it hitting the bells. I will also introduce air back into the globe little by little, after we have seen the first results, so you can hear for yourself the effect.'

He was gruff and direct. Bahram saw that he wanted to distance himself from the portentous, magical style he had affected during his alchemical transmutations. He made no claims, spoke no incantations. The memory of his last disastrous demonstration – his fraud must have been in his mind, as it was in everyone else's. But he merely gestured with his hand at the clock, which advanced steadily towards six.

Then the clock began to spin on its thread, and the clapper was visibly smashing back and forth between the little brass bells. But there was no sound coming from the glass. Khalid gestured: 'You might think that the glass itself is stopping the sound, but when the air is let back into the flask, you will see that it isn't so. First I invite you to put your car to the glass, so you can confirm that there is no sound at all.'

They did so one by one. Then Khalid unscrewed a stopcock that released a valve set in the side of the flask, and a brief penetrating hiss was joined by the muted banging of the alarm, which grew louder quickly, until it sounded much like an alarm heard from an adjoining room.

'It seems there is no sound without air to convey it,' Khalid commented.

The visitors from the madressa were eager to inspect the apparatus, and to discuss its uses in trials of various sorts, and to speculate about what, if anything, remained in the globe when the air was pumped out. Khalid was adamant in his refusal to discuss this question, preferring to talk about what the demonstration seemed to be indicating about the nature of sound and its transmission.

'Echoes might elucidate this matter in another way,' one of the qadis said. He and all the other visiting witnesses were bright eyed, pleased, intrigued. 'Something strikes air, pushes it, and the sound is a shock moving through the air, like waves across water. They bounce back, like waves in water bounce when they strike a wall. It takes time for this movement to cross the intervening space, and thus echoes.'

Bahram said, 'With the aid of an echoing cliff we could perhaps time the speed of sound.'

'The speed of sound!' Iwang said. 'Very nice!'

'A capital idea, Bahram,' Khalid said. He checked to make sure his clerk was noting all done or said. He unscrewed the stopcock all the way and removed it, so that they all heard the noisy clanging of the alarm as he reached into the flask to turn off the device. It was strange that the clapper should have been so silent before. He rubbed his scalp with his right wrist. 'I wonder,' he said, 'if we could establish a speed for light too, using the same principle.'

'How would it echo?' Bahram asked.

'Well, if it were aimed at a distant mirror, say… a lantern unveiled, a distant mirror, a clock that one could read very precisely, or start and stop, even better…'

Iwang was shaking his head. 'The mirror might have to be very far away to give the recorder time to determine an interval, and then the lantern flash would not be visible unless the mirror were perfectly angled.'

'Make a person the mirror,' Bahram suggested. 'When the person on the far hill sees the first lantern light, he reveals his, and a person next to the first person times the appearance of the second light.'

'Very good,' several people said at once. Iwang added, 'It may still be too fast.'

'It remains to be seen,' Khalid said cheerfully. 'A demonstration will clarify the issue.'

With that Esmerine and Fedwa wheeled in the ice tray and its 'demonstration of sherbets' as Iwang termed it, and the crowd fell to, talking happily, Iwang speaking of the thin sound of goraks in the high Himalaya where the air itself was thin, and so on.

The Khan Confronts the Void

So Iwang brought Khalid back out of his black melancholy, and Bahram saw the wisdom of Iwang's approach to the matter. Every day now, Khalid woke up in a hurry to get things done. The businesses of the compound were given over to Bahram and Fedwa and the old hands heading each of the shops, and Khalid was distracted and uninterested if they came to him with matters of that sort. All his time was taken by conceiving, planning, executing and recording his demonstrations with the void pump, and later with other equipment and phenomena. They went to the great western city wall at dawn when all was quiet, and timed the sound of wood blocks slapped together and their returning echoes, measuring their distance from the wall with a length of string one third of an li long. Iwang did the calculations, and soon declared that the speed of sound was something like two thousand li an hour, a speed that everyone marvelled at. 'About fifty times faster than the fastest horse,' Khalid said, regarding Iwang's figures happily.

'And yet light will be much faster,' Iwang predicted.

'We will find out.'

Meanwhile Iwang was puzzling over the figures. 'There remains the question of whether sound slows down as it moves along. Or speeds up for that matter. But presumably it would slow, if it did anything, as the air resisted the shock.'

'Noise gets quieter the further away it is,' Bahram pointed out. 'Maybe it gets quieter rather than slower.'

'But why would that be?' Khalid asked, and then he and Iwang were into a deep discussion of sound, movement, causation and action at a distance. Quickly Bahram was out of his depth, being no philosopher, and indeed Khalid did not like the metaphysical aspect of the discussion, and concluded as he always did these days: 'We will test it.'

Iwang was agreeable. Ruminating over his figures, he said, 'We need a mathematics that could deal not only with fixed speeds, but with the speed of the change of a speed. I wonder if the Hindus have considered this.' He often said that the Hindu mathematicians were the most advanced in the world, very far ahead of the Chinese. Khalid had long ago given him access to all the books of mathematics in his study, and Iwang spent many hours in there reading, or making obscure calculations and drawings, on slates with chalk.

The news of their void pump spread, and they frequently met with the interested parties in the madressas, usually the masters teaching mathematics and natural philosophy. These meetings were often contentious, but everyone kept to the ostentatiously formal disputation style of the madressa's theolo ical debates.

Meanwhile the Hindu caravanserai frequently sheltered booksellers, and these men called Bahram over to have a look at old scrolls, leatheror wood bound books, or boxes of loose leaved pages. 'Old One Hand will be interested in what this Brahmagupta has to say about the size of the earth, I assure you,' they would say grinning, knowing that Bahram could not judge.

'This one here is the wisdom of a hundred generations of Buddhist monks, all killed by the Mughals.'

'This one is the compiled knowledge of the lost Frengis, of Archimedes and Euclid.'

Bahram would look through the pages as if he could tell, buying for the most part by bulk and antiquity, and the frequent appearance of numbers, especially Hindu numbers, or the Tibetan ticks that only Iwang could decipher. If he thought Khalid and Iwang would be interested, he haggled with a firmness based on ignorance, 'Look this isn't even in Arabic or Hindi or Persian or Sanskrit, I don't even recognize this alphabet! How is Khalid to make anything of this?'

'Oh, but this is from the Deccan, Buddhists everywhere can read it, your Iwang will be very happy to learn this!'

Or, 'This is the alphabet of the Sikhs, their last guru invented an alphabet for them, it's a lot like Sanskrit, and the language is a form of Punjabi,' and so on. Bahram came home with his finds, nervous at having spent good money on dusty tomes incomprehensible to him, and Khalid and Iwang would inspect them, and either page through them like vultures, congratulating Bahram on his judgment and haggling skills, or else Khalid would curse him for a fool while Iwang stared at him, marvelling that he could not identify a Travancori accounting book full of shipping invoices (this was the Deccan volume that any Buddhist could read).

Other attention drawn by their new device was not so welcome. One morning Nadir Devanbegi appeared at the gate with some of the Khan's guards. Khalid's servant Paxtakor ushered them across the compound, and Khalid, carefully impassive and hospitable, ordered coffee brought to his study.

Nadir was as friendly as could be, but soon came to the point. 'I argued to the Khan that your life be spared because you are a great scholar, philosopher and alchemist, an asset to the khanate, a jewel of Samarqand's great glory.'

Khalid nodded uncomfortably, looking at his coffee cup. He lifted a finger briefly, as if to say, Enough, and then muttered, 'I am grateful, effendi.'

'Yes. Now it is clear that I was right to argue for your life, as word comes to us of your many activities, and wonderful investigations.'

Khalid looked up at him to see if he were being mocked, and Nadir lifted a palm to show his sincerity. Khalid looked down again.

'But I came here to remind you that all these fascinating trials take place in a dangerous world. The khanate lies at the centre of all the trade routes in the world, with armies in all directions. The Khan is concerned to protect his subjects from attack, and yet we hear of cannon that would reduce our cities' walls in a week or less. The Khan wishes you to help him with this problem. He is sure you will be happy to bring him some small part of the fruits of your learning, to help him to defend the khanate.'

'All my trials are the Khan's,' Khalid said seriously. 'My every breath is the Khan's.'

Nadir nodded his acknowledgement of this truth. 'And yet you did not invite him to your demonstration with this pump that creates a void in the air.'

'I did not think he would be interested in such a small matter.'

'The Khan is interested in everything.'

None of them could tell by Nadir's face whether he was joking or not.

'We would be happy to display the void pump to him.'

'Good. That would be appreciated. But remember also that he wishes specific help with cannonry, and with defence against cannonry.'

Khalid nodded. 'We will honour his wish, effendi.'

After Nadir was gone, Khalid grumbled unhappily. 'Interested in everything! How can he say that and not laugh!' Nevertheless he sent a servant with a formal invitation to the Khan, to witness the new apparatus. And before the visit occurred he had the whole compound at work, developing a new demonstration of the pump which he hoped would impress the Khan.

When Sayyed Abdul Aziz and his retinue made their visit, the globe that was to hold the void this time was made of two half globes, one edge mortised to fit the other precisely, with a thin oiled leather gasket placed between the two before the air was pumped out of the space between them, and thick steel braces for each globe, to which ropes could be tied.

Sayyed Abdul sat on his cushions and inspected the two halves of the globe closely. Khalid explained to him: 'When the air is removed, the two halves of the globe will adhere together with great strength.' He placed the halves together, pulled them apart; placed them together again, screwed the pump into the one that had the hole for it, and gestured for Paxtakor to wind the pump out and in and out again, ten times. Then he brought the device over to the Khan, and invited him to try to pull the two halves of the globe apart.

It could not be done. The Khan looked bored. Khalid took the device out to the central yard of the compound, where two teams of three horses each were held waiting. Their draft harnesses were hooked to the two sides of the globe, and the horses led apart until the globe hung in the air between them. When the horses were steadied, still facing away from each other, the horseboys cracked their whips, and the two teams of horses snorted and shoved and skipped as they attempted to pull away; they skittered sideways, shifted, struggled, and all the while the globe hung from the quivering horizontal ropes. The globe could not be pulled apart; even little charges made by the horse teams only brought them up short, staggering.

The Khan watched the horses with interest, but the globe he seemed to disregard. After a few minutes of straining, Khalid had the horses stopped, and he unhooked the apparatus and brought it over to the Khan and Nadir and their group. When he unscrewed the stopcock, the air hissed back into the globe, and the two halves came apart as easily as slices of an orange. Khalid stripped out the smashed leather gasket.

'You see,' he said, 'it was the force of the air, or rather the pull of the void, that kept the halves together so strongly.'

The Khan got up to leave, and his retainers rose with him. It seemed he was almost falling asleep. 'So?' he said. 'I want to blow my enemies apart, not hold them together.' With a wave of his hand he left.

Inside the Night, Inside the Light

This unenthusiastic response on the part of the Khan worried Bahram. No interest in an apparatus that had fascinated the scholars of the madressa; instead, a command to discover some new weapon or fortification that had eluded the hard search of all the armourers of all the ages. And if they failed, the possible punishments were only too easy to imagine. Khalid's absent hand mocked them from its own kind of void. Khalid would stare at the end of his wrist and say, 'Someday all of me will look like you.'

Now he merely looked around the compound. 'Tell Paxtakor to obtain new cannon from Nadir for testing. Three at each weight, and all manner of powder and shot.'

'We have powder here.'

'Of course.' A withering glare: 'I want to see what they have that is not ours.'

In the days that followed, he revisited all the old buildings of the compounds, the ones he and his old ironmongers had built when they were first making guns and gunpowder for the Khan. In those days, before he and his men had followed the Chinese system and connected the power of their waterwheel to the furnaces, making their first riverpowered blast furnaces and freeing up their crew of young puffers for other work, everything had been small and primitive, the iron more brittle, everything they made rougher, bulkier. The buildings themselves showed it. Now the gears of the waterwheels whirred with all the power of the river, pouring into the bellows and roaring as fire. The chemical pits steamed lemon and lime in the sun, and the puffers packed boxes and ran camels and moved immense mounds of charcoal around the yards. Khalid shook his head at the sight of it all, and made a new gesture, a kind of sweep and punch with his ghost hand. 'We need better clocks. We can only make progress if our measurement of time is more exact.'

Iwang puffed his lips when he heard this. 'We need more understanding.'

'Yes, yes, of course. Who could dispute that in this miserable world. But all the wisdom of the ages cannot tell us how long it takes flashpowder to ignite a charge.'

When the days ended the great compound fell silent, except for the grinding of the watermill on the canal. After the resident workers had washed and eaten and said their last prayers of the day, they went to their apartments at the river end of the compound, and fell asleep. The town workers went home.

Bahram dropped onto his bed beside Esmerine, across the room from their two small children, Fazi and Laila. Most nights he was out as soon his head hit the silk of his pillow, exhausted. Blessed slumber.

But often he and Esmerine woke some time after midnight, and sometimes they lay there breathing, touching, whispering conversations that were usually brief and disjointed, other times the longest and deepest conversations they ever had; and if ever they were to make love, now that the children were there to exhaust Esmerine, it would be in the blessed cool and quiet of these midnight hours.

Afterwards Bahram might get up and walk around the compound, to see it in moonlight and check that all was well, feeling the afterglow of love pulse in him; and usually on these occasions he would see the lamplight in Khalid's study, and pad by to find Khalid slumped over a book, or scribbling left handed at his writing stand, or recumbent on his couch, in murmured conversation with Iwang, both of them holding tubes of a narghile wreathed by the sweet smell of hashish. If Iwang was there and the men seemed awake, Bahram would sometimes join them for a while, before he got sleepy again and returned to Esmerine. Khalid and Iwang might be speaking of the nature of motion, or the nature of vision, sometimes holding up one of Iwang's lenses to look through as they talked. Khalid held the position that the eye received small impressions or images of things, sent through the air to it. He had found many an old philosopher, from China to Frengistan, who held the same view, calling the little images 'eidola' or 'simulacra' or 'species' or 'image' or 'idol' or 'phantasm' or 'form' or 'intention' or 'passion' or,similitude of the agent', or 'shadow of the philosophers', a name that made Iwang smile. He himself believed the eye sent out projections of a fluid as quick as light itself, which returned to the eye like an echo, with the contours of objects and their colours intact.

Bahram always maintained that none of these explanations was adequate. Vision could not be explained by optics, he would say; sight was a matter of spirit. The two men would hear him out, then Khalid would shake his head. 'Perhaps optics are not sufficient to explain it, but they are necessary to begin an explanation. It's the part of the phenomenon that can be tested, you see, and described mathematically, if we are clever enough.'

The cannons arrived from the Khan, and Khalid spent part of every day out on the bluff over the curve in the river, shooting them off with old jalil and Paxtakor; but by far the bulk of his time was spent thinking about optics and proposing tests to Iwang. Iwang returned to his shop, blowing thick glass balls with cut sides, mirrors concave and convex, and big, perfectly polished triangular rods, which were for him objects of almost religious reverence. He and Khalid spent afternoon hours in the old man's study with the door closed, having made a little hole in the south wall letting in a chink of light. They put the prism over the hole, and its straight rainbow shone on the walls or a screen they set up. Iwang said there were seven colours, Khalid six, as he called Iwang's purple and lavender two parts of the same colour. They argued endlessly about everything they saw, at least at first. Iwang made diagrams of their arrangement that gave the precise angles each band of colour bent as it went through the prism. They held up glass balls and wondered why the light did not fractionate in these balls as it did in the prism, when everyone could see that a sky full of minuscule clear balls, that is to say raindrops, hit by low afternoon sunlight, created the towering rainbows that hung east of Samarqand after a rainshower had passed. Many a time when black storms had passed over the city, Bahram stood outside with the two older men observing some truly beautiful rainbows, often double rainbows, a lighter one arched over the brighter one; and sometimes even a third very faint one above that. Eventually Iwang worked up a law of refraction which he assured Khalid would account for all the colours. 'The primary rainbow is produced by a refraction as the light enters the raindrop, an internal reflection at the back surfaces, and a second refraction out of the raindrop. The secondary bow is created by light reflected two or three times inside the raindrops. Now look you, each colour has its own index of refraction, and so to bounce around inside the raindrop is to separate each colour out from the others, with them appearing to the eye always in their correct sequence, reversed in the secondary because there is an extra bounce making it upside down, as in my drawing here, see?'

'So if raindrops were crystalline, there would be no rainbows.'

'That's right, yes. That's snow. If there was only reflection, the sky might sparkle everywhere with white light, as if filled with mirrors. Sometimes you see that in a snowstorm, too. But the roundness of raindrops means there is a steady change in the angle of incidence between zero and ninety degrees, and that spreads the different rays to an observer here, who must always stand at an angle from forty to fortytwo degrees off from the incoming sunlight. The secondary one appears when the angle is between fifty and a half degrees and fifty four and a half. See, the geometry predicts the angles, and out here we measure, using this wonderful sky viewer Bahram found for you at the Chinese caravanserai, and it confirms, as precisely as hand can hold, the mathematical prediction!'

'Well, of course,' Khalid said, 'but that's circular reasoning. You get your angles of incidence by observation of a prism, then confirm the angles in the sky by more observation.'

'But one was colours on the wall, the other rainbows in the sky!'

'As above, so below.' This of course was a truism of the alchemists, so there was a dark edge to Khalid's comment.

The current rainbow was waning as a cloud in the west blocked the sun. The two old men did not notice, however, absorbed as they were in their discussion. Bahram alone was left to enjoy the vibrant colours arcing across the sky, Allah's gift to show that he would never again drown the world. The two men jabbed fingers at Iwang's chalkboard and Khalid's sky device.

'It's leaving,' Bahram said, and they looked up, slightly annoyed to be interrupted. While the rainbow had been bright, the sky under it had been distinctly lighter than the sky over it; now the inside and outside were the same shade of slate blue again.

The rainbow left the world, and they squelched back to the compound, Khalid cheering up with every step, many of them right into puddles, as he was still staring at Iwang's chalkboard.

'So – so – well. I must admit, it is as neat as a proof of Euclid. Two refractions, two or three reflections – rain and sun, an observer to see – and there you have it! The rainbow!'

'And light itself, divisible into a banding of colours,' Iwang mused, travelling all together out of the sun. So bright it is! And when it strikes anything at all, it bounces off and into an eye, if there be an eye to see it, and whatever part of the band, hmm, how would that work… are the surfaces of the world all variously rounded, if you could but look at them close enough…'

'It's a wonder things don't change colour when you move,' Bahram said, and the other two went silent, until Khalid started laughing.

'Another mystery! Allah preserve us! They will just keep coming for ever, until we are one with God.'

This thought appeared to please him immensely.

He set up a permanent dark room in the compound, all boarded and draped until it was much darker than his study had been, with shuttered chinks in the east wall that could let in small shafts of light, and many a morning he was in there with assistants, running in and out, arranging demonstrations one way or another. One he was pleased enough with to invite the scholars of the Sher Dor Madressa to witness it, because it so neatly refuted Ibn Rashd's contention that white light was whole, and the colours created by a prism an effect of the glass. If this were so, Khalid argued, then light twice bent would change colour twice. To test this, his assistants allowed sunlight in through the wall, and a first prism's array was spread across a screen in the centre of the room. Khalid himself opened an aperture in the screen small enough only to allow the red part of the little rainbow through it, into a draped closet where it immediately encountered another prism, directing it onto another screen inside the closet.

'Now, if the bend of refraction caused by itself the change in colour, surely the red band would change at this second refraction. But look: it remains red. Each of the colours holds when put through a second prism.'

He moved the aperture slowly from colour to colour, to demonstrate. His guests crowded around the door of the closet, examining the results closely.

'What does this mean?' one asked.

'Well, this you must help me with, or ask Iwang. I am no philosopher, myself. But I think it proves the change in colour is not just a matter of bending in itself. I think it shows sunlight, white light if you will, or full light, or simply sunlight, is composed of all the individual colours travelling together.'

The witnesses nodded. Khalid ordered the room opened up, and they retired blinking into the sun to have coffee and cakes.

'This is wonderful,' Zahhar, one of Sher Dor's senior mathematicians said, 'very illuminating, so to speak. But what does it tell us about light, do you think? What is light?'

Khalid shrugged. 'God knows, but not men. I think only that we have clarified (so to speak) some of light's behaviour. And that behaviour has a geometrical aspect. It seems regulated by number, you see. As do so many things in this world. Allah appears to like mathematics, as you yourself have often said, Zahhar. As for the substance of light, what a mystery! It moves quickly, how quickly we do not know; it would be good to find out. And it is hot, as we know by the sun. And it will cross a void, if indeed there is any such thing as a void in this world, in a way that sound will not. It could be that the Hindus are right and there is another element besides earth, fire, air and water, an ether so fine we do not see it, that fills the universe to a plenum and is the medium of movement. Perhaps little corpuscles, bouncing off whatever they strike, as in a mirror, but usually less directly. Depending on what it strikes, a particular colour band is reflected into the eye. Perhaps.' He shrugged. 'It is a mystery.'

The Madressas Weigh In

The colour demonstrations caused a great deal of discussion and debate in the madressas, and Khalid learned during this period never to speak of causes in any opinionated way, or to impinge on the realm of the madressa scholars by speaking of Allah's will, or any other aspect of the nature of reality. He would only say, 'Allah gave us our intelligence to better understand the glory of his work,' or, 'the world often works mathematically. Allah loves numbers, and mosquitos in springtime, and beauty.'

The scholars went away amused, or irritated, but in any case in a ferment of philosophy. The madressas of Registan Square and elsewhere in the city, and out at Ulug Bek's old observatory, were buzzing with the new fashion of making demonstrations of various physical phenomena, and Khalid's was not the only mechanical workshop that could build an ever more complex array of new machines and devices. The mathematicians of Sher Dor Madressa, for instance, interested everyone with a surprising new mercury scale, simple to construct a bowl containing a pool of mercury, with a narrow tube of mercury, scaled at the top but not the bottom, set upright in the liquid in the bowl. The mercury in the tube dropped a certain distance, creating another mysterious void in the gap left at the top of the tube; but the remainder of the tube stayed filled with a column of mercury. The Sher Dor mathematicians asserted that it was the weight of the world's air on the mercury in the bowl that pushed down on it enough to keep the mercury in the cylinder from falling all the way down into the bowl. Others maintained it was the disinclination of the void in the top of the tube to grow. Following a suggestion of Iwang's, they took their device to the top of Snow Mountain, in the Zeravshan Range, and all there saw that the level of mercury in the tube had dropped, presumably because there was less weight of air on it up there, two or three thousand hands higher than the city. This was a great support for Khalid's previous contention that air weighed on them, and a refutation of Aristotle, and al Farabi and the rest of the Aristotelian Arabs, who claimed that the four elements want to be in their proper places, high or low. This claim Khalid ridiculed, at least in private. 'As if stones or the wind could want to be some place or other, as a man does. It's really nothing but circular definition again. "Things fall because they want to fall", as if they could want. Things fall because they fall, that's all it means. Which is fine, no one knows why things fall, certainly not me, it is a very great mystery. All the seeming cases of action at a distance are a mystery. But first we must say so, we must distinguish the mysteries as mysteries, and proceed from there, demonstrating what happens, and then seeing if that leads us to any thoughts concerning the how or the why.'

The sufi scholars were still inclined to extrapolate from any given demonstration to the ultimate nature of the cosmos, while the mathematically inclined were fascinated by the purely numerical aspects of the results, the geometry of the world as it was revealed. These and other approaches combined in a burst of activity, consisting of demonstrations and talk, and private work on slates over mathematical formulations, and artisanal labour on new or improved devices. On some days it seemed to Bahram that these investigations had filled all Samarqand: Khalid's compound and the others, the madressas, the ribat, the bazaars, the coffee stalls, the caravanserai, where the traders would take the news out to all the world… it was beautiful.

The Chest of Wisdom

Out beyond the western wall of the city, where the old Silk Road ran towards Bokhara, the Armenians were quiet in their little caravanserai, tucked beside the large and raucous Hindu one. The Armenians were cooking in the dusk over their braziers. Their women were bare headed and bold eyed, laughing among themselves in their own language. Armenians were good traders, and yet reclusive for all that. They trafficked only in the most expensive goods, and knew everything about everywhere, it seemed. Of all the trading peoples, they were the most rich and powerful. Unlike the Jews and Nestorians and Zott, they had a little homeland in the Caucasus to which most of them regularly returned, and they were Muslim, most of them, which gave them a tremendous advantage across Dar al Islam which was to say all the world, except for China, and India below the Deccan. Rumours that they only pretended to be Muslim, and were secretly Christians all the while, struck Bahram as envious backstabbing by other traders, probably the tricky Zott, who had been cast out of India long before (some said Egypt), and now wandered the world homeless, and did not like the Armenians' inside position in so many of the most lucrative markets and products.

Bahram wandered among their fires and lamplight, stopping to chat and accept a swallow of wine with familiars of his, until an old man pointed out the bookseller Mantuni, even older, a wizened hunchbacked little man who wore spectacles that made his eyes appear the size of lemons. His Turkic was basic and heavily accented, and Bahram switched to Persian, which Mantuni acknowledged with a grateful dip of the head. The old man indicated a wooden box on the ground, filled entirely with books he had obtained for Khalid in Frengistan. 'Will you be able to carry it?' he asked Bahram anxiously.

'Sure,' Bahram said, but he had his own worry: 'How much is this going to cost?'

'Oh no, it's already paid for. Khalid sent me off with the funds, otherwise I would not have been able to afford to buy these. They're from an estate sale in Damascus, a very old alchemical family that came to an end with a hermit who had no issue. See here, Zosimos' 'Treatise on Instruments and Furnaces", printed just two years ago, that's for you. I've got the rest arranged chronologically by date of composition, as you can see, here is Jabir's "Sum of perfection", and his "Ten Books of Rectification", and look, 'The Secret of Creation".'

This was a huge sheepskin bound volume. 'Written by the Greek Apollonius. One of its chapters is the fabled "Emerald Table",' tapping its cover delicately. 'That chapter alone is worth twice what I paid for this whole collection, but they didn't know. The original of 'The Emerald Table" was found by Sara the wife of Abraham, in a cave near Hebron, some time after the Great Flood. It was inscribed on a plate of emerald, which Sara found clasped in the hands of the mummified corpse of Thrice greatest Hermes, the father of all alchemy. The writing was in Phoenician characters. Although I must admit I have read other accounts that have it discovered by Alexander the Great. In any case here it is, in an Arabic translation from the time of the Baghdad caliphate.'

'Fine,' Bahram said. He wasn't sure Khalid would still be interested in this stuff.

'You will also find "The Complete Biographies of the immortals", a rather slender volume, considering, and "The Chest of Wisdom", and a book by a Frengi, Bartholomew the Englishman, "On the Properties of Things", also "The Epistle of the Sun to the Crescent Moon", and "The Book of Poisons", perhaps useful, and "The Great Treasure", and "The Document Concerning the Three Similars", in Chinese '

'Iwang will be able to read that,' Bahram said. 'Thank you.' He tried to pick up the box. It was as if filled with rocks, and he staggered.

'Are you sure you'll be able to get it back to the city, and safely?'

'I'll be fine. I'm going to take them to Khalid's, where Iwang has a room for his work. Thanks again. I'm sure Iwang will want to call on you to talk about these, and perhaps Khalid too. How long will you be in Samarqand?'

'Another month, no more.'

'They'll be out to talk to you about these.'

Bahram hiked along with the box balanced on his head. He took breaks from time to time to case his head, and fortify himself with more wine. By the time he got back to the compound it was late and his head was swimming, but the lamps were lit in Khalid's study, and Bahram found the old man in there reading and dropped the box triumphantly before him.

'More to read,' he said, and collapsed on a chair.

The End of Alchemy

Shaking his head at Bahram's drunkenness, Khalid began going through the box, whistling and chirping. 'Same old crap,' he said at one point. Then he pulled one out and opened it. 'Ah,' he said, 'a Frengi text, translated from Latin to Arabic by an Ibn Rabi of Nsara. Original by one Bartholomew the Englishman, written some time in the sixth century. Let's see what he has to say, hmm, hmm…' He read with the forefinger of his left hand leading his eyes on a rapid chase over the pages. 'What' That's Ibn Sina direct!… And this too!' He looked up at Bahram. 'The alchemical sections are taken right out of Ibn Sina!'

He read on, laughed his brief unamused laugh. 'Listen to this! "Quicksilver", that's mercury, "is of so great virtue and strength, that though thou do a stone of an hundred pound weigh upon quicksilver of the weight of two pounds, the quicksilver anon withstandeth the weight. – 'What?'

'Have you ever heard such nonsense? If he was going to speak of measures of weight at all, you'd think he would have the sense to understand them.'

He read on. 'Ah,' he said after a while, 'Here he quotes Ibn Sina directly. "Glass, as Avicenna saith, is among stones as a fool among men, for it taketh all manner of colour and painting." Spoken by a very mirrorglass of a man… ha… look, here is a story that could be about our Sayyed Abdul Aziz. "Long time past, there was one that made glass pliant, which might be amended and wrought with an hammer, and brought a vial made of such glass before Tiberius the Emperor, and threw it down on the ground, and it was not broken, but bent and folded. And he made it right and amended it with a hammer." We must demand this glass from Iwang! "Then the Emperor commanded to smite off his head anon, lest that this craft were known. For then gold should be no better than clay, and all other metal should be of little worth, for certain if glass vessels were not brittle, they should be accounted of more value than vessels of gold." That's a curious proposition. I suppose glass was rare in his time.' He stood up, stretched, sighed. 'Tiberiases, on the other hand, will always be common.'

Most of the other books he paged through quickly and dropped back in the box. He did go through 'The Emerald Table' page by page, enlisting Iwang, and later some of the Sher Dor mathematicians, to help him test every sentence in it that contained any tangible suggestion for action in the shops, or out in the world at large. They agreed in the end that it was mostly false information, and that what was true in it was the most trivial of commonplace observations in metallurgy or natural behaviour.

Bahram thought this might be a disappointment to Khalid, but in fact, after all that had passed, he actually seemed pleased at these results, even reassured. Suddenly Bahram understood: Khalid would have been shocked if something magical had occurred, shocked and disappointed, for that would have rendered irregular and unfathomable the very order that he now assumed must exist in nature. So he watched all the tests fail with grim satisfaction, and put the old book containing the wisdom of Hermes Trimestigus high on a shelf with all its brethren, and ignored them from then on. After that it was only his blank books that he cared about, filling them immediately after his demonstrations, and later through the long nights; they lay open everywhere, mostly on the tables and floors of his study. One cold night when Bahram was out for a walk around the compound, he went into Khalid's study and found the old man asleep on his couch, and he pulled a blanket over him and snuffed most of the lamps, but by the light of the one left burning, he looked at the big books open on the floor. Khalid's lefthanded writing was jagged to the point of illegibility, a private code, but the little sketched drawings were rather fine in their abrupt way: a crosssection of an eyeball, a big cart, bands of light, cannonball flights, birds' wings, gearing systems, lists of many varieties of damasked steel, athanor interiors, thermometers, altimeters, clockworks of all kinds, little stick figures fighting with swords or hanging from giant spirals like linden seeds, leering nightmare faces, tigers couchant or rampant, roaring at the scribbles from the margins.

Too cold to look at any more pages, Bahram stared at the sleeping old man, his father in law whose brain was so crowded. Strange the people who surround us in this life. He stumbled back to bed and the warmth of Esmerine.

The Speed of Light

The many tests of light in a prism brought back to Khalid the question of how fast it moved, and despite the frequent visits from Nadir or his minions, he could only speak of making a demonstration to determine this speed. Finally he made his arrangements for a test of the matter: they were to divide into two parties, with lanterns in hand, and Khalid's party would bring along his most accurate timing clock, which now could be stopped instantly with the push of a lever which blocked its movement. A preliminary trial had determined that during the dark of the moon, the biggest lanterns' light could be seen from the top of Afrasiab Hill to the Shamiana Ridge, across the river valley, about ten h as the crow flies. Using small bonfires blocked and unblocked by rugs would no doubt have extended the maximum distance visible, but Khalid did not think it would be necessary.

They therefore went out at midnight during the next dark of the moon, Bahram with Khalid and Paxkator and several other servants to Afrasiab Hill, Iwang and jalil and other servants to the Shamiana Ridge. Their lanterns had doors that would drop open in an oiled groove at a speed they had timed, and was as close to an instantaneous reply as they could devise. Khalid's team would reveal a light and start the clock; when Iwang's team saw the light, they would open their lantern, and when Khalid's team saw its light, they would stop the clock. A very straightforward test.

It was a long walk to Afrasiab Hill, over the old east bridge, up a track through the ruins of the ancient city of Afrasiab, dim but visible in the starlight. The dry night air was lightly scented with verbena and rosemary and mint. Khalid was in good spirits, as always before a demonstration. He saw Paxtakor and the servants taking pulls from a bag of wine and said, 'You suck harder than our void pump, be careful or you'll suck the Buddhist void into existence, and we will all pop into your bag.'

Up on the flat treeless top of the hill, they stood and waited for Iwang's crew to reach Shamiana ridge, black against the stars. The peak of Afrasiab Hill, when seen from Shamiana, had the mountains of the Dzhizak Range behind it, so that Iwang would see no stars on top of Afrasiab to confuse him, but merely the black mass of the empty Dzhizaks.

They had left marker sticks on the hill's top pointing to the opposite station, and now Khalid grunted impatiently and said, 'Let's see if they're there yet.'

Bahram faced Shamiana Ridge and dropped open the box lantern's door, then waved it back and forth. In a moment they saw the yellow gleam of Iwang's lantern, perfectly visible just below the black line of the ridge. 'Good,' Khalid said. 'Now cover.' Bahram pulled up his door, and Iwang's lantern went dark as well.

Bahram stood on Khalid's left. The clock and lantern were set on a folding table, and fixed together in an armature that would open the door of the lantern and start the finger of the clock in one motion. Khalid's forefinger was on the tab that would stop the clock short. Khalid muttered 'Now,' and Bahram, his heart pounding absurdly, flicked the armature tab down, and the light on Iwang's lantern appeared on the Shamiana Ridge in that very same moment. Surprised, Khalid swore and stopped the clock. 'Allah preserve us!' he exclaimed. 'I was not ready. Let's do it again.'

They had arranged to make twenty trials, so Bahram merely nodded while Khalid checked the clock by a shielded second lantern, and had Paxtakor mark down the time, which was two beats and a third.

They tried it again, and again the light appeared from Iwang the same moment Bahram opened their lantern. Once Khalid became used to the speed of the exchange, the trials all took less than a beat. For Bahram it was as if he was opening the door on the lantern across the valley; it was shocking how fast Iwang was, not to mention the light. Once he even pretended to open the door, pushing lightly then stopping, to see if the Tibetan was perhaps reading his mind.

'All right,' Khalid said after the twentieth trial. 'It's a good thing we're only doing twenty. We would get so good we would begin to see theirs before we opened ours.'

Everyone laughed. Khalid had become snappish during the trials themselves, but now he seemed content, and they were relieved. They made their way down the hill to town talking loudly and drinking from the wine bag, even Khalid, who very seldom drank any more, though it had once been one of his chief pleasures. They had tested their reflexes back in the compound, and so knew that most of their trials had been timed at that very same speed, or faster. 'If we throw out the first trial, and average the rest, it's going to be about the same speed as our procedure itself.'

Bahram said, 'Light must be instantaneous.'

'Instantaneous motion? Infinite speed? I don't think Iwang will ever agree to that notion, certainly not as a result of this demonstration alone.'

'What do you think?'

'Me? I think we need to be farther apart. But we have demonstrated that light is fast, no doubt of that.'

They traversed the empty ruins of Afrasiab by taking the ancient city's main north-south road to the bridge. The servants began to hurry ahead, leaving Khalid and Bahram behind.

Khalid was humming urimusically, and hearing it, remembering the full pages of the old man's notebooks, Bahram said, 'How is it you are so happy these days, Father?'

Khalid looked at him, surprised. 'Me? I'm not happy.'

'But you are!'

Khalid laughed. 'My Bahram, you are a simple soul.'

Suddenly he waved his right wrist with its stump under Bahram's nose. 'Look at this, boy. Look at this! How could I be happy with this? Of course I couldn't. It's dishonour, it's all my stupidity and greed, right there for everyone to see and remember, every day. Allah is wise, even in his punishments. I am dishonoured for ever in this life, and will never be able to recover from it. Never eat cleanly, never clean myself cleanly, never stroke Fedwa's hair at night. That life is over. And all because of fear, and pride. Of course I'm ashamed, of course I'm angry – at Nadir, the Khan, at myself, at Allah, yes Him too! At all of you! I'll never stop being angry, never!'

'Ah,' Bahram said, shocked.

They walked along a while in silence, through the starlit ruins.

Khalid sighed. 'But look you, youth – given all that – what am I supposed to do? I'm only fifty years old, I have some time left before Allah takes me, and I have to fill that time. And I have my pride, despite all. And people are watching me, of course. I was a prominent man, and people enjoyed watching my fall, of course they did, and they watch still! So what kind of story am I going to give them next? Because that's what we are to other people, boy, we are their gossip. That's all civilization is, a giant mill grinding out gossip. And so I could be the story of the man who rode high and fell hard, and had his spirit broken and crawled off into a hole like a dog, to die as soon as he could manage it. Or I could be the story of a man who rode high and fell hard, and then got up defiant, and walked away in a new direction. Someone who never looked back, someone who never gave the mob any satisfaction. And that's the story I'm going to make them all eat. They can fuck themselves if they want any other kind of a story out of me. I'm a tiger, boy, I was a tiger in a previous existence, I must have been, I dream about it all the time, stalking through trees and hunting things. Now I have my tiger hitched to my chariot, and off we go!' He skimmed his left hand off towards the city ahead of them. 'This is the key, youth, you must learn to hitch your tiger to your chariot.'

Bahram nodded. 'Demonstrations to make.'

'Yes! Yes!' Khalid stopped and gestured up at the spangle of stars. 'And this is the best part, boy, the most marvellous thing, because it is all so very damned interesting! It isn't just something to while away the time, or to get away from this,' waving his stump again, 'it's the only thing that matters! I mean, why are we here, youth? Why are we here?'

'To make more love.'

'All right, fair enough. But how do we best love this world Allah gave us? We do it by learning it! It's here, all of a piece, beautiful every morning, and we go and rub it in the dust, making our khans and our caliphates and such. It's absurd. But if you try to understand things, if you look at the world and say why does that happen, why do things fall, why does the sun come up every morning and shine on us, and warm the air and fill the leaves with green how does all this happen? What rules has Allah used to make this beautiful world? Then it is all transformed. God sees that you appreciate it. And even if He doesn't, even if you never know anything in the end, even if it's impossible to know, you can still try.'

'And you're learning a lot,' Bahram said.

'Not really. Not at all. But with a mathematician like Iwang on hand, we can maybe work out a few simple things, or make little beginnings to pass on to others. This is God's real work, Bahram. God didn't give us this world for us to stand around in it chewing our food like camels. Mohammed himself said, Pursue learning even if it take you to China! And now with Iwang, we have brought China to us. It makes it all the more interesting.'

'So you are happy, you see? just as I said.'

'Happy and angry. Happily angry. Everything, all at once. That's life, boy. You just keep getting fuller, until you burst and Allah takes you and casts your soul into another life later on. And so everything just keeps getting fuller.'

An early cock crowed on the edge of the town. In the sky to the east the stars were winking out. The servants reached Khalid's compound ahead of them and opened up, but Khalid stopped outside among the great piles of charcoal, looking around with evident satisfaction. 'There's Iwang now,' he said quietly.

The big Tibetan slouched up to them like a bear, body weary but a grin on his face.

'Well?' he said.

'Too fast to measure,' Khalid admitted.

Iwang grunted.

Khalid handed him the wine bag, and he took a long swig.

'Light,' he said. 'What can you say?'

The eastern sky was filling with this mysterious substance or quality. Iwang swayed side to side like a bear dancing to music, as obviously happy as Bahram had ever seen him. The two old men had enjoyed their night's work. Iwang's party had had a night of mishaps, drinking wine, getting lost, falling in ditches, singing songs, mistaking other lights for Khalid's lantern, and then, during the tests, having no idea what kind of times were being registered back on Afrasiab Hill, an ignorance which had struck them as funny. They had become silly.

But these adventures were not the source of Iwang's good humour rather it was some train of thought of his own, which had put him under a description, as the sufis said, murmuring things in his own language, hummed deep in his chest. The servants were singing a song for the coming of dawn.

He said to Khalid and Bahram, 'Coming down the ridge I was falling asleep on my feet, and thinking about your demonstration cast me into a vision. Thinking of your light, winking in the darkness across the valley, I thought, if I could see all moments at once, each distinct and alone as the world sailed through the stars, each that little bit different… if I moved through each moment as if through different rooms in space, I could map the world's own travel. Every step I took down the ridge was as it were a separate world, a slice of infinity made up of that step's world. So I stepped from world to world, step by step, never seeing the ground in the dark, and it seemed to me that if there was a number that would bespeak the location of each footfall, then the whole ridge would be revealed thereby, by drawing a line from one footfall to the next. Our blind feet do it instinctively in the dark, and we are equally blind to the ultimate reality, but we could nevertheless grasp the whole by regular touches. Then we could say this is what is there, or that, trusting that there were no great boulders or potholes between steps, and so the whole shape of the ridge would be known. With every step I walked from world to world.'

He looked at Khalid. 'Do you see what I mean?'

'Maybe,' Khalid said. 'You propose to chart movement with numbers.'

'Yes, and also the movement within movement, changes in speed, you know, which must always be occurring in this world, as there is resistance or encouragement.'

'Resistance of air,' Khalid said luxuriously. 'We live at the bottom of an ocean of air. It has weight, as the mercury scales have shown. It bears down on us. It carries the beams of the sun to us.'

'Which warm us,' Bahram added.

The sun cracked the distant mountains to the east, and Bahram said, 'All praise and thanks to Allah for the glorious sun, sign in this world of his infinite love.'

'And so,' Khalid said, yawning hugely, 'to bed.'

A Demonstration of Flight

Inevitably, however, all their various activities brought them another visit from Nadir Devanbegi. This time Bahram was in the bazaar, sack over his shoulder, buying melons, oranges, chickens and rope, when Nadir suddenly appeared before him with his personal bodyguard. It was an event Bahram could not regard as a coincidence.

'Well met, Bahram. I hear you are busy these days.'

'Always, effendi,' Bahram said, ducking his head. The two bodyguards were eyeing him like falcons, wearing armour and carrying long barrelled muskets.

'And these many fine activities must include many undertaken for the sake of Sayyed Abdul Aziz Khan, and the glory of Samarqand?'

'Of course, effendi.'

'Tell me about them,' Nadir said. 'List them for me, and tell me how each one is progressing.'

Bahram gulped apprehensively. Of course Nadir had nabbed him in a public place like this because he thought he would learn more from Bahram than from Khalid or Iwang, and more in a public space, where Bahram might be too flustered to prevaricate.

So he frowned and tried to look serious but foolish, not really much of a stretch at this moment. 'They do much that I don't understand, effendi. But the work seems to fall roughly into the camps of weapons and of fortifications.'

Nadir nodded, and Bahram gestured at the melon market they were standing beside. 'Do you mind?'

'Not at all,' Nadir said, following him in.

So Bahram went to the honey and muskmelon trays, and began to lift some onto the scale. He was certainly going to get a good deal for them with Nadir Devanbegi and his bodyguards in the shop!

'In weapons,' Bahram improvised as he pointed out the red melons to a sullen seller, 'we are working on strengthening the metal of cannon barrels, so they can be both lighter and stronger. Then again, we have been conducting demonstrations of the flight of cannonballs in different conditions, with different gunpowders and guns, you know, and recording them and studying the results, so that one would be able to determine where precisely one's shots would land.'

Nadir said, 'That would be useful indeed. Have they done that?'

'They are working on it, effendi.'

'And fortifications?'

'Strengthening walls,' Bahram said simply. Khalid would be furious to hear of all these promises Bahram was so rashly making, but Bahram did not see any good way out of it, except to make his descriptions as vague as possible, and hope for the best.

'Of course,' Nadir said. 'Please do me the courtesy of arranging one of these famous demonstrations for the court's edification.' He caught Bahram's eye to emphasize this was not a casual invitation. 'Soon.'

'Of course, effendi.'

'Something that will get the Khan's attention as well. Something exciting to him.'

'Of course.'

Nadir gestured with a finger to his men, and they moved off through the bazaar, leaving behind a swirling wake in the press of the crowd.

Bahram heaved a deep breath, wiped his brow. 'Hey there,' he said sternly to the seller, who was slipping a melon off the scale.

'Not fair,' the seller said.

'True,' Bahram said, 'but a deal's a deal.'

The seller couldn't deny it; in fact he grinned under his moustache as Bahram sighed again.

Bahram went back to the compound and reported the exchange to Khalid, who growled to hear it, as Bahram knew he would. Khalid finished eating his evening meal in silence, stabbing chunks of rabbit out of a bowl with a small silver prong held in his left hand. He put the prong down and wiped his face with a cloth, rose heavily. 'Come to my study and tell me exactly what you said to him.'

Bahram repeated the conversation as closely as he could, while Khalid spun a leather globe on which he had tried to map the world. Most of it he had left blank, dismissing the claims of the Chinese cartographers he had studied, their golden islands swimming about in the ocean to the east of Nippon, located differently on every map. He sighed when Bahram finished. 'You did well,' he said. 'Your promises were vague, and they follow good lines. We can pursue them more or less directly, and they may even tell us some things we wanted to know anyway.'

'More demonstrations,' Bahram said.

'Yes.' Khalid brightened at the thought.

In the weeks that followed, the furore of activity in the compound took a new turn. Khalid took out all the cannons he had obtained from Nadir, and the loud booms of the guns filled their days. Khalid and Iwang and Bahram and the gunpowder artisans from the shop fired the big things west of the city on the plain, where they could relocate the cannonballs, after shots aimed at targets that were very seldom struck.

Khalid growled, picking up one of the ropes they used to pull the gun back up to the mark. 'I wonder if we could stake the gun to the ground,' he said. 'Strong ropes, thick stakes… it might make the balls fly farther.'

' We can try it.'

They tried all manner of things. At the end of the days their ears rang with reverberations, and Khalid took to stuffing them with cotton balls to protect them some little bit.

Iwang became more and more absorbed in the flights of the cannonballs. He and Khalid conferred over mathematical formulas and diagrams that Bahram did not understand. It seemed to Bahram they were losing sight of the goal of the exercise, and treating the gun merely as a mechanism for making demonstrations of motion, of speed and the change of speed.

But then Nadir came calling with news. The Khan and his retinue were to visit the next day, to witness improvements and discoveries.

Khalid spent the entire night awake in his study, making lists of demonstrations to be considered. The next day at noon everyone congregated on the sunny plain beside the Zeravshan River. A big pavilion was set up for the Khan to rest under while he observed events.

He did so lying on a couch covered with silks, spooning sherbet and talking with a young courtesan more than watching the demonstrations. But Nadir stood by the guns and watched everything very closely, taking the cotton out of his ears to ask questions after every shot.

'As to fortifications,' Khalid replied to him at one point, 'this is an old matter, solved by the Frengis before they died. A cannonball will break anything hard.' He had his men shoot the gun at a wall of dressed stone that they had cemented together. The ball shattered the wall very nicely, and the Khan and his party cheered, although as a matter of fact both Samarqand and Bokhara were protected by sandstone walls much like the one that had just fallen.

' Now,' Khalid said. 'See what happens when a ball of the same size, from the same gun loaded with the same charge, strikes the next target.'

This was an earthen mound, dug with great effort by Khalid's expuffers. The gun was fired, the acrid smoke cleared; the earthen mound stood unchanged, except for a barely visible scar at its centre.

'The cannonball can do nothing. It merely sinks into the earth and is swallowed up. A hundred balls would make no difference to such a wall. They would merely become part of it.'

The Khan heard this and was not amused. 'You're suggesting we pile earth all around Samarqand? Impossible! It would be too ugly! The other khans and emirs would laugh at us. We cannot live like ants in an anthill!'

Khalid turned to Nadir, his face a polite blank.

'Next?' Nadir said.

'Of course. Now see, we have determined that at the distances a gun can cast a ball, it cannot shoot straight. The balls are tumbling through the air, and they can spin off in any direction, and they do.'

'Surely air cannot offer any significant resistance to iron,' Nadir said, sweeping a hand in illustration.

'Only a little resistance, it is true, but consider that the ball passes through more than two li of air. Think of air as a kind of thinned water. It certainly has an effect. We can see this better with light wooden balls of the same size, thrown by hand so you can still see their movement. We will throw into the wind, and you can see how the balls dart this way and that.'

Bahram and Paxtakor palmed the light wooden balls off, and they veered into the wind like bats.

'But this is absurd!' the Khan said. 'Cannonballs are much heavier, they cut through the wind like knives through butter!'

Khalid nodded. 'Very true, great Khan. We only use these wooden balls to exaggerate an effect that must act on any object, be it heavy as lead.'

'Or gold,' Sayyed Abdul Aziz joked.

'Or gold. In that case the cannonballs veer only slightly, but over the great distances they are cast, it becomes significant. And so one can never say exactly what the balls will hit.'

'This must ever be true,' Nadir said.

Khalid waved his stump, oblivious for the moment of how it looked. 'We can reduce the effect quite a great deal. See how the wooden balls fly if they are cast with a spin to them.'

Bahram and Paxtakor threw the balsam balls with a final pull of the fingertips to impart a spin to them. Though some of these balls curved in flight, they went farther and faster than the palmed balls had. Bahram hit an archery target with five throws in a row, which pleased him greatly.

'The spin stabilizes their flight through the wind,' Khalid explained. 'They are still pushed by the wind, of course. That cannot be avoided. But they no longer dart unexpectedly when they are caught on the face by a wind. It is the same effect you get by fletching arrows to spin.'

'So you propose to fletch cannonballs?' the Khan inquired with a guffaw.

'Not exactly, your Highness, but yes, in effect. To try to get the same kind of spin. We have tried two different methods to achieve this. One is to cut grooves into the balls. But this means the balls fly much less far. Another is to cut the grooves into the inside of the gun barrel, making a long spiral down the barrel, only a turn or a bit less down the whole barrel's length. This makes the balls leave the gun with a spin.'

Khalid had his men drag out a smaller cannon. A ball was fired from it, and the ball tracked down by the helpers standing by, then marked with a red flag. It was farther away than the bigger gun's ball, though not by much.

' It is not distance so much as accuracy that would be improved,' Khalid explained. 'The balls would always fly straight. We are working up tables that would enable one to choose the gunpowder by type and weight, and weigh the balls, and thus, with the same cannons, of course, always send the balls precisely where one wanted to.'

'Interesting,' Nadir said.

Sayyed Abdul Aziz Khan called Nadir to his side. 'We're going back to the palace,' said, and led his retinue to the horses.

'But not that interesting,' Nadir said to Khalid. 'Try again.'

Better Gifts for the Khan

'I suppose I should make the Khan a new suit of damasked armour,' Khalid said afterwards. 'Something pretty.'

Iwang grinned. 'Do you know how to do it?'

'Of course. It's watered steel. Not very mysterious. The crucible charge is an iron sponge called a wootz, forged into an iron plate together with wood, which yields its ash into the mix, and some water too. Some crucibles are placed in the furnace, and when they are melted their contents are poured into molten cast iron, at a temperature below that of complete fusion of the two elements. The resulting steel is then etched with a mineral sulphate of one kind or another. You get different patterns and colours depending on which sulphate you use, and what kind of wootz, and what kind of temperatures. This blade here,' he rose and took down a thick curved dagger with an ivory handle, and a blade covered with a dense pattern of crosshatchings in white and dark grey, 'is a good example of the etching called "Mohammed's Ladder". Persian work, reputed to be from the forge of the alchemist Jundi Shapur. They say there is alchemy in it.' He paused, shrugged.

'And you think the Khan…'

'If we systematically played with the composition of the wootz, the structure of the cakes, the temperatures, the etching liquid, then we would certainly find some new patterns. I like some of the swirls I've got with very woody steel.'

The silence stretched out. Khalid was unhappy, that was clear.

Bahram said, 'You could treat it as a series of tests.'

'As always,' Khalid said, irritated. 'But in this case you can only do things in ignorance of their causes. There are too many materials, too many substances and actions, all mixed together. I suppose it is all happening at a level too small to see. The breaks you see after the casting look like crystalline structures when they are broken. It's interesting, what happens, but there's no way to tell why, or predict it ahead of time. This is the thing about a useful demonstration, you see. It tells you something distinct. It answers a question.'

' We can try to ask questions that steelwork can answer,' Bahram suggested.

Khalid nodded, still dissatisfied. But he glanced at Iwang to see what he thought of this.

Iwang thought it was a good idea in theory, but in practice he too had a hard time coming up with questions to ask about the process. They knew how hot to make the furnace, what ores and wood and water to introduce, how long to mix it, how hard it would turn out. All questions on the matter of practice were long since answered, ever since damasking had been done in Damascus. More basic questions of cause, which yet could be answered, were hard to formulate. Bahram himself tried mightily, without a single idea coming to him. And good ideas were his strength, or so they always told him.

While Khalid worked on this problem, Iwang was getting terrifically absorbed in his mathematical labours, to the exclusion even of his glassblowing and silversmithing, which he left mostly to his new apprentices, huge gaunt Tibetan youths who had appeared without explanation some time before. He pored over his Hindu books and old Tibetan scrolls, marking up his chalk slates and then adding to the notes he saved on paper: inked diagrams, patterns of Hindu numerals, Chinese or Tibetan or Sanskrit symbols or letters; a private alphabet for a private language, or so Bahram thought. A rather useless enterprise, disturbing to contemplate, as the paper sheets seemed to radiate a palpable power, magical or perhaps just mad. All those foreign ideas, arranged in hexagonal patterns of number and ideogram; to Bahram the shop in the bazaar began to seem the dim cave of a magus, fingering the hems of reality…

Iwang himself brushed all these cobwebs aside. Out in the sun of Khalid's compound he sat down with Khalid, and Zahhar and Tazi from Sher Dor, and with Bahram shading them and looking over their shoulders, he outlined a mathematics of motion, what he called the speed of the speed.

'Everything is moving,' he said. 'That is karma. The Earth revolves around the Sun, the Sun travels through the stars, the stars too travel. But for the sake of study here, for demonstrations, we postulate a realm of non movement. Perhaps some such motionless void contains the universe, but it doesn't matter; for our purposes these are purely mathematical dimensions, which can be marked by vertical and horizontal, thusly, or by length, breadth and height, if you want the three dimensions of the world. But start with two dimensions, for simplicity's sake. And moving objects, say a cannonball, can be measured against these two dimensions. How high or low, how left or right. Placed as if on a map. Then again, the horizontal dimension can mark time passed, and the vertical, movement in a single direction. That will make for curved lines, representing the passage of objects through the air. Then, lines drawn tangent to the curve indicate the speed of the speed. So you measure what you can, mark those measurements, and it's like passing through rooms of a house. Each room has a different volume, like flasks, depending on how wide and how tall. That is to say, how far, in how much time. Quantities of movement, do you see? A bushel of movement, a dram.'

'Cannonball flights could be described precisely,' Khalid said.

'Yes. More easily than most things, because a cannonball pursues a single line. A curved line, but not something like an eagle's flight, say, or a person in his daily rounds. The mathematics for that would be…' Iwang became lost, jerked, came back to them. 'What was I saying?'

'Cannonballs.'

'Ah. Very possible to measure them, yes.'

'Meaning if you knew the speed of departure from the gun, and the angle of the gun…'

'You could say pretty closely where it was going to land, yes.'

'We should tell Nadir about this privately.'

Khalid worked up a set of tables for calculating cannon fire, with artful drawings of the curves describing the flight of shot, and a little Tibetan book filled with Iwang's careful numerics. These items were placed in an ornate carved ironwood box, encrusted with silver, turquoise and lapis, and brought to the Khanaka in Bokhara, along with a gorgeous damasked breastplate for the Khan. The steel rectangle at the centre of this breastplate was a dramatic swirl of white and grey steel, with iron flecks very lightly etched by a treatment of sulphuric acids and other caustics. The pattern was called by Khalid the Zeravshan Eddies, and indeed the swirl resembled a standing eddy in the river, spinning off the foundation of the Dagbit Bridge whenever the water was high. It was one of the handsomest pieces of metalwork Bahram had ever seen, and it seemed to him that it, and the decorated box filled with Iwang's mathematics, made for a very impressive set of gifts for Sayyed Abdul Aziz.

He and Khalid dressed in their best finery for their audience, and Iwang joined them in the dark red robes and conical winged hat of a Tibetan monk, indeed a lama of the highest distinction. So the presenters were as impressive as their presents, Bahram thought; although once in the Registan, under the vast arch of the gold-covered Tilla Karia Madressa, he felt less imposing. And once in the company of the court he felt slightly plain, even shabby, as if they were children pretending to be courtiers, or, simply, bumpkins.

The Khan, however, was delighted by the breastplate, and praised Khalid's art highly, even putting the piece on over his finery and leaving it there. The box he also admired, while handing the papers inside to Nadir.

After a few moments more they were dismissed, and Nadir guided them to the Tilla Karia garden. The diagrams were very interesting, he said as he looked them over; he wanted to inquire more closely into them; meanwhile, the Khan had been informed by his armourers that cutting a spiral into the insides of their cannon barrels had caused one to explode on firing, the rest to lose range. So Nadir wanted Khalid to visit the armourers and speak to them about it.

Khalid nodded easily, though Bahram could see the thought in his eyes; once again he would be taken away from what he wanted to be doing. Nadir did not see this, though he watched Khalid's face closely. In fact, he went on cheerfully to say how much the Khan appreciated Khalid's great wisdom and craft, and how much all the people of the Khanate and in Dar al Islam generally would owe to Khalid if, as seemed likely, his efforts helped them to stave off any further encroachments of the Chinese, reputed to be on the march in the west borders of their empire. Khalid nodded politely, and the men were dismissed.

Walking back along the river road, Khalid was irritated. 'This trip accomplished nothing.'

'We don't know yet,' Iwang said, and Bahram nodded.

'We do. The Khan is a. He sighed. 'And Nadir clearly thinks of us as his servants.'

'We are all servants of the Khan,' Iwang reminded him.

That silenced him.

As they came back towards Samarqand, they passed by the ruins of old Afrasiab. 'If only we had the Sogdian kings again,' Bahram said.

Khalid shook his head. 'Those are not the ruins of the Sogdian kings, but of Markanda, which stood here before Afrasiab. Alexander the Great called it the most beautiful city he ever conquered.'

'And look at it now,' Bahram said. 'Dusty old foundations, broken walls…'

Iwang said, 'Samarqand too will come to this.'

'So it doesn't matter if we are at Nadir's beck and call?' Khalid snapped.

'Well, it too will pass,' Iwang said.

Jewels in the Sky

Nadir asked for more and more of Khalid's time, and Khalid grew very restive. One time he went to Devanbegi with a proposal to build a complete system of drains underneath both Bokhara and Samarqand, to move the water of the scores of stagnant pools that dotted both cities, especially Bokhara. This would keep the water from becoming foul, and decrease the number of mosquitos and the incidence of disease, including the plague, which the Hindu caravans reported to be devastating parts of Sind. Khalid suggested sequestering all travellers outside the city whenever they heard such news, and causing delays in caravans that came from affected areas, to be sure of cleanliness. A purification delay, analogous to the spiritual purifications of Ramadan.

But Nadir ignored all these ideas. An underground system of pipes, though common in Persia from before the invasions of the Mongols, was too expensive now to contemplate. Khalid was being asked for military aid, not physic. Nadir did not believe he knew anything about physic.

So Khalid returned to his compound and put the whole place to work on the Khan's artillery, making every aspect of the cannons a matter for demonstrations, but without trying to learn anything of primary causes, as he called them, except occasionally in motion. He worked on metal strength with Iwang, and made use of Iwang's mathematics to do cannonflight studies, and tried a number of methods to cause the cannonballs to spiral reliably in flight.

All this was done with reluctance and ill humour; and only in the afternoon, after a nap and a meal of yoghurt, or late in the evening, after smoking from one of his narghiles, did he recover his equanimity, and pursue his studies with soap bubbles and prisms, air pumps and mercury scales. 'If you can measure the weight of air you should be able to measure heat, up to temperatures far beyond what we can distinguish with our blisters and ouches.'

Nadir sent his men by on a monthly basis to receive the latest news of Khalid's studies, and from time to time dropped by himself unannounced, throwing the compound into a flurry, like an anthill hit by water. Khalid was polite at all times, but complained to Bahram bitterly about the monthly request for news, particularly since they had very little. 'I thought I escaped the moon curse when Fedwa went through menopause,' he groused.

Ironically, these unwelcome visits were also losing him allies in the madressas, as he was thought to be favoured by the treasurer, and he could not risk telling them the real situation. So there were cold looks, and slights in the bazaar and the mosque; also, many examples of grasping obsequiousness. It made him irritable, indeed sometimes he rose to a veritable fury of irritability. 'A little power and you see how awful people are.'

To keep him from plunging back into black melancholy, Bahram scoured the caravanserai for things that might please him, visiting the Hindus and the Armenians in particular, also the Chinese, and coming back with books, compasses, clocks, and a curious nested astrolabe, which purported to show that the six planets occupied orbits that filled polygons that were progressively simpler by one side, so that Mercury circled inside a decagon, Venus a nonagon just large enough to hold the decagon, Earth an octagon outside the nonagon, and so on up to Saturn, circling in a big square. This object astonished Khalid, and caused night-long discussions with Iwang and Zahhar about the disposition of the planets around the sun.

This new interest in astronomy quickly superseded all others in Khalid, and grew to a passion after Iwang brought by a curious device he had made in his shop, a long silver tube, hollow except for glass lenses placed in both ends. Looking through the tube, things appeared closer than they really were, with their detail more fine.

'How can that work?' Khalid demanded when he looked through it. The look of surprise on his face was that of the puppets in the bazaar, pure and hilarious. It made Bahram happy to see it.

'Like the prism?' Iwang suggested uncertainly.

Khalid shook his head. 'Not that you can see things as bigger, or closer, but that you can see so much more detail! How can that be?'

'The detail must always be there in the light,' Iwang said, I and the eye only powerful enough to discern part of it. I admit I am surprised, but consider, most people's eyes weaken as they age, especially for things close by. I know mine have. I made my first set of lenses to use as spectacles, you know, one for each eye, in a frame. But while I was assembling one I looked through the two lenses lined up together.' He grinned, miming the action. 'I was really very anxious to confirm that you two saw the same things I saw, to tell the truth. I couldn't quite believe my own eyes.'

Khalid was looking through the thing again.

So now they looked at things. Distant ridges, birds in flight, approaching caravans. Nadir was shown the glass, and its military uses were immediately obvious to him. He took one they had made for him, encrusted with garnets, to the Khan, and word came back that the Khan was pleased. That did not ease the presence of the Khanate in Khalid's compound, of course; on the contrary, Nadir mentioned casually that they were looking forward to the next remarkable development out of Khalid's shop, as the Chinese were said to be in a turmoil. Who knew where that kind of thing might end?

'It will never end,' Khalid said bitterly when Nadir had gone. 'It's like a noose that tightens with our every move.'

'Feed him your discoveries in little pieces,' Iwang suggested. 'It will seem as if there are more of them.'

Khalid followed this advice, which gave him a little more time, and they worked on all manner of things that it seemed would help the Khan's troops in battle. Khalid indulged his interest in primary causes mostly at night, when they trained the new spyglass on the stars, and later that month on the moon, which proved to be a very rocky, mountainous, desolate world, ringed by innumerable craters, as if fired upon by the cannon of some super emperor. Then on one memorable night they looked through the spyglass at Jupiter, and Khalid said, 'By God it's a world too, clearly. Banded by latitude and look, those three stars near it, they're brighter than stars. Could they be moons of Jupiter's?'

They could. They moved fast, around Jupiter, and the ones closer to Jupiter moved faster, just like the planets around the sun. Soon Khalid and Iwang had seen a fourth one, and mapped all four orbits, so that they could prepare new viewers to comprehend the sight, by looking at the diagrams first. They made it all into a book, another gift to the Khan – a gift with no military use, but they named the moons after the Khan's four oldest wives, and he liked that, it was clear. He was reported to have said, 'Jewels in the sky! For me!'

Who is the Stranger?

There were factions in town who did not like them. When Bahram walked through the Registan, and saw the eyes watching him, the conversations begun or ended by his passage, he saw that he was part of a coterie or faction, no matter how innocuous his behaviour had been. He was related to Khalid, who was allied with Iwang and Zahhar, and together they formed part of Nadir Devanbegi's power. They were therefore Nadir's allies, even if he had forced them to it like wet pulp in a paper press; even if they hated him. Many other people in Samarqand hated Nadir, no doubt even more than Khalid did, as Khalid was under his protection, while these other people were his enemies: relatives of his dead or imprisoned or exiled foes, perhaps, or the losers of many earlier palace struggles. The Khan had other advisers courtiers, generals, relatives at court – all jealous of their own share of his regard, and envious of Nadir's great influence. Bahram had heard rumours from time to time of palace intrigues against Nadir, but he remained unaware of the details. The fact that their involuntary association with Nadir could cause them trouble elsewhere struck him as grossly unfair; the association itself was already trouble enough.

One day this sense of hidden enemies became more material: Bahram was visiting Iwang, and two qadi Bahram had never seen before appeared in the door of the Tibetan's shop, backed by two of the Khan's soldiers, and a small gaggle of ulema from the Tilla Karia Madressa, demanding that Iwang produce his tax receipts.

'I am not a dhimmi,' Iwang said with his customary calm.

The dhimmi, or people of the pact, were those non believers who were born and lived their lives in the khanate, who had to pay a special tax. Islam was the religion of justice, and all Muslims were equal before God and the law; but of the lesser ones, women, slaves and the dhimmi, the dhimmi were the ones who could change their status by a simple decision to convert to true belief. Indeed there had been times in the past when it had been 'the book or the sword' for all pagans, and only people of the book Jews, Zoroastrians, Christians and Sabians – had been allowed to keep their faith, if they insisted on it. Nowadays pagans of all sort were allowed to keep their various religions, as long as they were registered with the qadis, and paid the annual dhimma tax.

This was clear, and ordinary. Ever since the shiite Safavids had come to the throne in Iran, however, the legal position of dhimmi had worsened – markedly in Iran, where the shiite mullahs were so concerned with purity, but also in the khanates to the east, at least sometimes. It was a matter for discretion, really. As Iwang had once remarked, the uncertainty itself was a part of the tax.

'You are not a dhimmi?' one of the qadi said, surprised.

'No, I come from Tibet. I am mustamin.'

The mustamin were foreign visitors, permitted to live in Muslim lands for specified periods of time.

'Do you have an aman?'

'Yes.'

This was the safe conduct pass issued to mustamin, renewed by the Khanaka on an annual basis. Now Iwang brought a sheet of parchment out of his back room, and showed it to the qadis. There were a number of wax seals at the bottom of the document, and the qadis inspected these closely.

'He's been here eight years!' one of them complained. 'That's longer than allowed by the law.'

Iwang shrugged impassively. 'Renewal was granted this spring.'

A heavy silence ruled as the men checked the document's seals again. 'A mustamin cannot own property,' someone noted.

'Do you own this shop?' the chief qadi asked, surprised again.

'No,' Iwang said. 'Naturally not. Rental only.'

'Monthly?'

'Lease by year. After my aman is renewed.'

'Where are you from?'

'Tibet.'

'You have a house there?'

'Yes. In Iwang.'

'A family?'

'Brothers and sisters. No wives or children.'

'So who's in your house?'

'Sister.'

'When are you going back?'

A short pause. 'I don't know.'

'You mean you have no plans to return to Tibet.'

'No, I plan to return. But – business has been good. Sister sends raw silver, I make it into things. This is Samarqand.'

'And so business will always be good! Why would you ever leave? You should be dhimmi, you are a permanent resident here, a nonbelieving subject of the Khan.'

Iwang shrugged, gestured at the document. That was something Nadir had brought to the khanate, it occurred to Bahram, something from deep in the heart of Islam: the law was the law. Dhimmi and mustamin were both protected by contract, each in their way.

'He is not even one of the people of the book,' one of the qadi said indignantly.

'We have many books in Tibet,' Iwang said calmly, as if he had misunderstood.

The qadi were offended. 'What is your religion?'

'I am Buddhist.'

'So you don't believe in Allah, you don't pray to Allah.'

Iwang did not reply.

'Buddhists are polytheists,' one of them said. 'Like the pagans Mohammed converted in Arabia.'

Bahram stepped before them. Thereis no compulsion in religion",' he recited hotly. Toyou your religion, to me my religion." That's what the Quran tells us!'

The visitors stared at him coldly.

'Are you not Muslim?' one said.

'I certainly am! You would know it if you knew the Sher Dor mosque! I've never seen you there – where do you pray on Friday?'

'Tilla Karia Mosque,' the qadi said, angry now.

This was interesting, as the Tilla Karia Madressa was the centre for the Shiite study group, which was opposed to Nadir.

"'Al kufou millatun wahida",' one of them said; a counter quote, as theologians called it. Unbelief is one religion.

'Only digaraz can make complaint to the law,' Bahram snapped back. Digaraz were those who spoke without grudge or malice, disinterested Muslims. 'You don't qualify.'

'Neither do you, young man.'

'You come here! Who sent you? You challenge the law of the aman, who gives you the right? Get out of here! You have no idea what this man does for Samarqand! You attack Sayyed Abdul himself here, you attack Islam itself! Get out!'

The qadis did not move, but something in their gazes had grown more guarded. Their leader said, 'Next spring we will talk again,' with a glance at Iwang's aman. With a wave of his hand that was just like the Khan's, he led the others out and down the narrow passage of the bazaar.

For a long while the two friends stood silently in the shop, awkward with each other.

Finally Iwang sighed. 'Did not Mohammed set laws concerning the way men should be treated in Dar al Islam?'

'God set them. Mohammed only transmitted them.'

'All free men equal before the law. Women, children, slaves and unbelievers less under the law.'

'Equal beings, but they all have their particular rights, protected by law.'

'But not as many rights as those of Muslim free men.'

'They are not as strong, so their rights are not so burdensome. They are all people to be protected by Muslim free men, upholding God's laws.'

Iwang pursed his lips. Finally he said, 'God is the force moving in everything. The shapes things take when they move.'

'God is love moving through all,' Bahram agreed. 'The sufis say this.'

Iwang nodded. 'God is a mathematician. A very great and subtle mathematician. As our bodies are to the crude furnaces and stills of your compound, so God's mathematics is to our mathematics.'

'So you agree there is a god? I thought Buddha denied there was any god.'

'I don't know. I suppose some Buddhists might say not. Being springs out of the Void. I don't know, myself. If there is only the Void enveloping all we see, where did the mathematics come from? it seems to me it could be the result of something thinking.'

Bahram was surprised to bear Iwang say this. And he could not be quite sure how sincere Iwang was, given what had just happened with the qadis from Tilla Karia. Although it made sense, in that it was obviously impossible that such an intricate and glorious thing as the world could have come to pass without some very great and loving god to make it.

'You should come to the sufi fellowship, and listen to what my teacher there says,' Bahram finally said, smiling at the thought of the big Tibetan in their group. Although their teacher would probably like it.

Bahram returned to the compound by way of the western caravanserai, where the Hindu traders were camped in their smell of incense and milktea. Bahram completed the other business he had there, buying scents and bags of calcinated minerals for Khalid, and then when he saw Dol, an acquaintance from Ladakh, he joined him and sat with him and drank tea for a while, then rakshi, looking over the trader's pallets of spices and small bronze figurines. Bahram gestured at the detailed little statues. 'Are these your gods?'

Dol looked at him, surprised and amused. 'Some are gods, yes. This is Shiva – this Kali, the destroyer – this Ganesh.'

'An elephant god?'

'This is how we picture him. They have other forms.'

'But an elephant?'

'Have you ever seen an elephant?'

'No.'

'They're impressive.'

'I know they're big.'

'It's more than that.'

Bahram sipped his tea. 'I think Iwang might convert to Islam.'

'Trouble with his aman?'

Dol laughed at Bahram's expression, urged him to drink from the jar of rakshi.

Bahram obliged him, then persisted. 'Do you think it's possible to change religions?'

'Many people have.'

'Could you? Could you say, There is only one god?' Gesturing at the figurines.

Dol smiled. 'They are all aspects of Brahman, you know. Behind all, the great God Brahman, all one in him.'

'So Iwang could be like that too. He might already believe in the one great god, the God of Gods.'

'He could. God manifests in different ways to different people.'

Bahram sighed.

Bad Air

He had just gone inside the compound gate, and was on his way to tell Khalid about the incident at Iwang's, when the door of the chemical shed burst open and men crashed out, chased by a shouting Khalid and a dense cloud of yellow smoke. Bahram turned and ran for the house, intending to grab Esmerine and the children, but they were out and running already, and he followed them through the main gate, everyone shrieking and then, as the cloud descended on them, dropping to the ground and crawling away like rats, coughing and hacking and spitting and crying. They rolled down the hill, throats and eyes burning, lungs aching from the caustic stink of the poisonous yellow cloud. Most of them followed Khalid's lead and plunged their heads into the river, emerging only to puff shallow breaths, and then dunk themselves again. When the cloud had dispersed and he had recovered a little, Khalid began to curse.

'What was it?' Bahram said, coughing still.

'A crucible of acid exploded. We were testing it.'

'For what?'

Khalid didn't answer. Slowly the caustic burn of their delicate membranes cooled. The wet and unhappy crew straggled back into the compound. Khalid set some of the men to clean up the shed, and Bahram went with him into his study, where he changed his clothes and washed, then wrote in his big book notes, presumably about the failed demonstration.

Except it had not been completely a failure, or so Bahram began to gather from Khalid's muttering.

'What were you trying to do?'

Khalid did not answer directly. 'It seems certain to me that there are different kinds of air,' he said instead. 'Different constituents, perhaps, as in metals. Only all invisible to the eye. We smell the differences, sometimes. And some can kill, as at the bottom of wells. It isn't an absence of air, in those cases, but a bad kind of air, or part of air. The heaviest no doubt. And different distillations, different burnings… you can suppress or stoke a fire… Anyway, I thought that sal ammoniac and saltpetre and sulphur mixed, would make a different air. And it did, too, but too much of it, too fast. Like an explosion. And clearly a poison.' He coughed uncomfortably. 'It is like the Chinese alchemists' recipe for wan-jen ti, which Iwang says means "killer of myriads".. I supposed I could show Nadir this reaction, and propose it as a weapon. You could perhaps kill a whole army with it.'

They regarded the thought silently.

'Well,' Bahram said, 'it might help him keep his own position more secure with the Khan.'

He explained what he had witnessed at Iwang's.

'And so you think Nadir is in trouble at the court?'

'Yes.'

'And you think Iwang might convert to Islam?'

'He seemed to be asking about it.'

Khalid laughed, then coughed painfully. 'That would be odd.'

'People don't like to be laughed at.'

'Somehow I don't think Iwang would mind.'

'Did you know that's the name of his town, Iwang?,

'No. Is it?'

'Yes. So he seemed to say.'

Khalid shrugged.

'It means we don't know his real name.'

Another shrug. 'None of us know our real names.'

Love the Size of the World

The autumn harvests came and passed, and the caravanserai emptied for the winter, when the passes to the east would close. Bahram's days were enriched by Iwang's presence at the sufi ribat, where Iwang sat at the back and listened closely to all that the old master Ali said, very seldom speaking, and then only to ask the simplest questions, usually the meaning of one word or another. There were lots of Arabic and Persian words in the sufi terminology, and though Iwang's Sogdi Turkic was good, the religious language was opaque to him. Eventually the master gave Iwang a lexicon of sufi technical terms, or istilahat, by Ansari, titled 'One Hundred Fields and Resting Places', which had an introduction that ended with the sentence, 'The real essence of the spiritual states of the sufis is such that expressions are not adequate to describe it: nevertheless, these expressions are fully understood by those who have experienced these states.'

This, Bahram felt, was the main source of Iwang's problem: he had not experienced the states being described.

'Very possibly,' Iwang would agree when Bahram said this to him. 'But how am I to reach them?'

'With love,' Bahram would say. 'You must love everything that is, especially people. You will see, it is love that moves everything.'

Iwang would purse his lips. 'With love comes hate,' he would say. 'They are two sides of an excess of feeling. Compassion rather than love, that seems to me the best way. There is no bad obverse side to compassion.'

'Indifference,' Bahram suggested.

Iwang would nod, thinking things over. But Bahram wondered if he could ever come to the right view. The fount of Bahram's own love, like a powerful artesian spring in the hills, was his feeling for his wife and children, then for Allah, who had allowed him the privilege of living his life among such beautiful souls – not only the three of them, but Khalid and Fedwa and all their relatives, and the community of the compound, the mosque, the ribat, Sher Dor, and indeed all of Samarqand and the wide world, when he was feeling it. Iwang had no such starting point, being single and childless, as far as Bahram knew, and an infidel to boot. How was he to begin to feel the more generalized and diffuse loves, if the specific ones were not there for him?

'The heart which is greater than the intellect is not that which beats in the chest.' So Ali would say. It was a matter of opening his heart to God, and letting the love appear from there first. Iwang was already good at calming himself, at paying attention to the world in its quiet moments, sitting out at the compound some dawns after he had spent the night on a couch in the shops. Bahram once or twice joined him in these sittings, and once he was inspired by a windless pure gold sky to recite from Rumi 'How silent it has become in the house of the heart!

The heart as hearth and home Has encompassed the world.'

When Iwang finally responded, after the sun had broken over the eastern ridges and flooded the valley with buttered light, it was only to say, 'I wonder if the world is as big as Brahmagupta said it was.'

'He said it was a sphere, right?'

'Yes, of course. You can see that out on the steppes, when a caravan comes over the horizon heads first. We are on the surface of a great ball.'

'The heart of God.'

No reply but the swaying head, which meant that Iwang did not agree but did not want to disagree. Bahram desisted, and asked about the Hindu's estimate of the size of the Earth, which was clearly what interested Iwang now.

'Brahmagupta noticed that the sun shone straight down a well in the Deccan on a certain day, and the next year he arranged to be a thousand yoganda north of there, and he measured the angle of the shadows, and used spherical geometry to calculate what percentage of the circle that arc of a thousand yoganda was. Very simple, very interesting.'

Bahram nodded; no doubt true; but they would only ever see a small fraction of those yoganda, and here, now, Iwang was in need of spiritual illumination. Or – in need of love. Bahram invited him to eat with his family, to observe Esmerine serve the meals, and instruct the children in their manners. The children were a pleasure all their own, their liquid eyes huge in their faces as they stopped in their racing about to listen impatiently to Esmerine's lectures. Their racing about the compound was a pleasure as well. Iwang nodded at all this. 'You're a lucky man,' he told Bahram.

'We are all lucky men,' Bahram replied. And Iwang agreed.

The Goddess and the Law

Parallel to his new religious studies, Iwang continued his investigations and demonstrations with Khalid. They devoted the greater portion of these efforts to their projects for Nadir and the Khan. They worked out a long range signalling system for the army that used mirrors and small telescopes; they also cast bigger and bigger cannons, with giant waggons to haul them by horse or camel train from one battlefield to the next.

'We will need cart roads for these, if we are ever to move them,' Iwang noted. Even the great Silk Road itself was nothing but a camel track for most of its length.

Their latest private investigation into causes concerned a little telescope which magnified objects too small to be seen by the eye alone. The astronomers from the Ulug Bek Madressa had devised the thing, which could only be focused on a very narrow slice of air, so that translucent items caught between two plates of glass were best, lit by mirrored sunlight from below. Then new little worlds appeared, right under their fingers.

The three men spent hours looking through this telescope at pond water, which proved to be full of strangely articulated creatures, all swimming about. They looked at translucently thin slabs of stone, wood and bone; and at their own blood, which was filled with blobs that were frighteningly like the animals in the pond water.

'The world just keeps getting smaller,' Khalid marvelled. 'If we could draw the blood of those little creatures in our blood, and put it under a lens even more powerful than this one, I have no doubt that their blood would contain animalcules just like ours does; and so on for those animals as well, and down to…'He trailed off, awe giving him a dazed look. Bahram had never seen him so happy.

'There is probably some smallest possible size of things,' Iwang said practically. 'So the ancient Greeks postulated. The ultimate particulates, out of which all else is constructed. No doubt smaller than we will ever see.'

Khalid frowned. 'This is just a start. Surely stronger lenses will be made. And then who knows what will be seen? Maybe it will allow us to understand the composition of metals at last, and work the transmutations.'

'Maybe,' Iwang allowed. He stared into the eye of the lens, humming to himself. 'Certainly the little crystals in granite are made clear.'

Khalid nodded, wrote notes in one of his notebooks. He returned to the glass, then drew the shapes he saw on the page. 'The very small and the very large,' he said.

'These lenses are a great gift from God,' Bahram said, 'reminding us that it is all one world. One substance, all interpenetrated with structure, but still one, big to small.'

Khalid nodded. 'Thus the stars may have their sway over us after all. Maybe the stars are animals too, like these creatures, could we only see them better.'

Iwang shook his head. 'All one, yes. It seems more and more obvious. But not all animal, surely. Perhaps the stars are more like rocks than these fine creatures.'

'The stars are fire.'

'Rocks, fire – but not animals.'

'But all one,' Bahram insisted.

And both of the older men nodded, Khalid emphatically, Iwang reluctantly, and with a low humming in his throat.

After that day it seemed to Bahram that Iwang was always humming. He came to the compound and joined Khalid in his demonstrations, and went with Bahram to the ribat and listened to Ali's lectures, and whenever Bahram visited him in his shop he was playing with numbers, or clicking a Chinese abacus back and forth, and always distracted, always humming. On Fridays he came to the mosque and stood outside the door, listening to the prayers and the readings, facing Mecca and blinking at the sun, but never kneeling or prostrating or praying; and always humming.

Bahram did not think he should convert. Even if he had to move back to Tibet for a time and then return, it seemed clear to Bahram that he was no Muslim. And so it would not be right.

Indeed, as the weeks passed he began to seem more strange and foreign, rather than less; even more an unbeliever, performing little demonstrations for himself that were like sacrifices to light, or magnetism, or the void, or gravity. An alchemist, precisely, but in an eastern tradition stranger than any sufi's, as if he were not only reverting to Buddhism but going beyond it, back to Tibet's older religion, Bon as Iwang called it.

That winter he sat in his shop with Bahram, before the open fire of his furnace, hands extended to keep the fingers warm as they poked out of the glove ends like his little babies, smoking hashish from a longstemmed pipe and handling it to Bahram occasionally, until the two men sat there watching the coals' film dance over the hot orange underneath. One night, deep in a snowstorm, Iwang went out to get more wood for the fire, and Bahram looked over at a movement and saw an old Chinese woman sitting by the stove, dressed in a red dress, with her hair pulled up in a knot on top of her head. Bahram jerked; the old woman turned her head and looked at him, and he saw her black eyes were filled with stars. He promptly fell off his stool, and groped to his feet to find her no longer there. When Iwang came back in the room and Bahram described her, Iwang shrugged, smiled slyly: 'There are lots of old women in this quarter of the city. This is where the poor people live, among them the widows, who have to sleep in their dead husbands' shops on the floor, on the sufferance of the new owners, and do what they can to keep hunger from the door.'

'But the red dress – her face – her eyes!'

'That all sounds like the goddess of the stove, actually. She appears next to the hearth, if you're lucky.'

'I'm not smoking any more of your hashish.'

Iwang laughed. 'If only that was all it took!'

Another frosty night, a few weeks alter, Iwang knocked on the gate of the compound, and came in greatly excited – drunk, one would have said of another man – a man possessed.

'Look!' he said to Khalid, taking him by his shortened arm and pulling him into the old man's study. 'Look, I've worked it out at last.'

'The philosopher's stone?'

'No no! Nothing so trivial! It's the one law, the law above all the others. An equation. See here.'

He got out a slate and chalked on it rapidly, using the alchemical symbols Khalid and he had decided on to mark quantities that were different in different situations.

'Same above, same below, just as Bahram is always saying. Everything is attracted to everything else by precisely this level of attraction. Multiply the two masses attracting each other, divide that by the square of the distance they are apart from each other multiply by whatever speed away from the central body there might be, and the force of the attraction results. Here – try it with the planets' orbits around the sun, they all work. And they travel in ellipses around the sun, because they all attract each other as well as being pulled down to the sun, so the sun sits at one focus of the ellipse, while the sum of all other attractions make the other focus.' He was sketching furiously as he spoke, as agitated as Bahram had ever seen him. 'It explains the discrepancies in the observations out at Ulug Beg. It works for the planets, the stars in their constellations no doubt, and the flight of a cannonball over the Earth, and the movement of those little animalcules in pondwater or in our blood!'

Khalid was nodding. 'This is the power of gravity itself, portrayed mathematically.'

'Yes.'

'The attraction is in inverse proportion to the square of the distance away.'

'Yes.'

'And it acts on everything.'

'I think so.'

'What about light?'

'I don't know. Light itself must have so little mass. If any. But what mass it has, is being attracted to all other masses. Mass attracts mass.'

'But this,' Khalid said, 'is again action at a distance.'

'Yes.' Iwang grinned. 'Your universal spirit, perhaps. Acting through some agency we don't know. Thus gravity, magnetism, lightning.'

'A kind of invisible fire.'

'Or perhaps to fire as the tiniest animals are to us. Some subtle force.

And yet nothing escapes it. Everything has it. We all live within it.'

'An active spirit in all things.'

'Like love,' Bahram put in.

'Yes, like love,' Iwang agreed for once. 'In that without it, all would be dead on Earth. Nothing would attract or repel, or circulate, or change form, or live in any way, but merely lie there, dead and cold.'

And then he smiled, he grinned outright, his smooth shiny Tibetan cheeks dimpled by deep creases, his big horsey teeth gleaming: 'And here we are! So it must be, do you see? It all moves – it all lives. And the force acts exactly in inverse proportion to the distance between things.'

Khalid began, 'I wonder if this could help us to transmute But the other two men cut him off: 'Lead into gold! Lead into gold!' Laughing at him.

'It's all gold already,' Bahram said, and Iwang's eyes suddenly gleamed, it was as if the goddess of the stove had filled him, he pulled Bahram to him and gave him a rough wet woolly hug, humming again.

'You're a good man, Bahram. A very good man you are. Listen, if I believe in your love, can I stay here? Will it be blasphemy to you, if I believe in gravity and love, and the oneness of all things?'

Theories without Application

Make Trouble

Bahram's days became busier than ever, as was true for everyone in the compound. Khalid and Iwang continued to debate the ramifications of Iwang's great figure, and to run demonstrations of all kinds, either testing it or investigating matters related to it. But their investigations did little to help Bahram in his work at the forge, it being difficult or impossible to apply the two explorers' esoteric and highly mathematical arguments to the daily effort to make stronger steel or more powerful cannons. To the Khan, bigger was better, and he had heard of new cannons of the Chinese Emperor, that dwarfed even the old giants left stranded in Byzantium by the great plagues of the seventh century. Bahram was trying to match these rumoured guns, and finding it hard to cast them, hard to move them, and hard to fire them without causing them to crack. Khalid and Iwang both had suggestions, but these did not work out, and Bahram was left with the same old trial and error that metallurgists had used for centuries, always coming back to the idea that if he could only get the molten iron hot enough, and of the right mix of feed stocks, then the resulting metal of the cannon would be stronger. So it was a matter of increasing the amount of the river's force applied to the blast furnaces, to create temperatures that turned the melts incandescent white, so brilliant it hurt to look at them. Khalid and Iwang observed the scene at dusk, and argued till dawn about the origins of such vivid light, released out of iron by heat.

All well and good, but no matter how much air they blasted into the charcoal fire, causing the iron to run white as the sun and liquid as water, or even thinner, the cannons that resulted were just as prone to cracks as before. And Nadir would appear, unannounced, aware of even the latest results. Clearly he had his spies in the compound, and did not care if Bahram knew it. Or wanted him to know it. And so he would show up, not pleased. His look would say, More, and quickly! even as his words reassured them that he was confident they were doing the best they could, that the Khan was pleased with the flight tables. He would say, 'The Khan is impressed by the power of mathematics to stave off Chinese invaders,' and Bahram would nod unhappily, to indicate he had got the message even if Khalid had studiously avoided seeing it, and he would hold back from asking after the assurance of an amun for Iwang the following spring, thinking it might be best to trust to Nadir's good will at a better time, and go back to the shop to try something else.

A New Metal, a New Dynasty, a New Religion

Just as a practical matter, then, Bahram was getting interested in a dull grey metal that looked like lead on the outside and tin on its interior.

There was obviously very much sulphur in the mercury – if that whole description of metals could be credited – and it was, at first, so nondescript as to pass notice. But it was proving in various little demonstrations and trials to be less brittle than iron, more ductile than gold, and, in short, a different metal than those mentioned by Al Razi and Ibn Sina, strange though that was to contemplate. A new metal! And it mixed with iron to form a kind of steel that seemed as if it would work well as cannon barrel material.

'How could there be a new metal?' Bahram asked Khalid and Iwang. 'And what should it be called? I can't just keep calling it the grey stuff.'

'It's not new,' Iwang said. 'It was always there among the rest, but we're achieving heats never before reached, and so it expresses out.'

Khalid called it leadgold as a joke, but the stuck name stuck for lack of another. And the metal, found now every time they smelted certain bluish copper ores, became part of their armoury.

Days passed in a fever of work. Rumours of war to the east increased. In China, it was said, barbarians were again crashing over the Great Wall, bringing down the rotten Ming dynasty and setting that whole giant off in a ferment of violence that was now rippling outwards from it. This time the barbarians came not from Mongolia but Manchuria, northeast of China, and they were the most accomplished warriors ever yet seen in the world, it was said, and very likely to conquer and destroy everything in their path, including Islamic civilization, unless something was done to make a defence against them possible.

So people said in the bazaar, and Nadir too, in his more circuitous way, confirmed that something was happening; and the feeling of danger grew as the winter passed, and the time for military campaigns came around again. Spring, the time for war and for plague, the two biggest arms of six armed death, as Iwang put it.

Bahram worked through these months as if a great thunderstorm were always visible, just topping the horizon to the east, moving backwards against the prevailing winds, portending catastrophe. Such a painful edge this added to the pleasure he took in his little family, and in the larger familial existence of the compound: his son and daughter racing about or fidgeting at prayers, dressed impeccably by Esmerine, and the very politest of children, except when enraged, which both of them had a tendency to become to a degree that astonished both their parents. It was one of their chief topics of conversation, in the depths of the night, when they would stir and Esmerine go out briefly to relieve herself, then return and pull off her shift again, her breasts silvery raindrops spilling down her ribs in the moonlight, over Bahram's hands as he warmed them, in that somnolent world of second watch sex that was one of the beautiful spaces of daily life, the salvation of sleep, the body's dream, so much warmer and more loving than any other part of the day that it was sometimes hard in the mornings to believe it had really happened, that he and Esmerine, so severe in dress and manner, Esmerine who ran the women at their work as hard as Khalid had at his most tyrannical, and who never spoke to Bahram or looked at him except in the most businesslike way, as was only fitting and proper, had in fact been transported together with him to whole other worlds of rapture, in the depths of the night in their bed. As he watched her work in the afternoons, Bahram thought: love changed everything. They were all just animals after all, creatures God had made not much different from monkeys, and there was no real reason why a woman's breasts should not be like the udders on a cow, swinging together inelegantly as she leaned forwards to work at one labour or another; but love made them orbs of the utmost beauty, and the same was true of the whole world. Love put all things under a description, and only love could save them.

In searching for a provenance for this new 'leadgold', Khalid read through some of the more informative of his old tomes, and he was interested when he came on a passage in jabir Ibn Hayyam's ancient classic 'The Book of Properties', penned in the first years of the jihad, in which jabir listed seven metals, namely gold, silver, lead, tin, copper, iron and kharsini, meaning 'Chinese iron' dull grey, silver when polished, known to the Chinese themselves as paitung, or 'white copper'. The Chinese, jabir wrote, had made mirrors of it capable of curing the eye diseases of those who looked into them. Khalid, whose eyes got weaker every year, immediately set to the manufacture of a little mirror of their own leadgold, just to see. Jabir also suggested kharsini made bells of a particularly melodious tone, and so Khalid had the rest of the quantity they had on hand cast into bells, to see if their tone was especially pretty, which might help secure the identification of the metal. All agreed that the bells tinkled very prettily; but Khalid's eyes did not improve after looking into a mirror of the metal.

'Call it kharsini,' Khalid said. He sighed. 'Who knows what it is? We don't know anything.'

But he continued to try various demonstrations, writing voluminous commentaries on each test, through the nights and on to many a sleepless dawn. He and Iwang pursued their studies. Khalid directed Bahram and Paxtakor and jalil and the rest of his old artisans in the shops to build new telescopes, and microscopes, and pressure gauges, and pumps. The compound had become a place where their skills in metallurgy and mechanical artisanry combined to give them great power to make new things; if they could imagine something, they could make some rude first approximation of it. Every time the old artisans were able to make their moulds and tools more exactly, it allowed them to set their tolerances finer still, and thus as they progressed, anything from the intricacies of clockwork to the massive strength of waterwheels or cannon barrels could be improved. Khalid took apart a Persian carpetmaking device to study all its little metal pieces, and remarked to Iwang that combined with a rack and pinion, the device might be fitted with stamps shaped like letters, instead of threaders, in arrays that could be inked and then pressed against paper, and a whole page thus written all at once, and repeated as many times as one liked, so that books became as common as cannonballs. And Iwang had laughed, and said that in Tibet the monks had carved just such inkblocks, but that Khalid's idea was better.

Meanwhile Iwang worked on his mathematical concerns. Once he said to Bahram, 'Only a god could have thought these things in the first place. And then to have used them to embody a world! if we trace even a millionth part of it, we may find out more than any sentient beings have ever known through all the ages, and see plainly the divine mind.'

Bahram nodded uncertainly. By now he knew that he did not want Iwang to convert to Islam. It seemed false to God and to Iwang. He knew it was selfishness to feel so, and that God would take care of it. As indeed it seemed He already had, as Iwang no longer was coming to the mosque on Fridays, or to the religious studies at the ribat. God or Iwang, or both, had taken Bahram's point. Religion could not be faked or used for worldly purposes.

Dragon Bites World

Now when Bahram visited the caravanserai, he heard many disquieting stories from the east. Things were in turmoil, China's new Manchu dynasty was in an expansive temper; the new Manchu Emperor, usurper that he was, was not content with the old and fading empire he had conquered, but was determined to reinvigorate it by war, extending his conquests into the rich rice kingdoms to the south, Annam and Siam and Burma, as well as the parched wastelands in the middle of the world, the deserts and mountains separating China from the Dar, crossed by the threads of the Silk Road. After crossing that waste they would run into India, the Islamic khanates, and the Savafid empire. In the caravanserai it was said that Yarkand and Kashgar were already taken – perfectly believable, as they had been defended for decades by the merest remnants of the Ming garrisons, and by bandit warlords. Nothing lay between the khanate of Bokhara and these wastelands but the Tarim Basin and the Ferghana Mountains, and the Silk Road crossed those in two or three places. Where caravans went, banners could certainly follow.

And soon after that, they did. News came that Manchu banners had taken Torugart Pass, which was the high point of one of the silk routes, between Tashkent and the Takla Makan. Caravan travel from the east would be disrupted for a little while at least, which meant that Samarqand and Bokhara would go from being the centrepoint of the great world exchange, to a largely useless endpoint. It was a catastrophe for trade.

A final group of caravan people, Armenian, Zott, Jewish and Hindu, turned up with this news. They had been forced to run for their lives and leave their goods behind. Apparently the Dzungarian Gate, between Sinkiang and the Khazakh steppe, was also about to be taken. As the news raced through the caravanserai ringing Samarqand, most of the caravans resting in them changed their plans. Many decided to return to Frengistan, which though full of petty taifa conflict, was at least Muslim entire, its little khanates and emirates and sultanates trading between themselves most of the time, even when fighting.

Such decisions as these would soon cripple Samarqand. As an endpoint in itself it was nothing, the mere edge of Dar al Islam. Nadir was worried, and the Khan in a rage. Sayyed Abdul Aziz ordered the Dzungarian Gate retaken, and an expedition sent to help defend the Khyber Pass, so that trade relations with India at the least would remain secure.

Nadir, accompanied by a heavy guard, described these orders very briefly to Khalid and Iwang. He presented the problem as if it were somehow Khalid's fault. At the end of his visit, he informed them that Bahram and his wife and children were to return with Nadir to the Khanaka in Bokhara. They would be allowed to return to Samarqand only when Khalid and Iwang devised a weapon capable of defeating the Chinese.

'They will be allowed to receive guests at the palace. You are welcome to visit them, or indeed join them there, though I believe your work is best pursued here with all your men and machines. If I thought you would work faster in the palace, I would move you there too, believe me.'

Khalid glared at him, too angry to speak without endangering them all.

'Iwang will move out here with you, as I judge him most useful here. He will be given an extension on his aman in advance, in recognition of his importance to matters of state. Indeed he is forbidden to leave. Not that he could. The wakened dragon to the east has already eaten Tibet. So you are taking on a godly task, one that you can be proud to have been yoked to.'

He spared one glance for Bahram. 'We will take good care of your family, and you will take good care of things here. You can live in the palace with them, or here helping the work, whichever you please.'

Bahram nodded, speechless with dismay and fear. 'I will do both,' he managed to say, looking at Esmerine and the children.

Nothing was ever normal again.

Many lives change like that – all of a sudden, and for ever.

A Weapon from God

In deference to Bahram's feelings, Khalid and Iwang organized the whole compound as an armoury, and all their tests and demonstrations were devoted to increasing the powers of the Khan's army. Stronger cannon, more explosive gunpowder, spinning shot, killer of myriads; also firing tables, logistical protocols, mirror alphabets to talk over great distances; all this and more they produced, while Bahram lived half in the Khanaka with Esmerine and the children, and half out at the compound, until the Bokhara Road became like the courtyard path to him, traversed at all hours of the day and night, sometimes asleep on horses that knew the way blind.

The increases they made in the Khan's war making powers were prodigious; or would have been, if the commanders of Sayyed Abdul's army could have been made to submit to Khalid's instruction, and if Khalid had had the patience to teach them. But both sides were too proud for accommodation, and though it seemed to Bahram a critical failure on Nadir's part not to force the issue and command the generals to obey Khalid, also not to spend more of the Khan's treasury on hiring more soldiers with more experience, nothing was done. Even the great Nadir Devanbegi had limits to his power, which came down in the end to the sway of his advice over the Khan. Other advisers had different advice, and it was possible Nadir's power was in fact waning just at the moment it was most needed, and despite Khalid and Iwang's innovations – or, who knew, perhaps even because of them. It was not as if the Khan had distinguished himself for good judgment. And possibly his pocket was not as bottomless as it had seemed back in the days when the bazaars and caravanserai and building sites were all bustling like beehives, and paying taxes.

So Esmerine seemed to suggest, though Bahram had mostly to deduce this from ber looks and silences. She seemed to believe they were spied upon at all times, even during their sleepless hours in the dead of night, which was a rather terrible thought. The children had taken to life in the palace as if falling into some dream out of the Arabian Nights, and Esmerine did nothing to disabuse them of this notion, although she of course knew that they were prisoners, and their lives forfeit if the Khan should happen to experience a fit of bad temper at the way things were going at Khalid's, or to the cast, or anywhere else. So naturally she avoided saying anything objectionable, and mentioned only how well fed and kindly treated they were, how much the children and she were thriving. Only the look in her eye when they were alone told Bahram how afraid she was, and how much she wished to encourage him to fulfil the Khan's desires.

Khalid of course knew all this without his daughter's glances to tell him. Bahram could see him putting more and more effort into improving the military capacity of the Khan, not only by exerting himself in the armoury, but by trying to ingratiate himself with the most amenable of the generals, and by making suggestions discreet or direct on all manner of subjects, from the renovation of the walls of the city, in keeping with his demonstrations of the strength of raw earthworks, to plans for welldigging and drainage of stale water in Bokhara and Samarqand. All purely theoretical demonstrations went by the board in this effort, with no time spent grumbling about it either. But progress was uneven.

Rumours began to fly about the city like bats, sucking the light out of the day. The Manchurian barbarians had conquered Yunnan, Mongolia, Cham, Tibet, Annam and the eastern extensions of the Mughal empire; every day it was somewhere different, somewhere closer. There was no way to confirm any of these assertions, and indeed they were often denied, either by direct contradiction, or simply by the fact that caravans kept coming from some of those regions, and the traders had seen nothing unusual, though they too had heard rumours. Nothing was certain but that there was turmoil to the east. The caravans certainly came less often, and included not only traders but whole families, Muslim or Jewish or Hindu, driven out by fear of the new dynasty, called the Qing. Centuries old foreign settlements dissipated like frost in the sun, and the exiles streamed west with the idea things would be better in Dar al Islam, under the Mughals or the Ottomans or in the taifa sultanates of Frengistan. No doubt true, as Islam was lawful; but Bahram saw the misery on their faces, the destitution and fear, the need for their men to angle and beg for provisions, their goods for trade already depleted, and all the wide western half of the world still before them to be traversed.

At least it would be the Muslim half of the world. But visits to the caravanserai, once one of Bahram's favourite parts of the day, now left him anxious and fearful, as intent as Nadir to see Khalid and Iwang come up with ways to defend the khanate from invasion.

' It's not us slowing things down,' Khalid said bitterly, late one night in his study. 'Nadir himself is no great general, and his influence over the Khan is shaky, and getting shakier. And the Khan himself ' He blew through his lips.

Bahram sighed. No one could contradict it. Sayyed Abdul Aziz was not a wise man.

'We need something both deadly and spectacular,' Khalid said. 'Something both for the Khan and for the Manchu.' Bahram left him looking at various recipes for explosives, and made the long cold ride back to the palace in Bokhara.

Khalid arranged a meeting with Nadir, and came back muttering that if all went well with the demonstration he had proposed, Nadir would release Esmerine and the children back to the compound. Bahram was elated, but Khalid warned him: 'It depends on the Khan being pleased, and who knows what will impress such a man.'

'What demonstration do you have in mind?'

'We must manufacture shells containing the Chinese wai jen ti formula, shells that won't break on firing, but will when they hit the ground.'

They tried out several different designs, and even the demonstrations proved quite dangerous; more than once people had to run for their lives. It would be a terrible weapon if it could be made to work. Bahram hurried around all day every day, imagining his family returned, Samarqand saved from infidels; surely if Allah meant these things to be, then the weapon was a gift from Him. It was not hard to overlook the terror of it.

Eventually they manufactured hollow flat backed shells, pumped full of the liquid constituents of the ki I ler of myriads, in two chambers separated by a tin wall. A packet of flashpowder in the nose of the shell exploded on contact, blowing the interior wall apart and mixing the constituents of the gas.

They got them to work about eight times out of ten. Another kind of shell, entirely filled with gunpowder and an igniter, exploded on impact most deafeningly, scattering the shell like fragmented bullets.

They made fifty of each, and arranged a demonstration out on their test grounds by the river. Khalid bought a small herd of broken nags from the gluemaker, with the promise of selling them back ready for rendering. The ostlers staked these poor beasts out at the extreme range of the test cannon, and when the Khan and his courtiers arrived in their finery, looking somewhat bored by now with this routine, Khalid kept his face turned away in as close to a gesture of contempt as he could risk, pretending to attend busily to the gun. Bahram saw that this would not do, and went to Nadir and Sayyed Abdul Aziz and made obeisances and pleasantries, explaining the mechanism of the weapon, and introducing Khalid with a little flourish as the old man approached, sweating and puffing. '

Khalid declared the demonstration ready. The Khan flicked a hand casually, his characteristic gesture, and Khalid gave the sign to the men at the gun, who applied the match. The cannon boomed and expelled white smoke, rolled back. Its barrel had been set at a fairly high angle, so that the shell would come down hard on its tip. The smoke swirled, all stared down the plain at the staked horses; nothing happened; Bahram held his breath A puff of yellow smoke exploded among the horses, and they leapt away from it, two pulling out their stakes and galloping off, a few falling over when the ropes pulled them back. All the while the smoke spread outwards as from an invisible brushfire, a thick mustard yellow smoke, obscuring the horses as it passed over them. It covered one that had burst its tether but charged by accident back into a tendril of the cloud; this was the one they could see rear up in the mist, fall and struggle wildly to get back on its feet, then collapse, twitching.

The yellow cloud cleared slowly, drifting away downvalley on the prevailing wind, seeming heavy and clinging long in the hollows of the ground. There lay two dozen dead horses, scattered in a circle that encompassed two hundred paces at least.

'If there was an army in that circle,' Khalid said, 'then, most excellent servant of the one true God, Supreme Khan, they would be just as dead as those horses. And you could have a score of cannon loaded with such shells, or a hundred. And no army ever born could conquer Samarqand.'

Nadir, looking faintly shocked, said, 'What if the wind changed its course and blew our way?'

Khalid shrugged. 'Then we too would die. It is important to make small shells, that can be fired a long distance, and always downwind, if possible. The gas does disperse, so if the wind was mildly towards you, it might not matter much.'

The Khan himself looked startled at the demonstration, but more and more pleased, as at a new form of fireworks; it was hard to be sure with him. Bahram suspected that he sometimes pretended to be oblivious to things, in order to make a veil between himself and his advisers.

Now he nodded to Nadir, and led his court off on the road to Bokhara.

'You have to understand,' Khalid reminded Bahram on the way back to the compound, 'there are men in that very group around the Khan who want to bring Nadir down. For them it doesn't matter how good our weapon is. The better the worse, in fact. So it's not just a matter of them being utter simpletons.'

These Things Happened

The next day Nadir was out with his full guard, and they had with them Esmerine and the children. Nadir nodded brusquely at Bahram's fulsome thanks and then said to Khalid, 'The poison air shells may become necessary, and I want you to compile as many as you can, five hundred at least, and the Khan will reward you accordingly on his return, and he makes promise of that reward in advance, by the return of your family.'

'He's going away?'

'The plague has appeared in Bokhara. The caravanserai and the bazaars, the mosques and madressas and the Khanaka are all closed. The crucial members of the court will accompany the Khan to his summer residence. I will be making all his arrangements for him from there.

Look to yourselves. If you can leave the city and still do your work, the Khan does not forbid it, but he hopes you can close yourself up here in your compound, and carry on. When the plague passes we can reconvene.'

'And the Manchu?' Khalid asked.

'We have word that they too have been struck. As you might expect. It may be they have brought it with them. They may even have sent their sick among us to pass along the infection. It would be little different than casting poisoned air on an enemy.'

Khalid coloured at that but said nothing. Nadir left, clearly on his way to other tasks necessary before his flight from Samarqand. Khalid slammed the gate shut after him, cursed him under his breath. Bahram, ecstatic at the unexpected return of Esmerine and the children, hugged them until Esmerine cried out that he would crush them. They wept with joy, and only later, in the midst of shutting the compound off from the city, something they had done successfully ten years before when a plague of distemper had passed through the city, losing only one servant who had slipped into town to see his girlfriend and never come back – only later did Bahram see that his daughter Laila was red cheeked, with a hectic flush, and lying listlessly on a chest of drawers.

They put her in a room with a bed. Esmerine's face was pinched with fear. Khalid decreed that Laila be sequestered there, and fed and kept in drink from the door, by poles and net bags and plates and gourds that were not to be returned to the rest of them. But Esmerine hugged the little girl, of course, before all this regime was introduced, and the next day in their bedroom Bahram saw her red cheeks, and how she groaned awake and lifted her arms, and there were the tokens in her armpits, hard yellow protuberances emerging from the skin, even (he seemed to see as she put down her arm) faceted as if they were carbuncles, or as if she was turning to jewels from the inside.

After that they were a sickhouse, and Bahram spent his days nursing the others, running about all hours of the day and night, in a fever of a different kind to that of the sick ones, urged by Khalid never to touch or come within the breath of his stricken family. Sometimes Bahram tried, sometimes he didn't, holding them as if he could clasp them to this world. Or drag them back into it, when the children died.

Then the adults started dying too, and they were locked out of the town as a sickhouse rather than a safe house. Fedwa died but Esmerine held on; Khalid and Bahram took turns caring for her, and Iwang joined them in the compound.

One night Iwang and Khalid had Esmerine breathe on a glass, and they looked at the moisture through their small lens, and said little. Bahram looked briefly and glimpsed the host of little dragons, gargoyles, bats and other creatures. He could not look again, but knew they were doomed.

Esmerine died and Khalid showed the tokens that same hour. Iwang could not rise from his couch in Khalid's workshop, but studied his own breath and blood and bile through the smallscope, trying to make a clear record of the disease's progress through him. One night as he lay there gasping he said in his low voice, 'I'm glad I did not convert. I know you did not want it. And now I would be a blasphemer, for if there is a God I would want to rebuke Him for this.'

Bahram said nothing. It was a judgment, but of what? What had they done? Were the gas shells an affront to God?

'Old men live to be seventy,' Iwang said. 'I'm just over thirty. What will I do with those years?'

Bahram couldn't think. 'You said we return,' he said dully.

'Yes. But I liked this life. I had plans for this life.'

He lingered on his couch but could take no food, and his skin was very hot. Bahram did not tell him that Khalid had died already, very swiftly, felled by grief or anger at the loss of Fedwa and Esmerine and the children – as if by apoplexy rather than plague. Bahram only sat with the Tibetan in the silent compound.

At one point Iwang croaked, 'I wonder if Nadir knew they were infected, and gave them back to kill us.'

'But why?'

'Perhaps he feared the killer of myriads. Or some faction of the court. He had other considerations than us. Or it might have been someone else. Or no one.'

'We'll never know.'

'No. The court itself might be gone by now. Nadir, the Khan, all of them.'

'I hope so,' Bahram's mouth said.

Iwang nodded. He died at dawn, wordless and struggling.

Bahram got all the compound's survivors to put cloths over their faces and move the bodies into a closed workshop beyond the chemical pits. He was so far outside himself that the movements of his numb limbs surprised him, and he spoke as if he were someone else. Do this do that. Let's eat. Then, carrying a big pot to the kitchen, he felt the lump in his armpit, and sat down as if the tendons in the back of his knees had been cut, thinking: I guess it's my turn now.

Back in the Bardo

Well, it was, as might be imagined after an end like that, a very discour aged and dispirited little jati that huddled together on the black floor of the bardo this time around. Who could blame them? Why should they have had any will to continue? It was hard to discern any reward for virtue, any forward progress – any dharmic justice of any kind. Even Bahram could not find the good in it, and no one else even tried. Looking back down the vale of the ages at the endless recurrence of their reincarnations, before they were forced to drink their vials of forgetting and all became obscure to them again, they could see no pattern at all to their efforts; if the gods had a plan, or even a set of procedures, if the long train of transmigrations was supposed to add up to anything, if it was not just mindless repetition, time itself nothing but a succession of chaoses, no one could discern it; and the story of their transmigrations, rather than being a narrative without death, as the first experiences of reincarnation perhaps seemed to suggest, had become instead a veritable charnel house. Why read on? Why pick up their book from the far wall where it has been thrown away in disgust and pain, and read on? Why submit to such cruelty, such bad karma, such bad plotting?

The reason is simple: these things happened. They happened countless times, just like this. The oceans are salt with our tears. No one can deny that these things happened.

And so there is no choice in the matter. They cannot escape the wheel of birth and death, not in the experience of it, or in the contemplation of it afterwards; and their anthologist, Old Red Ink himself, must tell their stories honestly, must deal in reality, or else the stories m can nothing. And it is crucial that the stories mean something.

So. No escape from reality: they sat there, a dozen sad souls, huddled together at a far corner of the great stage of the hall of judgment. It was dim, and cold. The perfect white light had lasted this time for only the briefest of moments, a flash like the eyeball exploding; after that, here they were again. Up on the dais the dogs and demons and black gods capered, in a hazy mist that shrouded all, that damped all sound.

Bahram tried, but could think of nothing to say. He was still stunned by the events of their last days in the world; he was still ready to get up and go out and start another day, on another morning just like all the rest. Deal with the crisis of an invasion from the east, the taking of his family, if that was what it meant – whatever problems the day happened to bring, trouble, crisis, sure, that was life. But not this. Not this already. Salt tears of timely death, alum tears of untimely death: bitterness filled the air like smoke. I liked that life! I had plans for that life!

Khalid sat there just as Khalid always had, as if ensconced in his study thinking over some problem. The sight gave Bahram a deep pang of regret and sorrow. All that life, gone. Gone, gone, gone altogether beyond… The past is gone. Even if you can remember it, it's gone. And even at the time it was happening Bahram had known how he had loved it, he had lived in a state of nostalgia for the present, every day of it.

Now gone.

The rest of the jati sat or sprawled on the cheap wooden floor around Khalid. Even Sayyid Abdul looked distraught, not just sorry for himself, but distraught for them all, sad to have left that turbulent but oh so interesting world.

An interval passed; a moment, a year, an age, the kalpa itself, who could tell in such a terrible place?

Bahram took a deep breath, exerted himself, sat up.

'We're making progress,' he announced firmly.

Khalid snorted. 'We are like mice to the cats.' He gestured up at the stage, where the grotesqueries continued to unfold. 'They are petty arseholes, I say. They kill us for sport. They don't die and they don't understand.'

'Forget them,' Iwang advised. 'We're going to have to do this on our own.

'God judges, and sends us out again,' Bahram said. 'Man proposes, God disposes.'

Khalid shook his head. 'Look at them. They're a bunch of vicious children playing. No one leads them, there is no god of gods.'

Bahram looked at him, surprised. 'Do you not see the one enfolding all the rest, the one we rest within? Allah, or Brahman, or what have you, the one only true God of Gods?'

'No. I see no sign of him at all.'

'You aren't looking! You've never looked yet! When you look, you will see it. When you see it, everything will change for you. Then it will be all right.'

Khalid scowled. 'Don't insult us with that fatuous nonsense. Good Lord, Allah, if you are there, why have you inflicted me with this fool of a boy!' He kicked at Bahram. 'It's easier without you around! You and your damned all right! It's not all right! It's a fucking mess! You only make it worse with that nonsense of yours! Did you not see what just happened to us, to your wife and children, to my daughter and grandchildren? It's not all right! Start from that, if you will! We may be in a hallucination here, but that's no excuse for being delusional!'

Bahram was hurt by this. 'It's you who give up on things,' he protested. 'Every time. That's what your cynicism is – you don't even try. You don't have the courage to carry on.'

' The hell I don't. I've never given up yet. I'm just not willing to go at it babbling lies. No, it's you who are the one who never tries. Always waiting for me and Iwang to do the hard things. You do it for once! Quit babbling about love and try it yourself one time, damn it! Try it yourself, and see how hard it is to keep a sunny face when you're looking at the truth of the situation eye to eye.'

'Ho!' said Bahram, stung. 'I do my part. I have always done my part. Without me none of you would be able to carry on. It takes courage to keep love at the centre when you know just as well as anyone else the real state of things! It's easy to get angry, anyone can do that. It's making good that's the hard part, it's staying hopeful that's the hard part! it's staying in love that's the hard part.'

Khalid waggled his left hand. 'All very well, but it only matters if the truth is faced and fought. I'm sick of love and happiness I want justice.'

'So do W 'All right, then show me. Show me what you can do this next time out in the miserable world, something more than happy happy.'

'I will then!'

'Good.'

Heavily Khalid pulled himself up, and limped over to Sayyid Abdul Aziz, and without any warning kicked him sprawling across the stage. 'And you!' he roared. 'What is your EXCUSE! Why are you always so bad? Consistency is no excuse, your CHARACTER is NO EXCUSE!'

Sayyid glared up at him from the floor, sucking on a torn knuckle. Daggers in his stare: 'Leave me alone.'

Khalid made as if to kick him again, then gave up on it. 'You'll get yours,' he promised. 'One of these days, you'll get yours.'

'Forget about him,' Iwang advised. 'He's not the real problem, and he'll always be part of us. Forget about him, forget about the gods. Let's concentrate on doing it ourselves. We can make our own world.'

One night can change the world.

The Doorkeepers sent runners out with strings of wampum, announcing a council meeting at Floating Bridge. They wanted to raise to chiefdom the foreigner they called Fromwest. The fifty sachems had agreed to the meeting, as there was nothing unusual about it. There were many more chiefs than sachems, and the title died with the man, and each nation was free to choose its own, depending on what happened on the warpath and in the villages. The only unusual feature of this raising up was the foreign birth of the candidate, but he had been living with the Doorkeepers for some time, and word had spread through the nine nations and the eight tribes that he was interesting.

He had been rescued by a war party of Doorkeepers who had run far to the west to inflict another shock on the Sioux, the western people bordering the Hodenosaunee. The warriors had come on a Sioux torture, the victim hung by his chest from hooks, and a fire building under him. While waiting for their ambush to set, the warriors had been impressed by the victim's speech, which was in a comprehensible version of the Doorkeeper dialect, as if he had seen them out there.

The usual behaviour while being tortured was a passionate laughter in the faces of one's enemies, to show that no pain inflicted by man can triumph over the spirit. This foreigner hadn't been like that. Calmly he remarked to his captors, in Doorkeeper rather than Sioux: 'You are very incompetent torturers. What wounds the spirit is not passion, for all passion is encouragement. As you hate me you help me. What really hurts is to be ground like acorns in a grinding hole. Where I come from they have a thousand devices to tear the flesh, but what hurts is their indifference. Here you remind me I am human and full of passion, a target of passion. I am happy to be here. And I am about to be rescued by warriors much greater than you.'

The Senecans lying in ambush had taken this as an undeniable sign to attack, and with warwhoops they had descended on the Sioux and scalped as many as they could catch, while taking particular care to rescue the captive who had spoken so eloquently, and in their own tongue.

How did you know we were there? they asked him.

Suspended as high as he was, he said, he had seen their eyes out in the trees.

And how do you know our language?

There is a tribe of your kinsmen on the west coast of this island, who moved there long ago. I learned your language from them.

And so they had nursed him and brought him home, and he lived with the Doorkeepers and the Great Hill People, near Niagara, for several moons. He went on the hunt and the warpath, and word of his accomplishments had spread through the nine nations, and many people had met him and been impressed. No one was surprised at his nomination to chief.

The council was set for the hill at the head of Canandaigua Lake, where the Hodenosaunee had first appeared in the world, out of the ground like moles.

Hill People, Granite People, Flint Owners and Shirt Weavers, who came up out of the south two generations before, having had bad dealings with the people who had come over the sea from the east, all walked west on the Long House Trail, which extends across the league's land from east to west. They encamped at some distance from the Doorkeepers' council house, sending runners to announce their arrival, according to the old ways. The Senecan sachems confirmed the day of the council, and repeated their invitation.

On the appointed morning before dawn, people rose and gathered their rolls, and hunched around fires and a quick meal of burnt corn cakes and maple water. It was a clear sky at dawn, with only a trace of receding grey cloud to the east, like the finely embroidered hems of the coats the women were donning. The mist on the lake swirled as if twisted by sprites skating over the lake, to join a sprite council matching the human one, as often occurred. The air was cool and damp, with no hint of the oppressive heat that was likely to arrive in the afternoon.

The visiting nations trooped onto the water meadows at the lakeshore and gathered in their accustomed places. By the time the sky lightened from grey to blue there were already a few hundred people there to listen to the Salute to the Sun, sung by one of the old Senecan sachems.

The Onondagas nations keep the council brand, and also the wampum into which the laws of the league have been talked, and now their powerful old sachem, Keeper of the Wampum, rose and displayed in his outstretched hands the belts of wampum, heavy and white. The Onondagas are the central nation, their council fire the seat of the league's councils. Keeper of the Wampum trod a pedestrian dance around the meadow, chanting something most of them heard only as a faint cry.

A fire was kindled at the centrepoint, and pipes passed around. The Mohawks, Onondagas and Senecans, brother to each other and father to the other six, settled west of the fire; the Oncidas, Cayugas and Tuscaroras sat to the east; the new nations, Cherokee, Shawnee and Choctaw, sat to the south. The sun cracked the horizon; its light flooded the valley like maple water, pouring over everything and making it summer yellow. Smoke curled, grey and brown turned to one. A morning without wind, and the wisps on the lake burned away. Birds sang from the forest canopy to the east of the meadow.

Out of the arrows of shadow and light walked a short, broad shouldered man, barefoot and dressed only in a runner's waist belt. He had a round face, very flat. A foreigner. He walked with his hands together, looking down humbly, and came through the junior nations to the central fire, there offering his open palms to Honowenato, Keeper of the Wampum.

Keeper said to him, 'Today you become a chief of the Hodenosaunee. At these occasions it is customary for me to read the history of the league as recalled by the wampum here, and to reiterate the laws of the league that have given us peace for many generations, and new nations joining us from the sea to the Mississippi, from the Great Lakes to the Tennessee.'

Fromwest nodded. His chest was marked deeply by the puckered scars of the Sioux hooking ceremony. He was as solemn as an owl. 'I am more than honoured. You are the most generous of nations.'

'We are the greatest league of nations under heaven,' Keeper said. 'We live here on the highest land of Longer House, with good routes down in all directions.

'In each nation there are the eight tribes, divided in two groups. Wolf, Bear, Beaver and Turtle; then Deer, Snipe, Heron and Hawk. Each member of the Wolf tribe is brother and sister to all other Wolves, no matter what nation they come from. The relationship with other Wolves is almost stronger than the relation with those of one's nation. It is a cross relation, like warp and weft in basket weaving and cloth making. And so we are one garment. We cannot disagree as nations, or it would tear the fabric of the tribes. Brother cannot fight brother, sister cannot fight sister.

'Now, Wolf, Bear, Beaver and Turtle, being brother and sister, cannot intermarry. They must marry out of Hawk, Heron, Deer or Snipe.'

Fromwest nodded at each pronouncement of Keeper, made in the heavy, ponderous tones of a man who had laboured all his life to make this system work, and to extend it far and wide. Fromwest had been declared a member of the Hawk tribe, and would play with the Hawks in the morning's lacrosse match. Now he watched Keeper with a hawk's intensity, taking in the irascible old man's every word, oblivious to the growing crowd at the lakeside. The crowd in turn went about its own affairs, the women at their fires preparing the feast, some of the men setting out the lacrosse pitch on the biggest water meadow.

Finally Keeper was done with his recital, and Fromwest addressed all in earshot.

'This is the great honour of my life,' he said loudly and slowly, his accent strange but comprehensible. 'To be taken in by the finest people of the Earth is more than any poor wanderer could hope for. Although I did hope for it. I spent many years crossing this great island, hoping for it.'

He bowed his head, hands together.

'A very unassuming man,' remarked Iagogeh, the One Who Hears, wife of Keeper of the Wampum. 'And not so young either. It will be interesting to bear what he says tonight.'

'And to see how he does in the games,' said Tecarnos, or Dropping Oil, one of Iagogeh's nieces.

'Tend the soup,' said Iagogeh.

'Yes, Mother.'

The lacrosse field was being inspected by the field judges for rocks and rabbit holes, and the tall poles of the gates were set up at either end of the field. As always, the games set the Wolf, Bear, Beaver and Turtle tribes against Deer, Snipe, Hawk and Heron. The betting was active, and wagered goods were laid out by the managers in neat rows, mostly personal items of ornamentation, but also flints, flutes, drums, bags of tobacco and pipes, needles and arrows, two flintlock pistols and four muskets.

The two teams and the referees gathered at midfield, and the crowd bordered the green field and stood on the hill overlooking it. The day's match was to be a ten on-ten, so five passes through the gate would win. The head referee listed the main rules, as always: no touching the ball with hand, foot, limb, body or head; no deliberate hitting of opponents with the ball bats. He held up the round ball, made of deerskin filled with sand, about the size of his fist. The twenty players stood ten to a side, defending their goals, and one from each side came forward to contest the dropped ball that would start the match. To a great roar from the crowd the referee dropped the ball and retreated to the side of the field, where he and the others would watch for any infraction of the rules.

The two team leaders fenced madly for the ball, the hooped nets at the end of their bats scraping the ground and knocking together. Though hitting another person was forbidden, striking another player's bat with yours was allowed; it was a chancy play, however, as a mistaken strike on flesh would give the hit player a free shot at the gate. So the two players whacked away until the Heron scooped the ball up and flicked it back to one of his team mates, and the running began.

Opponents ran at the ball carrier, who twisted through them as long as he could, then passed the ball with a flick of his bat into the net of one of his team mates. If the ball fell to the ground then most of the players nearby converged on it, bats clattering violently as they struggled for possession. Two players from each team stood back from this scrum, on defence in case an opponent caught up the ball and made a dash for the gate.

Soon enough it became clear that Fromwest had played lacrosse before, presumably among the Doorkeepers. He was not as young as most of the other players, nor as fleet as the fastest runners on each side, but the fastest were set guarding each other, and Fromwest had only to face the biggest of the Bear Wolf Beaver Turtle team, who could counter his low and solid mass with body checks, but did not have Fromwest's quickness. The foreigner held his bat in both hands like a scythe, out low to the side or before him, as if inviting a slash that would knock the ball free. But his opponents soon learned that such a slash would never land, and if they tried it, Fromwest would spin awkwardly and be gone, stumbling forwards quite quickly for a big short man. When other opponents blocked him, his passes to open teammates were like shots from a bow; they were if anything perhaps too hard, as his team mates had some trouble catching his throws. But if they did, off to the gate they scampered, waving their bats to confuse the final gate guard, and screaming along with the excited crowd. Fromwest never shouted or said a word, but played in an uncanny silence, never taunting the other team or even meeting their eyes, but watching either the ball or, it seemed, the sky. He played as if in a trance, as if confused; and yet when his team mates were tracked down and blocked, he was always somehow open for a pass, no matter how hard his guard, or soon guards, ran to cover him. Surrounded teammates, desperately keeping their bat free to throw the ball out, would find Fromwest there in the only direction the ball could be thrown, stumbling but miraculously open, and they would flip it out to him and he would snare the ball dextrously and be off on one of his uncertain runs, cutting behind people and across the field at odd angles, wrong headed angles, until he was blocked and an opportunity to pass opened, and one of his hard throws would flick over the grass as if on a string. It was a pleasure to watch, comical in its awkward look, and the crowd roared as the Deer Snipe Hawk Heron team threw the ball past the diving guardian and through the gate. Seldom had a first score happened faster.

After that the Bear Wolf Beaver Turtle team did what it could to stop Fromwest, but they were puzzled by his strange responses, and could not defend well against him. If they ganged up on him, he passed out to his fast young team-mates, who were growing bolder with their success. If they tried to cover him singly, he weaved and bobbed and stumbled in seeming confusion past his guard, until he was within striking distance of the gate, when he would spin, suddenly balanced, his bat at knee height, and with a turn of the wrist launch the ball through the gate like an arrow. No one there had ever seen such hard throws.

Between scores they gathered on the sidelines to drink water and maple water. The Bear Wolf Beaver Turtle team conferred grimly, made substitutions. After that an 'accidental' bat blow to Fromwest's head gashed his scalp and left him covered with his own red blood, but the foul gave him a free shot, which he converted from near midfield, to a great roar. And it did not stop his weird but effective play, nor gain his opponents even a glance from him. Iagogeh said to her niece, 'He plays as if the other team were ghosts. He plays as if he were out there by himself, trying to learn how to run more gracefully.' She was a connoisseur of the game, and it made her happy to see it.

Much more quickly than was normal, the match was four to one in favour of the junior side, and the senior tribes gathered to discuss strategy. The women gave out gourds of water and maple water, and Iagogeh, a Hawk herself, sidled next to Fromwest and offered him a water gourd, as she had seen earlier that that was all he was taking.

'You need a good partner now,' she murmured as she crouched beside him. 'No one can finish alone.'

He looked at her, surprised. She pointed with a gesture of her head at her nephew Doshoweh, Split the Fork. 'He's your man,' she said, and was off.

The players regathered at midfield for the drop, and the Bear Wolf Beaver Turtle team left behind only a single man to defend. They got the ball, and pressed west with a fury born of desperation. Play went on for a long time, with neither side gaining advantage, both running madly up and down the field. Then one of the Deer Snipe Hawk Herons hurt his ankle, and Fromwest called on Doshoweh to come out.

The Bear Wolf Beaver Turtle team pressed forward again, pushing at the new player. But one of their passes came too near Fromwest, who snagged it out of the air while leaping over a fallen man. He flipped it to Doshoweh and all converged on the youngster, who looked frightened and vulnerable; but he had the presence of mind to make a long toss downfield, back to Fromwest, already running at full speed. Fromwest caught the toss and everyone took off in pursuit of him. But it seemed he had an extra turn of speed he had never yet revealed, for no one could catch up to him before he reached the eastern gate, and after a feint with body and bat he spun and fired the ball past the guardian and far into the woods, to end the match.

The crowd erupted with cheers. Hats and bags of tobacco filled the air and rained down on the field. The contestants lay flat on their backs, then rose and gathered in a great hug, overseen by the referees.

Afterwards Fromwest sat on the lakeshore with the others. 'What a relief,' he said. 'I was getting tired.' He allowed some of the women to wrap his head wound in an embroidered cloth, and thanked them, face lowered.

In the afternoon the younger ones played the game of throwing javelins through a rolling hoop. Fromwest was invited to try it, and he agreed to make one attempt. He stood very still, and threw with a gentle motion, and the javelin flew through the hoop, leaving it rolling on. Fromwest bowed and gave up his place. 'I played that game when I was a boy,' he said. 'It was part of the training to become a warrior, what we called a samurai. What the body learns it never forgets.'

Iagogeh witnessed this exhibit, and went to her husband Keeper of the Wampum. 'We should invite Fromwest to tell us more about his country,' she said to him. He nodded, frowning a little at her interference as he always did, even though they had discussed every aspect of the league's affairs, every day for forty years. That was the way Keeper was, irritable and glowering; but all because the league meant so much to him, so that Iagogeh ignored his demeanour. Usually.

The feast was readied and they set to. As the sun dropped into the forest the fires roared bright in the shadows, and the ceremonial ground between the four cardinal fires became the scene of hundreds of people filing past the food, filling their bowls with spiced hominy and corncakes, bean soup, cooked squash, and roasted meat of deer, elk, duck and quail. Things grew quiet as people ate. After the main course came popcorn and strawberry jelly sprinkled with maple sugar, usually taken more slowly, and a great favourite with the children.

During this sunset feast Fromwest wandered the grounds, a goose drumstick in hand, introducing himself to strangers and listening to their stories, or answering their questions. He sat with his team mates' families and recalled the triumphs of the day on the lacrosse field. 'That game is like my old job,' he said. 'In my country warriors fight with weapons like giant needles. I see you have needles, and some guns. These must have come from one of my old brothers, or the people who come here from over your eastern sea.'

They nodded. Foreigners from across the sea had established a forti fied village down on the coast, near the entrance of the big bay at the mouth of the East River. The needles had come from them, as well as tomahawk blades of the same substance, and guns.

'Needles are very valuable,' Iagogeh said. 'just ask Needle breaker.'

People laughed at Needle breaker, who grinned with embarrassment.

Fromwest said, 'The metal is melted out of certain rocks, red rocks that have the metal mixed in them. If you make a fire hot enough, in a big clay oven, you could make your own metal. The right kind of rocks are just south of your league's land, down in the narrow curved valleys.' He drew a rough map on the ground with a stick.

Two or three of the sachems were listening along with Iagogeh. Fromwest bowed to them. 'I mean to speak to the council of sachems about these matters.'

'Can a clay oven hold fires hot enough?' Iagogeh asked, inspecting the big leatherpunch needle she kept on one of her necklaces.

'Yes. And the black rock that burns, burns as hot as charcoal. I used to make swords myself. They're like scythes, but longer. Like blades of grass, or lacrosse bats. As long as the bats, but edged like a tomahawk or a blade of grass, and heavy, sturdy. You learn to swing them right' he swished a hand backhanded before them – 'and off with your head. No one can stop you.'

Everyone in earshot was interested in this. They could still see him whipping his bat around him, like an elm seed spinning down on the wind.

'Except a man with a gun,' the Mohawk sachem Sadagawadeh, Even Tempered, pointed out.

'True. But the important part of the guns are tubes of the same metal.'

Sadagawadeh nodded, very interested now. Fromwest bowed.

Keeper of the Wampum had some Neutral youths round up the other sachems, and they wandered around the grounds until they found all fifty. When they returned Fromwest was sitting in a group, holding out a lacrosse ball between thumb and forefinger. He had big square hands, very scarred.

I Here, let me mark the world on this. The world is covered by water, mostly. There are two big islands in the world lake. Biggest island is on opposite side of world from here. This island we are on is big, but not as big as big island. Half as big, or less. How big the world lakes, not so sure.'

He marked the ball with charcoal to indicate the islands in the great world sea. He gave Keeper the lacrosse ball. 'A kind of wampum.'

Keeper nodded. 'Like a picture.'

'Yes, a picture. Of the whole world, on a ball, because the world is a big ball. And you can mark it with the names of the islands and lakes.'

Keeper didn't look convinced, but what he was put off by, Iagogeh couldn't tell. He instructed the sachems to get ready for the council.

Iagogeh went off to help with the clean up. Fromwest brought bowls over to the lakeside to be washed.

'Please,' Iagogeh said, embarrassed. 'We do that.'

'I am no one's servant,' Fromwest said, and continued to bring bowls to the girls for a while, asking them about their embroidery. When he saw Iagogeh had drawn back to sit down on a bit of raised bank, he sat on the bank beside her.

As they watched the girls, he said, 'I know that Hodenosaunee wisdom is such that the women decide who marries whom.'

Iagogeh considered this. 'I suppose you could say that.'

'I am a Doorkeeper now, and a Hawk. I will live the rest of my days here among you. I too hope to marry some day.'

'I see.' She regarded him, looked at the girls. 'Do you have someone in mind?'

'Oh no!' he said. 'I would not be so bold. That is for you to decide. After your advice concerning lacrosse players, I am sure you will know best.'

She smiled. She looked at the festive dress of the girls, aware or unaware of their elders' presence. She said, 'How many summers have you seen?'

'Thirty five or so, in this life.'

'You have had other lives?'

'We all have. Don't you remember?'

She regarded him, unsure if he was serious. 'No.'

'The memories come in dreams, mostly, but sometimes when something happens that you recognize.'

' I've had that feeling.'

'That's what it is.'

She shivered. It was cooling down. Time to get to the fire. Through the net of leafy branches overhead a star or two winked. 'Are you sure you don't have a preference?'

' None. Hodenosaunee women are the most powerful women in this world. Not just the inheritance and the family lines, but choosing the marriage partnerships. That means you are deciding who comes back into the world.'

She scoffed at that: 'If children were like their parents.' The offspring she and Keeper had had were all very alarming people.

'The one that comes into the world was there waiting. But many were waiting. Which one comes depends on which parents.'

'Do you think so? Sometimes, when I watched mine – they were only strangers, invited into the Long House.'

'Like me.'

'Yes. Like you.'

Then the sachems found them, and took Fromwest to his raising up.

Iagogeh made sure the cleaning was near its finish, then went after the sachems, and joined them to help prepare the new chief. She combed his straight black hair, much the same as hers, and helped him tie it up the way he wanted, in a topknot. She watched his cheery face. An unusual man.

He was given appropriate waist and shoulder belts, each a winter's work for some skilful woman, and in these he suddenly looked very fine, a warrior and a chief, despite his flat round face and hooded eyes. He did not look like anyone she had ever met, certainly not like the one glimpse she had had of the foreigners who had come over the eastern sea to their shores. But she was beginning to feel he was familiar anyhow, in a way that made her feel peculiar.

He looked up at her, thanking her for her help. When she met his gaze she felt some odd sense of recognition.

Some branches and several great logs were thrown on the central fire, and the drums and turtleshell rattles grew loud as the fifty sachems of the Hodenosaunee gathered in their great circle for the raising up. The crowd drew in behind them, manoeuvring and then sitting down so all could see, forming a kind of broad valley of faces.

The raising up ceremony for a chief was not long compared to that of the fifty sachems. The sponsoring sachem stepped forward and announced the nomination of the chief. In this case it was Big Forehead, of the Hawk tribe, who stood forth and told them all again the story of Fromwest, how they had come across him being tortured by the Sioux, how he had been instructing the Sioux in the superior methods of torture found in his own country; how he already spoke an unfamiliar version of the Doorkeeper dialect, and how it had been his hope to come visit the people of the Long House before his capture by the Sioux. How he had lived among the Doorkeepers and learned their ways, and led a band of warriors far down the Ohio River to rescue many Senecan people enslaved by the Lakotas, guiding them so that they were able to effect the rescue and bring them home. How this and other actions had made him a candidate for chiefdom, with the support of all who knew him.

Big Forehead went on to say that the sachems had conferred that morning, and approved the choice of the Doorkeepers, even before Fromwest's display of skill in lacrosse. Then with a roar of acclamation Fromwest was led into the circle of sachems, his flat face shiny in the firelight, his grin so broad that his eyes disappeared in their folds of flesh.

He held out a hand, indicating he was ready to make his speech. The sachems sat on the beaten ground so that the whole congregation could see him. He said, 'This is the greatest day of my life. Never as long as I live will I forget any moment of this beautiful day. Let me tell you now how I came to this day. You have beard only part of the story. I was born on the island Hokkaido, in the island nation Nippon, and grew up there as a young monk and then a samurai, a warrior. My name was Busho.

'In Nippon people arranged their affairs differently. We had a group of sachems with a single ruler, called the Emperor, and a tribe of warriors were trained to fight for the rulers, and make the farmers give part of their crops to them. I left the service of my first ruler because of his cruelty to his farmers, and became a ronin, a warrior without tribe.

' I lived like that for years, wandering the mountains of Hokkaido and Honshu as beggar, monk, singer, warrior. Then all Nippon was invaded by people from farther west, on the great island of the world. These people, the Chinese, rule half the other side of the world, or more. When they invaded Nippon no great kamikaze storm wind came to sink their canoes, as always had happened before. The old gods abandoned Nippon, perhaps because of the Allah worshippers who had taken over its southernmost islands. In any case, with the water passable at last, they were unstoppable. We used banks of guns, chains in the water, fire, ambush in the night, swimming attacks over the inner sea, and we killed a great many of them, fleet after fleet, but they kept coming. They established a fort on the coast we could not eject them from, a fort protecting a long peninsula, and in a month they had filled that peninsula. Then they attacked the whole island at once, landing on every west beach with thousands of men. All the people of the Hodenosaunee league would have been but a handful in that host. And though we fought and fought, back up into the hills and mountains where only we knew the caves and ravines, they conquered the flatlands, and Nippon, my nation and my tribe, was no more.

'By then I should have died a hundred times over, but in every battle some fluke or other would save me, and I would prevail over the enemy at hand, or slip away and live to fight another time. Finally there were only scores of us left in all Honshu, and we made a plan, and joined together one night and stole three of the Chinese transport canoes, huge vessels like many floating long houses tied together. We sailed them cast under the command of those among us who had been to Gold Mountain before.

'These ships had cloth wings held up on poles to catch the wind, like you may have seen the foreigners from the east use, and most winds come from the west, there as here. So we sailed east for a few moons, and when the winds were bad drifted on a great current in the sea.

'When we reached Gold Mountain we found other Nipponese had arrived there before us, either by months, or years, or scores of years. There were great-grandchildren of settlers there, speaking an older form of Nipponese. They were happy to see a band of samurai land, they said we were like the legendary fifty-three ronin, because Chinese ships had already arrived, and sailed into the harbour and shelled the villages with their great guns, before leaving to return to China to tell their emperor that we were there to be put to the needle,' poking to show how death from a giant needle would take place, his mimicry horribly suggestive.

'We resolved to help our tribes there defend the place and make it a new Nippon, with the idea of eventually returning to our true home. But a few years later the Chinese appeared again, not on ships coming in through the Gold Gate, but on foot from the north, with a great army, building roads and bridges as they went, and speaking of gold in the hills. Once again the Nipponese were exterminated like rats in a granary, sent reeling south or east, into a waste of steep mountains where only one in ten survived.

, When the remnants were safely hidden away in caves and ravines, I resolved that I would not see the Chinese overrun Turtle Island as they are overrunning the great world island to the west, if I could help it. I lived with tribes and learned some language, and over the years I made my way east, over deserts and great mountains, a bare waste of rock and sand held so high up to the sun that it is cooked everywhere and the ground is like burned corn, it crunches underfoot. The mountains are enormous rock peaks with narrow canyons leading through them. On the broad eastern slope of these mountains are the grasslands beyond your rivers, covered with great herds of buffalo, and tribes of people who live off them in encampments. They move north or south with the buffalo, wherever they go. These are dangerous people, always fighting each other despite their plenty, and I took care to hide myself when I travelled among them. I walked cast until I came on some slave farmers who were from the Hodenosaunee, and from what they told me, in a language that to my surprise I could already understand, the Hodenosaunee were the first people I had heard of who might be able to defeat the invasion of the Chinese.

'So I sought the Hodenosaunee, and came here, sleeping inside logs, and creeping about like a snake to see what I could of you. I came up the Ohio and explored all around this land, and rescued a Senecan slave girl and learned more words from her, and then one day we were captured by a Sioux war party. It was the girl's mistake, and she fought so hard they killed her. And they were killing me too, when you arrived and saved me. As they were testing me, I thought, a Senecan war party will rescue you – there is one out there even now. There are their eyes, reflecting the firelight. And then you were there.'

He threw out his arms, and cried, 'Thank you, people of the Long House!' He took tobacco leaves from his waist belt and tossed them gracefully into the fire. 'Thank you Great Spirit, One Mind holding us all.'

'Great Spirit,' murmured all the people together in response, feeling their concourse.

Fromwest took a long ceremonial pipe from Big Forehead, and filled it with tobacco very carefully. As he crumbled the leaves into the bowl he continued his speech.

'What I saw of your people astonished me. Everywhere else in the world, guns rule. Emperors put the gun to the heads of sachems, who put it to warriors, who put it to farmers, and they all together Put it to the women, and only the Emperor and some sachems have any say in their affairs. They own the land like you own your clothes, and the rest of the people are slaves of one kind or another. In all the world there are perhaps five or ten of these empires, but fewer and fewer as they run into each other, and fight until one wins. They rule the world, but no one likes them, and when the guns aren't pointed at them, people go away or rebel, and all is violence of one against another, of man against man, and men against women. And despite all that, their numbers grow, for they herd cattle, like elk, who provide meat and milk and leather. They herd pigs, like boars, and sheep and goats, and horses that they ride on, like little buffalo. And so their numbers are grown huge, more than the stars in the sky. Between their tame animals and their vegetables, like your three sisters, squash and beans and corn, and a corn they call rice, that grows in water, they can feed so many that in each of your valleys, they might have living as many people as all the Hodenosaunee together. This is true, I have seen it with my own eyes. On your own island it is already beginning, on the far western coast, and perhaps on the eastern coast as well.'

He nodded at them all, paused to pluck a brand from the fire and light the filled pipe. He handed the smoking instrument to Keeper of the Wampum, and continued as the sachems each took one great puff from the pipe.

'Now, I have watched the Hodenosaunee as closely as a child watches its mother. I see how sons are brought up through their motherline, and cannot inherit anything from their fathers, so that there can be no accumulation of power in any one man. There can be no emperors here. I have seen how the women choose the marriages and advise all aspects of life, how the elderly and orphans are cared for. How the nations are divided into the tribes, woven so that you are all brothers and sisters through the league, warp and weft. How the sachems are chosen by the people, including the women. How if a sachem were to do something bad they would be cast out. How their sons are nothing special, but men like any other men, soon to marry out and have sons of their own who will leave, and daughters who will stay, until all have their say. I have seen how this system of affairs brings peace to your league. It is, in all this world, the best system of rule ever invented by human beings.'

He raised his hands in thanksgiving. He refilled the pipe and got it burning again, and shot a plume of smoke into the greater smoke rising from the fire. He cast more leaves on the fire, and gave the pipe to another sachem in the circle, Man Frightened, who indeed at this moment appeared a little awed. But the Hodenosaunee reward skills in oratory as well as skills in war, and now all listened happily as Fromwest continued.

'The best government, yes. But look you – your island is so bountiful in food that you do not have to make tools to feed yourselves. You live in peace and plenty, but you have few tools, and your numbers have not grown. Nor have you metals, or weapons made of metal. This is how it has happened; you can dig deep in the earth and find water, but why should you when there are streams and lakes everywhere? This is the way you live.

'But the big island's people have fought each other for many generations, and made many tools and weapons, and now they can sail across the great seas on all sides of this island, and land here. And so they are coming, driven as the deer by crowds of wolves behind. You see it on your cast coast, beyond Beyond the Opening. These are people from the other side of the same great island I escaped, stretching halfway around the world.

'They will keep coming! And I will tell you what will happen, if you do not defend yourselves in this island of yours. They will come, and they will build more forts on the coast, as they have begun to do already. They will trade with you, cloth for furs – cloth! cloth for the right to own this land as if it were their clothing. When your warriors object, they will shoot you with guns, and bring more and more warriors with guns, and you will not be able to oppose them for long, no matter how many of them you kill, for they have as many people as grains of sand on the long beaches. They will pour over you like Niagara.'

He paused to let that potent image sink in.

He raised his hands. 'It does not have to happen that way. A people as great as the Hodenosaunee, with its wise women and its wily warriors, a nation that every single person would gladly die for, as if for family – a people like this can learn to prevail over empires, empires in which only the emperors truly believe.

'How can we? you ask. How can we stop Niagara's water from falling?'

He made another pause, refilling the pipe and casting more tobacco on the fire. He passed the pipe out beyond the ring of sachems.

'Here is how. Your league is expandable, as you have shown already by the inclusion of the Shirt Weavers, the Shawnee, the Choctaw and the Lakota. You should invite all the neighbouring nations to join you, then teach them your ways, and tell them of the danger from the big island. Each nation can bring its own skill and devotion to the defence of this island. If you work together, the invaders will never be able to make headway into the depths of the great forest, which is nearly impenetrable even without opposition.

'Also, and most importantly, you need to be able to make your own guns.'

Now the attention of the crowd was fixed very closely. One of the sachems held up for all to regard the musket he had obtained from the coast. Wooden stock, metal barrel, metal trigger and sparking apparatus, holding a flint. It looked sleek and unearthly in the orange firelight, gleaming like their faces, something born not made.

But Fromwest pointed at it. 'Yes. Like that. Fewer parts than any basket. The metal comes from crushed rocks put in a fire. The pots and moulds to hold the melted metal are made of yet harder metal, that doesn't melt any more. Or in clay. Same with the rod you wrap a sheet of hot metal around, to make the barrel of the gun. The fire is made hot enough by using charcoal and coal for fuel, and blowing on the fire with bellows. Also, you can stick a wheel spinning in the river's flow, that will squeeze a bellows open and closed with the force of a thousand men.'

He went into a description of this process that appeared to be mostly in his own language. The something did something to the something. He illustrated by blowing on a glowing branch end held before his mouth, till it burst back into yellow flame.

'Bellows are like deerskin bags, squeezed over and over in wooden hands, wooden walls on a hinge,' flapping his hands vigorously. 'The devices can be pushed by the river. All work can be linked to the power of the rivers flowing by, and greatly increased. Thus the river's power becomes yours. Niagara's power becomes yours to command. You can make metal discs with toothed edges, connect them to the river, and cut through trees like sticks, cut trees longways into planks for houses and boats.' He gestured around them. 'A forest covers the whole eastern half of Turtle Island. Numberless trees. You could make anything. Great ships to cross the great seas, to bring the fight to their shores. Anything. You could sail there and ask their people if they want to be slaves of an empire, or a tribe woven into the league. Anything!'

Fromwest paused for another toke on the pipe. Keeper of the Wampum took the opportunity to say, 'You speak always of struggle and fighting. But the foreigners on the coast have been most friendly and solicitous. They trade, they give us guns for furs, they do not shoot us, or fear us. They speak of their god as if it is none of our concern.'

Fromwest nodded. 'So it will be, until you look around you, and find there are foreigners all around you, in your valleys, in forts on your hilltops, and insisting that they own the land of their farm as if it were their tobacco pouch, and willing to shoot anyone who kills an animal there, or cuts a tree. And at that point they will say their law rules your law, because there are more of them and they have more guns. And they will have permanently armed warriors, ready to go on the warpath for them anywhere in the whole world. And then you will be running north to try to escape them, leaving this land here, the highest land on Earth.'

He wiggled upwards to show how high. Many laughed despite their consternation. They had watched him take three or four giant pulls on the pipe, and they had all taken a puff themselves by now, so they knew how high he must be feeling. He was leaving them now, they could see it. He began to speak as from a great distance away, from inside his spirit, or out among the stars.

'They will bring disease. Many of you will die of fevers, and infections coming as if from nowhere, spreading from person to person. The diseases eat you from within, like mistletoe, growing everywhere inside you. Tiny parasites inside you, big parasites outside you, people living from your work even though they stay on the other side of the world, making you do it by the force of laws and guns. Laws like mistletoe! There to support the luxuries of an emperor around the world. So many of them that they will be able to cut down all the trees in the forest.'

He took a deep breath, and shook his head like a dog to get out of that dark place.

'Well!' he cried. 'So! You must live as if you are already dead! Live as if you are warriors already captured, do you understand? The foreigners on the coast must be resisted, and confined to a harbour town, if you can do it. War will come eventually, no matter what you do. But the later it comes the more you can prepare for it, and hope to win it. Defending a home is easier than conquering the other side of the world, after all. So we might succeed! Certainly we must try, for all the generations that come after us!'

Another long inhalation on the pipe.

'Therefore, guns! Guns big and small! Gunpowder. Sawmills. Horses. With these things alone, we could do it. And messages on birchbark. A particular mark for each sound in the languages. Make the mark, make the sound. Easy. So talk like this can go on all the time, at great distances in space and time, between speakers and listeners. These things are being done all over the other side of the world. Listen, your island is isolated from the other by such great seas, that you have been as on another world, all the ages since the Great Spirit made people. But now the others are coming here! To resist them you have only your understanding, your spirit, your courage, and the arrangement of your nation, like the warp and weft of your baskets, so much stronger than any mere gathering of reeds. Stronger than guns!'

Suddenly he looked up and shouted it to the eastern stars. 'Stronger than guns!' To the western stars: 'Stronger than guns!' To the northern stars: 'Stronger than guns!' To the southern stars: 'Stronger than guns!'

Many cried out with him.

He waited for silence again.

'Each new chief is allowed to ask the council of sachems, gathered to honour his raising up, consideration of some point of policy. I now ask the sachems to look at the matter of the foreigners on the cast coast, and at opposing them, by harnessing river power, and making guns, and pursuing a general campaign against them. I ask the sachems to pursue our own power over our affairs.'

He put his hands together and bowed.

The sachems stood.

Keeper said, 'That is more than one proposal. But we will take the first one into consideration, and that will cover the rest.'

The sachems gathered in small bunches and began to confer, Pounds the Rock talking fast as always, making a case for Fromwest, Iagogeh could tell.

All of them are required to be of one mind in decisions like this. The sachems of each nation divide into classes of two or three men each, and these talk in low voices to each other, very concentrated on each other. When they decide the view their class will take, one of them joins representatives from the other classes in their nation four for the Doorkeepers and the Swampers. These also confer for a while, while the sachems finished with their work consult with the pipe. Soon one sachem from each nation expresses that view to the other eight, and they see where they stand.

On this night, the conference of the eight representatives went on for a long time, so long that people began to look at them curiously. A few years before, when conferring over how to deal with the foreigners on the east coast, they had not been able to come to a unanimous view, and nothing then had been done. By accident or design, Fromwest had brought up again one of the most important and unresolved problems of their time.

Now it was somewhat similar. Keeper called a halt to the conference, and announced to the people, 'The sachems will meet again in the morning. The matter before them is too large to conclude tonight, and we don't want to delay the dancing any longer.'

This met with general approval. Fromwest bowed deeply to the sachems, and joined the first knot of dancers, who led with the turtleshell rattles. He took a rattle and shook it vigorously side to side, as oddly as he had swung his lacrosse bat. There was a fluid quality to his moves, very unlike the Hodenosaunee warriors' dancing, which looked something like attacks with tomahawks, extremely agile and energetic, leaping up into the air over and over, singing all the while. A sheen of sweat quickly covered their bodies, and their singing was punctuated by hard sucks for air. Fromwest regarded these gyrations with an admiring grin, shaking his head to indicate how beyond his abilities these dancers were; and the crowd, pleased that there was something he was not good at, laughed and joined in the dance. Fromwest shuffled to the back, dancing with the women, like the women, and the string of dancers went around the fire, around the lacrosse field, and back to the fire. Fromwest stepped out of the snake, and took ground tobacco leaves from his pouch and placed a small amount on the tongue of each passer by, including Iagogeh and all the dancing women, whose graceful shuffling would long outlast the leaping warriors. 'Shaman's tobacco,' he explained to each person. 'Shaman gift, for dancing.' It had a bitter taste, and many drank some maple water afterwards to dispel it. The young men and women continued dancing, their limbs blurring in the bonfire's light, more robust and burnished than before. The rest of the crowd, younger or older, danced slightly in place as they wandered, talking over the events of the day. Many gathered around those who were inspecting Fromwest's lacrosse ball map of the world, which seemed to glow in the firelit night as if burning a little at its heart.

'Fromwest,' Iagogeh said after a while, 'what was in that shaman tobacco?'

Fromwest said, 'I lived with a nation to the west who gave it to me. Tonight of all nights the Hodenosaunee need to take a vision quest together. A spirit voyage, as it always is. This time all out of the long house together.'

He took up a flute given to him, and put his fingers carefully on the stops, then played a sequence of notes, then a scale. 'Ha!' he said, and looked closely at it. 'Our holes are set in different places! I'll try anyway.'

He played a song so piercing they were all dancing on the sound of it together, like birds. Fromwest winced as he played, until at last his face grew peaceful, and he played reconciled to the new scale.

When he was done he looked again at the flute. 'That was "Sakura",' he said. 'The holes for "Sakura", but it came out something else. No doubt everything I say to you comes out changed in a similar fashion. And your children will take what you do and change it yet again. So it will not matter much what I say tonight, or you do tomorrow.'

One of the girls danced by holding an egg painted red, one of their toys, and Fromwest stared after her, startled by something. He looked around, and they saw that the cut on his head had started to bleed again. His eyes rolled, and he slumped as if struck, and dropped the flute. He shouted something in another language. The crowd grew quiet, and those nearest him sat on the ground.

'This has happened before,' he declared in a stranger's voice, slow and grinding. 'Oh yes – now it all comes back!' A faint cry, or moan. 'Not this night, repeated exactly, but a previous visit. Listen we live many lives. We die and then come back in another life, until we have lived well enough to be done. Once before I was a warrior from Nippon – no – from China! ' He paused, thinking that over. 'Yes. Chinese. And it was my brother, Peng. He crossed Turtle Island, rock by rock, sleeping in logs, fighting a bear in her den, all the way here to the top, to this very encampment, this council house, this lake. He told me about it after we died.' He howled briefly, looked around as if searching for something, then ran off to the bone house.

Here the bones of the ancestors are stored after the individual burials have exposed them long enough to the birds and gods to have cleansed them white. They are stacked neatly in the bone house under the hill, and it is not a place people visit during dances, and rarely ever.

But shamans are notoriously bold in these matters, and the crowd watched the bone house needling light through the chinks in its bark walls, sparking as Fromwest moved his torch here and there. A huge groaning shout from him, rising to a scream, 'Ahhhhhhhhhhhh!' and he emerged holding his torch up to illuminate a white skull, which he was jabbering at in his language.

He stopped by the fire and held up the skull to them. 'You see it's my brother! It's me!' He moved the broken skull beside his face, and it looked out at them from its empty eye sockets, and indeed it seemed a good match for his head. This caused everyone to stop still and listen to him again.

'I left our ship on the west coast, and wandered inland with a girl.

East always, to the rising sun. I arrived here just as you were meeting in council like this, to decide on the laws you live by now. The five nations had quarrelled, and then been called together by Daganoweda for a council to decide how to end the fighting in these fair valleys.'

This was true; this was the story of how the Hodenosaunee had begun.

I Daganoweda, I saw him do it! He called them together and proposed a league of nations, ruled by sachems, and by the tribes cutting across the nations, and by the old women. And all the nations agreed to it, and your league of peace was born in that meeting, in the first year, and has stayed as designed by the first council. No doubt many of you were there too, in your previous lives, or perhaps you were on the other side of the world, witnessing the monastery that I grew up in being built. Strange the ways of rebirth. Strange the ways. I was here to protect your nations from the diseases we were certain to bring. I did not bring you your marvellous government, Daganoweda did that with all the rest of you together, I knew nothing of that. But I taught you about scabbing. He brought the scabs, and taught you to make a shallow scratch and put some scab in the cut, and save some of the scab that formed, and to go through the smallpox rituals, the diet and the prayers to the smallpox god. Oh that we can heal ourselves on this Earth! And thus in the sky.'

He turned the skull to him and looked inside it. 'He did this and no one knew,' he said. 'No one knew who he was, no one remembers this act of mine, no record of it exists, except in my mind, intermittently, and in the existence of all the people here who would have died if I had not done it. This is what the human story is, not the emperors and the generals and their wars, but the nameless actions of people who are never written down, the good they do for others passed on like a blessing, just doing for strangers what your mother did for you, or not doing what she always spoke against. And all that carries forward and makes us what we are.'

The next part of his address was in his own language, and went on for some time. Everyone watched attentively as he spoke to the skull in his hand, and caressed it. The sight held all in its spell, and when he stopped to listen so raptly to the skull speaking back to him, they seemed to hear it too, more words in his own birdlike speech. Back and forth they spoke, and briefly Fromwest wept. It was a shock when he turned to speak to them again, in his weird Senecan: 'The past reproaches us! So many lives. Slowly we change, oh so slowly. You think it doesn't happen, but it does. You ' using the skull to point at Keeper of the Wampum – 'you could never have become sachem when I knew you last, 0 my brother. You were too angry, but now you are not. And you '

Pointing the skull at Iagogeh, who felt her heart skip within her 'You would never have known before what to do with your great power, 0 my sister. You would never have been able to teach Keeper so much.

'We grow together, as the Buddha told us would happen. Only now can we understand and take on our burden. You have the finest government on this Earth, no one else has understood that all are noble, all are part of the One Mind. But this is a burden too, do you see? You have to carry it – all the unborn lives to come depend on you! Without you the world would become a nightmare. The judgment of the ancestors' swinging the skull around like a pipe to be smoked, gesturing wildly at the bone house. His head wound was bleeding freely now and he was weeping, sobbing, the crowd watching him open mouthed, travelling out now with him into the sacred space of the shaman.

'All the nations on this island are your will be brothers, your will be sisters. This is how you should greet them. Hello, will be brother! How fare you? They will recognize your soul as theirs. They will join you as their elder brother, showing them the way forward. Struggle between brothers and sisters will cease, and the league of the Hodenosaunee will be joined by nation after nation, tribe after tribe. When the foreigners arrive in their canoes to take your land, you can face them as one, resist their attacks, take from them what is useful and reject what is harmful, and stand up to them as equals on this Earth. I see now what will happen in the time to come, I see it! I see it! I see it! I see it! The people I will become dream now and speak back to me, through me, they tell me all the world's people will stand before the Hodenosaunee in wonder at the justice of its government. The story will move from long house to long house, to everywhere people are enslaved by their rulers, they will speak to each other of the Hodenosaunee, and of a way things could be, all things shared, all people given the right to be a part of the running of things, no slaves and no emperors, no conquest and no submission, people like birds in the sky. Like eagles in the sky! Oh bring it, oh come the day, oh oooooooooooohhhhhhh…'

Fromwest paused then, sucking in air. Iagogeh approached him and tied a cloth around his head, to staunch the bleeding from his wound. He reeked of sweat and blood. He stared right through her, then looked up at the night sky and said 'Ah,' as if the stars were birds, or the twinkling of unborn souls. He stared at the skull as if wondering how it got there in his hand. He gave it to Iagogeh, and she took it. He stepped towards the young warriors, sang feebly the first part of one of the dance songs. This released the men from the spell cast over them, and they leapt to their feet, and the drumming and rattling picked up again. Quickly the dancers surrounded the fire.

Fromwest took the skull back from Iagogeh. She felt as if she was giving him his head. He walked slowly back to the bone house, weaving like a drunk, looking smaller with every weary step. He went inside without a torch. When he came out his hands were free, and he took a flute given him, and returned to the edge of the dance. There he swayed feebly in place and played with the other musicians, tootling rhythmically with no particular melody. Iagogeh shuffled in the dance, and when she passed him she pulled him back into the line, and he followed her.

'That was good,' she said. 'That was a good story you told.'

'Was it?' he said. 'I don't remember.'

She was not surprised. 'You were gone. Another Fromwest spoke through you. It was a good story.'

'Did the sachems think so?'

'We'll tell them to think so.'

She led him through the crowd, testing the look of him against one maid or another who had occurred to her as possibilities. He did not react to any of these pairings, but only danced and breathed through his flute, looking down or into the fire. He appeared drained and small, and after more dancing Iagogeh led him away from the fire. He sat down crosslegged, playing the flute with his eyes closed, adding wild trills to the music.

In the time before dawn the fire crumbled to a great mound of grey coals, glowing orangely here and there. Many people had gone into the Onondagas long house to sleep, and many others were curled like dogs in their blankets on the grass under the trees. Those still awake sat in circles by the fire, singing songs or telling stories while they waited for dawn, tossing a branch on the fire to watch it catch and blaze.

Iagogeh wandered the lacrosse field, tired but buzzing in her limbs from the dance and the tobacco. She looked for Fro mwest, but he was not to be found, in long house, on meadow, in the forest, in the bone house. She found herself wondering if the whole marvellous visitation had been only a dream they had shared.

The sky to the east was turning grey. Iagogeh went down to the lakeshore, to the women's area, beyond a small forested spit of land, thinking to wash before anyone else was around. She took off her clothes, all but her shift, and walked out into the lake until she was thigh deep, then washed herself.

Across the lake she saw a disturbance. A black head in the water, like a beaver. It was Fromwest, she decided, swimming like a beaver or an otter in the lake. Perhaps he had become an animal again. His head was preceded by a series of ripples in the water. He breathed like a bear.

She had been still for some time, and when he put his feet on the bottom, down by the spit where it was muddy, she turned and stood facing him. He saw her and froze. He was wearing only his waist belt, as in the game. He put his hands together, bowed deeply. She sloshed slowly towards him, off the sand bottom and onto soft mud.

'Come,' she said quietly. 'I have chosen for you.'

He regarded her calmly. He looked much older than he had the day before. 'Thank you,' he said, and added something from his tongue. A name, she thought. Her name.

They walked onshore. Her foot hit a snag and she put a hand on his offered forearm, decorously, to balance herself. On the bank she dried herself with her fingers and dressed, while he retrieved his clothes and did likewise. Side by side they walked back to the fire, past the humming dawn watchers, through the knots of sleeping bodies. Iagogeh stopped before one. Tecarnos, a young woman, not a girl, but unmarried. Sharptongued and funny, intelligent and full of spirit. In sleep she did not reveal much of this, but one leg was stretched out gracefully, and under her blanket she looked strong.

'Tecarnos,' Iagogeh said softly. 'My daughter. Daughter of my eldest sister. Wolf tribe. A good woman. People rely on her.'

Fromwest nodded, hands again pressed together before him, watching her. 'I thank you.'

'I'll talk to the other women about it. We'll tell Tecarnos, and the men.'

He smiled, looked around him as if seeing through everything. The wound on his forehead looked raw and was still seeping watery blood. The sun blinked through the trees to the cast, and the singing back by the fires was louder.

She said, 'You two will bring more good souls into the world.'

'We can hope.'

She put her hand on his arm, as she had when they emerged from the lake. 'Anything can happen. But we ' meaning the two of them, or the women, or the Hodenosaunee – 'we will make the best chance we can. That's all you can do.'

'I know.' He looked at her hand on his arm, at the sun in the trees. 'Maybe it will be all right.'

Iagogeh, the teller of this tale, saw all these things herself.

Thus it was that many years later, when the jati had again convened in the bardo, after years of work fighting off the foreigners living at the mouth of the East River, fighting to hold together their peoples in the face of all the devastating new diseases that struck them, making alliances with Fromwest's people embattled in like fashion on the west coast of their island, doing all they could to knit together the nations and to enjoy life in the forest with their kin and their tribes, Fromwest approached Keeper of the Wampum and said to him proudly, 'You have to admit it, I did what you demanded of me, I went out in the world and fought for what was right! And we did some good again!'

Keeper put a hand to the shoulder of his young brother as he approached the great edifice of the bardo's dais of judgment, and said, 'Yes, you performed well, youth. We did what we could.'

But already he was looking ahead at the bardo's enormous towers and battlements, wary and unsatisfied, focused on the tasks ahead. Things in the bardo seemed to have become even more Chinese since their last time there, like all the rest of the realms, perhaps, or perhaps it was just a coincidence having to do with their angle of approach, but the great wall of the dai's was broken up into scores of levels, leading into hundreds of chambers, so that it looked somewhat like the side of a beehive.

The bureaucrat god at the entryway to this warren, one Biancheng by name, handed out guidebooks to the process facing them above, thick tomes all entitled 'The Jade Record', each hundreds of pages long, filled with detailed instructions, and with descriptions, illustrated copiously, of the various punishments they could expect to suffer for the crimes and effronteries they had committed in their most recent lives.

Keeper took one of these thick books and without hesitation swung it like a tomahawk, knocking Biancheng over his paper laden desk. Keeper looked around at the long lines of souls waiting their turn to be judged, and saw them staring at him amazed, and he shouted at them, 'Riot! Revolt! Rebel! Revolution!' and without waiting to see what they did, led his little jati into a chamber of mirrors, the first room on their passage through the process of judgment, where souls were to look at themselves and see what they really were.

'A good idea,' Keeper admitted, after stopping in the middle and staring at himself, seeing what no one else could see. 'I am a monster,' he announced. 'My apologies to you all. And especially to you, Iagogeh, for putting up with me this last time, and all the previous times. And to you, youth,' nodding at Busho. 'But nevertheless, we have work to do. I intend to tear this whole place down.' And he began looking around the room for something to throw at the mirrors.

'Wait,' Iagogeh said. She was reading her copy of 'The Jade Record', skimming pages rapidly. 'Frontal assaults are ineffective, as I recall. I'm remembering things. We have to go at the system itself. We need a technical solution… Here. Here's just the thing: just before we're sent back into the world, the Goddess Meng administers to us a vial of forgetting.'

'I don't remember that,' Keeper said.

'That's the point. We go into each life ignorant of our pasts, and so we struggle on each time without learning anything from the times before. We have to avoid that if we can. So listen, and remember: when you are in the hundred and eight rooms of this Meng, don't drink anything! If they force you to, then only pretend to drink it, and spit it out when you are released.' She read on. 'We emerge in the Final River, a river of blood, between this realm and the world. If we can get there with our minds intact, then we might be able to act more effectively.'

'Fine,' Keeper said. 'But I intend to destroy this place itself.'

'Remember what happened last time you tried that,' Busho warned him, getting into the corner of the chamber so he could see the reflection of the reflections. Some things were coming back to him as Iagogeh had spoken. 'When you took a sword to the goddess of death, and she redoubled on you with each stroke.'

Keeper frowned, trying to recall. Outside there was a roaring, shouts, sounds of gunfire, boots running. Irritated, distracted, he said, 'You can't be cautious at times like this, you have to fight evil whenever the chance comes.'

'True, but cleverly. Little steps.'

Keeper regarded him sceptically. He held his thumb and forefinger together in the air. 'That small?' He grabbed up Iagogeh's book and threw it at one wall of the mirrors. One of them cracked, and a shriek came from behind the wall.