Ho Bian first suspected there was disorder in the heavens on the day that he was unable to rise to the occasion for his favorite concubine, Li Ma. He had swallowed his potency elixir beforehand as usual, but at the moment of truth he wilted like a lotus in the midsummer heat.
“Is the little master too tired today?” cooed Li Ma, tickling him with her breath.
Humiliated, Ho Bian tucked the little master back into the folds of his robe. “How can I be expected to rouse myself, when you have grown as fat as a suckling pig!” he blustered.
Li Ma turned white and fled the room. Ho felt a twinge of guilt, but at least he could now contemplate his problem in peace.
At forty-seven years old, Ho was at the height of his powers. He could ride the winds, speak to fishes, and read the stars. Nevertheless, he had to admit that his stamina was not what it used to be. But his elixir—filtered starlight mixed with powdered deer antler—had always helped him overcome his difficulties. Until today.
Perhaps the problem lay with his surroundings. Ho tried repositioning himself around the room, and even ordered the pebble garden cleared so that he could experiment there, but despite his vigorous exertions he remained defiantly limp. Things were more serious than he had first thought. Either his antler supplier was cheating him, or the starlight had lost its efficacy.
He was lying on the gravel, letting the energy flow through him and gently coaxing his little master back to life, when a shadow blocked out the sun.
“I said I was not to be disturbed!” shouted Ho, squinting up at the silhouette.
“The Emperor has summoned you, astrologer,” said a flat voice. It came from an Imperial Messenger, his face brutish beneath his helmet.
The little master shriveled utterly, and Ho’s stomach churned. His weekly appointment with the Emperor was not for four days. There were few reasons why the Emperor would want to see him at short notice, and none of them good.
“Now,” added the messenger pointedly, as if Ho might have been intending to wave the summons off.
Ho stood and bowed. “I shall fly to his side as if with wings of silver,” he said. He waited haughtily, hands clasped atop his paunch, until the messenger left the courtyard. Then he collapsed onto a stone bench. He looked despairingly up at the vast blue sky, but daylight had drawn a veil across its secrets. When he had taken the auguries two nights ago, everything had seemed well. What could have happened?
It was inauspicious. Most inauspicious.
“Make way, make way,” cried Ho’s servant, snapping his fan at anybody who dared linger too close. Ho hid behind his gauze curtains and cursed his attendants to go faster. He hated crossing the city streets, bobbing through that sea of lice-ridden heads. He could never quite shake the fear of being tumbled out of his palanquin by mutinous servants, of watching it vanish into the distance while he was sucked down by the tide of humanity.
But even that might be a preferable fate to whatever the boy Emperor had in store for him.
No, Ho was the Imperial Astrologer now. His position was secure. Certainly secure. What reason would the Emperor have for revoking it? Ho’s predictions were all but infallible.
Nervously, Ho fished in his pocket for a nosegay of cloves and held it to his face, blocking out the stink of the Imperial subjects that surged past his palanquin.
When they arrived at the palace, Ho stepped out onto the bent backs of his servants and then to the ground. It was unthinkable that he approach the Imperial Presence except on foot, but the day was growing hot and Ho cursed the tradition which decreed he must wear his full regalia for the occasion. Everything itched. Everything chafed. Beads of sweat oozed from his back and slid into the crack of his bottom.
Identical mandarins ushered Ho through innumerable chambers. Not the throne room today it seemed; they must be taking him to the Pleasure Gardens. The thought of the garden’s fountains made Ho’s bladder ache. What if the Emperor kept him for an hour or more? It had happened before. What if he pissed himself in the Emperor’s presence? Surely that would be a capital offense.
Then a guard was announcing his arrival, and there was no more time for such thoughts. He was in the Presence.
“Ho,” said the Emperor peevishly, “You killed our falcon.”
Ho flung himself to the luxurious grass and knocked his head three times against the ground. “Oh, Son of Heaven, my heart breaks to think I have displeased you,” he cried, playing for time. Killed a falcon? How? He never even accompanied the Emperor on his hunting trips. Ho risked a peek, trying to gauge the Emperor’s meaning.
The young Emperor was slouched sideways in a silken throne, one leg swinging idly above the ground. He was flanked by two dozen members of the inner court—eunuchs, mandarins, wives and generals, all of whom were staring somberly at Ho while they fanned themselves.
“It was taken yesterday by a golden eagle,” the Emperor continued. “Not only that, but our horse threw a shoe, the deer were scarce, and it rained so heavily in the afternoon that we had to turn back. You told us that it would be a good day for hunting. A lucky day.”
“Your Imperial Majesty... I....”
“You’re old and fat, Ho, you’re losing touch. What good is an astrologer who can’t even predict the rain?”
“No good at all, oh Lord of Ten Thousand Years,” agreed Ho, wishing that he could burrow into the earth and disappear. He could hear tittering from the crowd.
“You should follow the example of August Advisor Chuko Tsin. His magic never fails. He took us in a cloud chariot to see the Rain Dragon, and just last week he grew the Empress Dowager a new set of teeth. She can eat meat again, Ho!”
Ho grimaced into the dirt, then looked up with what he hoped was an expression of abject humility. Chuko Tsin was standing only two places from the Emperor’s side, inclining his head to acknowledge the compliment. August Advisor? More like Ambitious Arselicker. Only thirty years old and already a local prefect. He still had all his hair, too.
“The summer campaigning season is coming up soon, Ho. Next week we expect to hear some useful advice from you. Or perhaps you could serve us better on the front-line. You are dismissed.”
“Thank you, oh Celestial Dragon,” muttered Ho. He levered himself up onto his protesting knees and was bracing himself to stand when, to his horror, the morning’s elixir finally started to take effect.
He did not dare rise, for risk of pointing his turgid shaft at the Presence. Instead, he crawled backwards across the garden, bumping into peacocks and trees, until he had found his way into the antechamber once more.
Back at home, Ho ordered Li Ma to prepare him a bath. He always came at problems best during a good soak. While he sponged his thighs he considered the situation.
His prophecies never failed. Certainly not on matters as simple as predicting the rain. In truth, he had become so familiar with the celestial dance that he rarely bothered to actually consult the stars anymore. Perhaps that was the problem. Tonight he would really listen to the night sky.
After dinner, Ho retreated to his observatory and, for the first time in months, opened his eyes and ears to the harmonious chords of the heavens. He felt the interplay between the Three Enclosures, the Twelve Heavenly Animals, and the Twenty-Eight Mansions. The horn of the Azure Dragon was radiating particularly good luck this week. On the other hand, the Tear of the Black Tortoise of the North was in pain: it had become old, red, and bloated; like an overripe plum. Ho could sympathize.
None of the stars seemed to be acting out of character, yet there was definitely something wrong; Ho felt the tingle of it in his hairy nostrils. He drew out his star charts and compared them to the heavens. And then he saw it, clear as night.
Someone had been taking the stars away.
Oh it was subtle work, no doubt about that. Complacent as Ho had become, it was no wonder he hadn’t noticed. The thief had restricted themselves to picking off faint, lone stars at the edge of the heavenly enclosures, like the wolf nibbling at the fringe of the herd. The shape of the main constellations remained intact. But it was clear that the sky was wounded. There was no obscuring moon that night, but Ho still counted at least a hundred darknesses where there should have been light.
Without unchanging stars, Ho couldn’t divine the future. Without divination, he was of no use to the Emperor. Without the Emperor’s favor....
He thought of the smelly, filthy, crowds outside his walls, and he wailed. He had to be carried back to his bed, where he burrowed into his pillows and rocked himself into a nervous sleep.
By the following night, Ho had recovered his poise. All he had to do was to track down the thief, and then the Emperor’s justice could be brought into play. A tidy end to a messy business. He returned to the observatory with a pot of steaming tea and lay back to watch the heavens.
Shortly after midnight, his vigil bore fruit. A star detached itself from the firmament and began to streak down towards the western horizon. Ho snatched up his celestial sphere and raised it to his eye, rotating its silver rings to record the falling star’s position. It disappeared into the west: beneath the House of the White Tiger.
Back in the warmth of his bedroom, Ho unrolled a silk map of the Middle Kingdom and translated the angles from his sphere. When he was done, he had drawn a long line indicating the direction of the stolen star, stretching west from the capital.
The next morning he surprised his servants by calling for them after breakfast. “We must move!” Ho commanded. “By tomorrow night, I must be at the Summer Palace with all my equipment.”
There was no question of leaving his pig-headed servants unsupervised, so Ho opted to travel by palanquin instead of cloud. The days were hot, and he sweated miserably behind his silks as he was carried south along the dusty roads of the Imperial Province. To pass the time he read crumbling scrolls, ancient astrological treatises that he hadn’t bothered with since he had been a student slaving beneath the cruel gaze of Master Gu’an. In the oldest texts, a troubling phrase appeared without explanation or context. Astromancy. Ho sipped on plum wine and brooded.
There were no manses available at short notice in the Summer Palace, and Ho was forced to camp his entourage in the gardens like some kind of barbarian. He set up a chair in the shade of a mottled cypress tree and waited for night to fall.
Almost as soon as the stars were out, the vandal struck again. A faint star was loosed from the Butcher’s Shop in the Enclosure of the Heavenly Market and tumbled away into the north-west. Once more, Ho recorded the angle of its descent. Back in his tent, he added a second line to his map. The two lines intersected neatly at a prefecture a half day west of the Imperial City.
Ho’s heart sank, although the blow was not unexpected. It was the prefecture run by August Advisor Chuko Tsin.
There was no question of denouncing the August Advisor to the Emperor; Ho’s words would be dismissed as the sons of jealousy. If Ho wanted to secure his position, he would have to act himself.
Ho approached Chuko’s home under cover of darkness. The August Advisor lived in a porcelain tower, seven levels high, from which he could see the full extent of his domain. In the moonlight it shone like ivory, and Ho could see the blue-white glow of lanterns at its apex.
Ho had come prepared, with a cudgel, a silk rope, a vial of poison, a dagger, and an eye-leech stashed about his person. The Auspicious Aura of Concealment would hide him from Chuko’s prying gaze. He would be as a drop in the ocean, a grain in the rice paddy.
“Ho? Ho, is that you?”
Startled by the shout, Ho reverted to his kowtowing instincts and dropped to his stomach, getting a mouthful of dirty grass. When he looked up he saw that Chuko Tsin had stepped into view at the roof of his tower, leaning his folded arms on the parapet.
“Come Ho, you insult my hospitality and disturb my concentration. How can I focus on the problems besetting our kingdom while a member of the Imperial court is crawling around my grounds like a beetle?”
Curse the Auspicious Aura. Mustering his dignity, Ho rose to his feet and brushed soil from his robes. “Chuko, I am glad I found you at home. I must speak with you, urgently.”
“Certainly. Come and join me.” Dark smoke leaked from Chuko’s fingers and sank to the ground beside the tower, where it took on the form of a black lion.
Was it a test? A trick? Ho stepped gingerly towards the lion, hand outstretched in front of him making what he hoped were soothing petting motions. When he reached it, the gaseous creature ducked its head invitingly, and he managed to get one leg across its broad back. Then the lion sprang into the air and they were flying up past porcelain bricks and paper windows.
The mystical lion vanished just as Ho was fumbling for the parapet, so for a horrifying moment he felt himself plunging earthward again. He caught himself on the lip of the porcelain and hung wheezingly, too terrified to scream.
Chuko closed his hand around Ho’s wrist and hauled him up to the roof. “Ho, you must be swifter!” said the August Advisor with a chuckle. Ho, stumbling to his feet, saw that Chuko had been sitting at a low wooden table laid out for tea. A dish of mercury reflected the thousand stars above.
“I was not expecting company, but I can accommodate you,” said Chuko, waving his hand. A second seat appeared, and a fresh cup. Not knowing what else to do, Ho sat down.
Up close, Chuko’s guilt was unmistakable. The glow which Ho had mistaken for lantern-light was actually emanating from the August Advisor himself. Chuko’s teeth and fingernails shone with a faint blue aura, and his eyes twinkled with stolen starlight. Every time he blinked, the shadows on the rooftop flickered.
“Were you planning a magical duel then?” asked Chuko, taking the seat opposite Ho.
“Perhaps,” said Ho, guardedly. In truth, he had hoped to bring the cudgel down atop Chuko’s head while he slept.
“It would be a shame for us to be enemies,” said Chuko. “It is a rare pleasure to speak to a colleague who understands the value of the heavens.” His hands shook as he poured Ho a cup of tea. A drop splashed onto the side of the cup, but Chuko pretended not to notice, so Ho could not acknowledge it either. Sloppiness. Chuko had always been a meticulous man; clearly his newfound power was taking its toll.
“Does the Emperor know about the source of your magic, Chuko?” asked Ho, indicating the night sky above them.
“So, my appetites are discovered! You always were a perceptive man, Ho.” Chuko held his fingers out over the star-dotted reflection in the mercury. He seemed to deliberate a moment, then, to Ho’s astonishment, he darted his thumb and forefinger into the silvery liquid and plucked out a shining white orb. When Ho looked up at the sky, he saw that the Crown Prince star had vanished from its place of pride in the Supreme Palace enclosure.
The lonely star smelled like the air during a lightning storm. Chuko waved it beneath his nostrils like a gourmet and continued, “the Emperor is a young fool, who wouldn’t notice if the moon itself vanished as long as he had his concubines and falcons around him. It is up to scholars like us, Ho, to make the hard choices of statecraft. Come, taste it. There are plenty more where that came from.”
Ho blanched at Chuko’s casual blasphemy. To accept the gift would be obscene, but perhaps it might give him some insight into the August Advisor’s madness. He grimaced, then dropped the little orb onto his tongue.
For a moment there was nothing but a tingling numbness, and then his tongue burned as if he had coated it in flower peppers. Tears poured down his cheeks; his teeth seemed to spark and sing. Blearily, he could see Chuko laughing and slapping his thigh. Ho’s blood started to throb with power; he felt twenty years old again.
It was too much. Ho spat out the half-chewed fragments across the tablecloth where they lay like dying fireflies. Quick as a flash, Chuko scooped them up and raised them to his own lips, slurping them like noodles.
“I’m not mad, Ho,” he said, after he had swallowed. “I regret having to diminish the glory of the night sky. But think about what I am achieving! I am freeing us from the shackles of heavenly fate. How is it fair that one man’s stars promise him undeserving greatness, while another’s constrain him to a life of drudgery? How is it fair that scholars such as ourselves are forced to bow and scrape before a wet-minded boy?”
“And what happens when you have eaten all the stars?”
“You needn’t worry about that, Ho. I will stop as soon as I bring harmony to the four quarters.”
The astromancer’s wild grin put the lie to his words. Ho had seen the same look in the eyes of the opium smokers who floated through the Imperial court. Chuko would keep going until he’d eaten the sun and the moon and the planets as well. Though the sun might give him some indigestion. The thought sparked a desperate idea in Ho’s mind.
“I will not seek to pass judgment on your revolutionary ideals, August Advisor,” he said. “But I must warn you, I have seen disaster in your future. The Black Tortoise’s Tear has told me that your plan is doomed to fail.”
“The Black Tortoise? The Black Tortoise! We don’t need to be ruled by the Black Tortoise any more, nor the Azure Dragon, the White Tiger or the Vermillion Bird. Such fickle and arbitrary institutions have no right to command our destinies!”
Chuko dramatically plunged his arm forward and clasped the crimson reflection of the Black Tortoise’s Tear. He yanked it out of the mercury with a sound like tearing silk and, with a wiggle of his eyebrows at Ho, popped it into his mouth.
Ho felt a great sorrow. He had always been fond of the House of the Black Tortoise. He wondered if it would be happier now that it had lost its tear.
“Urgh,” said Chuko, pulling a face. “This star is past its best.”
Long years of training had attuned Ho to the moods of the heavens, and he could sense the swollen star’s panic as it slid down Chuko’s throat. It had been teetering on the edge of eruption already, and with the shock of its change in station....
Chuko widened his eyes, and his stomach gave an almighty rumble.
Ho ran for the edge of the tower, fingers tracing the symbols for the Celestial Cloud Chariot. There was no time to see if it had worked. He flung himself into the darkness.
The cloud formed around him as he fell, cushioning him in its pillowy embrace. Ho guided it east and turned his head to look back at the porcelain tower.
In the starlight he could see Chuko dancing grotesquely atop his tower, clutching his hands to his throat. Then, with a belch, the astromancer popped like a firework.
The shock of the blast sent Ho’s cloud tumbling across the horizon and lit the countryside with the brightness of day. Ho was knocked from his perch and would certainly have fallen to his death if he had not, auspiciously, landed in the middle of a still and deep pool.
Ho sat at his desk in the afternoon light, adding spidery brushstrokes to his horoscope. As he worked, the fingers of his left hand sifted through a bowl of peeled lychees, occasionally bringing one to his lips.
With all the damage that Chuko had inflicted on the heavens, the old charts were obsolete. Ho was having to recalculate all his auguries again from nothing—it was the most interesting work he’d had in twenty years.
A gust of perfume filled the room and Ho raised his head to see Li Ma bowing at the doorway. “You sent for me, Master Ho?” she asked, artfully smoothing the green silk of her gown along the curve of her waist.
“August Advisor Ho,” he corrected modestly, indicating the new Imperial decree on the wall. “Take up the position of the docile rhinoceros, and I will be with you shortly.”
Ho put the final touches to his horoscope and laid down his brush. The auguries were good—water was flourishing, wood ascendant. His four pillars suggested riches and honor. He nodded with satisfaction.
“I’m ready, my August sage,” called Li Ma. Ho unbottled his newly brewed elixir and let seven drops fall onto his tongue. When he turned to see Li Ma poised on the pillows, he could feel his star rising.