Today is the release date for River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay — a historical fantasy epic that people are calling "ambitious" and "an exceptional piece of work." And here's a brand new exclusive excerpt, which takes us deep inside the realm of Kitai, which we first discovered in Kay's Under Heaven.
Kay himself sets it up for us:
This passage, from early in the book, is a first introduction to the imperial court of 12th Dynasty Kitai, inspired by the Song Dynasty of China. In three preceding chapters we've encountered characters far from this courtly space, but here we are at the very center of the empire. The imperial garden - as will appear - is more than just sumptuous, it is a symbol, a 'mirror of the world' and it is also a refuge for an emperor who is far more engaged with it than with his tasks at court. I was also interested in how isolated an emperor could be, cut off from knowledge of huge events in the wider world. The excerpt here stops, by the way, before any important plots twists are revealed. It sets a stage, introduces a character and a worldview...
And here's the excerpt!
THE EMPEROR OF KITAI was walking in his garden.
It pleased him to do this on any day that was fair, and this one was, a mild morning in autumn, approaching the Ninth of Ninth Festival. The emperor knew there were some among his court who felt he should never walk out of doors. He found them deficient in proper understanding. How could one appreciate, and amend, the paths and byways and the vistas of a garden if one did not walk them oneself?
Although, to call where he strolled a “garden” was to stretch the word almost out of recognition. The enclosed space here was so extravagant, yet so cunningly landscaped, that it was impossible, unless one went right to the walled edges, to know where it ended.
Even at the margins, trees had been densely planted to obscure where the Hanjin city wall began. The palace guard patrolled outside, where the garden’s gates led into the city, or to the palace and its courtyards to the west. You couldn’t see them from within the Genyue.
It was a world he was making here. Hills and lakes shaped to careful design (and then reshaped, whatever the cost, after consulting geomancers). Spiralling paths up mountains that had been raised for him, with waterfalls that could be activated at his desire. There were gazebos and pavilions hidden deep in groves for summer coolness, or situated where sunlight might fall on an autumn or spring day. Each of these was provided with the tools of painting or writing. The emperor might be moved to take up his brush at any moment.
There was also a new magnificence, a central, defining object now in the Genyue. A rock so wide and high (the height of fifteen tall soldiers!), so magnificently pitted and scarred (it had been brought up from a lake, the emperor understood, he had no idea how) that it could truly be said to constitute an image of one of the Five Holy Mountains. A young sub-prefect posted nearby had learned of it—and made his fortune by alerting the administrators of the Flowers and Rocks Network.
It had taken, apparently, a year to claim it from the depths and bring it to Hanjin, overland and then along the Great River and canal. The emperor imagined there must have been some degree of labour and expense involved with something so massive. He didn’t attend to such details, of course.
He had been very attentive as to where the colossal mountainrock was situated once it arrived. There had been, he understood, some unfortunate deaths in the Genyue itself during the process of moving it into the precisely proper spot. He had first wanted it to surmount and emerge from a hill (a hill they’d made), for greatest effect, but then it had to be shifted after consultation with his geomancers of the Arcane Path and learning their calculations as to auspices.
He probably ought to have consulted them before the first positioning. Ah, well. Decisions in the garden were so complex. He was trying to mirror Kitai, after all, provide a spiritual centre for his realm, ground it securely in the goodwill of heaven. That was part of an emperor’s duty to his people, after all.
But now . . . now it was where he needed it. He sat in one of his pavilions, this one mostly of ivory, with green jade inlays, and he looked up at his mighty rock with a glad heart.
The Emperor Wenzong was famously compassionate: word of those labourers’ deaths—right here in his garden—had grieved him. He wasn’t supposed to have learned about them, he knew. His advisers were zealous in protecting him from sorrows that might burden the too-generous imperial heart. The Genyue was meant to be a place of calm for him, a refuge from the cares the world brought to those burdened with responsibility.
In his famed calligraphy style, Slender Gold, the emperor had recently devised a clever way of shaping the thirteen brush strokes of the word garden to suggest something beyond what was ordinarily meant, when referring to his own garden.
It was a measure of imperial subtlety, one of his closest advisers had said, that the august emperor had done this, instead of devising or demanding an entirely new word for what was being built here under his wise and benevolent eye.
Kai Zhen, the deputy prime minister, was quite astute in his observations, Emperor Wenzong felt. It had been Minister Kai, of course, along with the eunuch Wu Tong (most recently commanding the Pacification Army against the Kislik in the northwest) who had devised the Flowers and Rocks Network which had allowed the shaping of this garden. The emperor was not a man to forget such loyalty.
There were even nightingales here, you heard them in the evenings. Some had, sadly, died last winter. They were going to try to keep them alive, indoors, this winter, and Minister Kai had assured him that more were on their way even now from warmer climes to grace his groves with their music of the south.
A fine phrase, the emperor had thought.
Prime Minister Hang Dejin, his childhood tutor, his father’s and his own long-time adviser, was growing old. A melancholy, autumnal reflection. Another sorrow for the imperial heart. But it was also the way of life under heaven, as the Cho Master had taught them all. What man could avoid his end?
Well, there were ways to try. The emperor was following in another imperial tradition, taking a sequence of elixirs prepared for him each day by his occult masters of the Arcane Path. Kai Zhen had frequently and eloquently expressed his hope that these might prove efficacious.
There had also been sessions by candlelight wherein the leader of these same clerics (Kai Zhen had introduced him to the palace) invoked the spirit of Wenzong’s revered father to pronounce his approval of measures being undertaken for the governance of the realm, including the Genyue and the new music being devised for the performance of imperial rites.
Tuning the ritual instruments in a manner derived from the measured lengths of the middle, ring, and little fingers of the emperor’s left hand had been, the spirit of his father declared, a celestially harmonious idea.
Emperor Wenzong had taken this deeply to heart. He remembered being near to tears that night.
His own talents were not, truthfully, those of a man inclined to weigh matters of taxation and village administration, whether the army was made up of hired soldiers or a rural militia, how leaders were chosen in the countryside, or loans arranged for farmers—and repayment enforced.
He did pay attention to the examination questions for jinshi candidates, had even devised some of these himself. And he enjoyed presiding over the final testing days in his yellow robes of ceremony.
He’d been a painter and a calligrapher, from early in life. Noted for both, exalted for both, well before he’d taken the throne. He knew what he was, hadn’t ever pretended to be otherwise. He had wanted the Dragon Throne because it was there, and properly his, but his passions lay in another realm.
He had certainly done his duty as emperor. He’d fathered sons (many of them) and had them taught the ways of the Path and the Cho Master. He satisfied the imperial women, one each morning, two at night, according to the sequence presented to him by the Inner Quarters Registrar, dutifully denying himself a climax except (upon being advised) with the most innocent and youthful of his women. In this way, according to his arcane advisers, the female essence of his wives and concubines would bolster his essence, not drain it away.
This, too, was a burden and responsibility. His strength was the strength of Kitai. His virtue was the virtue of an empire.
He performed all the imperial rites, faithfully. He’d returned to his father’s course of governance, after the unfortunate period when his mother ruled. Because it had been his father’s dream (as explained to him), he’d initiated war against the ungrateful Kislik in the northwest—and he did ask about it now and again. But it was important for an emperor to have trustworthy and diligent advisers so the imperial spirit could be allowed to flower and flourish . . . in the great garden of the world under nine heavens. Beyond all his duties, the emperor’s wellbeing, the soaring of his spirit, affected the well-being, the spirit of all Kitai.
Kai Zhen had put it that way just a few days ago in this very pavilion, which was Wenzong’s favourite now, with its view of the new rock-mountain.
The emperor intended to make Minister Kai a gift: a small painting he’d made here, a springtime landscape with flowering bamboo, an oriole, blue hills. Th e deputy prime minister had admired it, eloquently.
The emperor’s paintings were the most desired gift in Kitai.
It was a great shame, they had agreed, looking at it together, that Prime Minister Hang would not be able to see the details clearly any more. He was suffering the afflictions of age, Kai Zhen had suggested, in much the way autumn and winter succeed a brilliant spring. A garden like the Genyue could teach lessons like that.
This garden was—everyone said it—the heart-stopping wonder of the world. It was a mirror of Kitai in miniature, which was its purpose. Just as the emperor’s well-being and right behaviour were integral to preserving the mandate of heaven, so, too, it had been decided by his advisers, would an imperial garden designed to encompass the scope and balance of Kitai act to preserve that scope and balance.
It made so much sense.
His passion for this stupendous accomplishment wasn’t an affectation, an avoiding of tasks and cares. No. His labours here, his personal instructions to landscapers and architects, were at the heart—the very heart—of his duty to his people!
So the emperor of Kitai thought, sitting in an autumn pavilion in the sunlight of morning, with a view of his new mountain. He was contemplating making a painting, at ease in heart and mind, when he heard a strange sound from along the path where a gardener had moved out of sight sweeping leaves. The emperor looked at his guards. They stared straight ahead, expressionless. He heard the sound again.
The gardener was, if the emperor was not mistaken, crying.