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Fiction: Jade City (Extract) by Fonda Lee

Dragon-jade-from-BM

Even in the shade, sweat trickled down the backs and faces of the year-eight students. Ten of them stood nervously, each behind a short tower of hot bricks. “One more,” said the master, and the assistant year-threes hurried to the fire pit with tongs, carefully but quickly removing bricks from the flames and placing another on top of each of the ten smoldering stacks. One of the waiting year-eights, named Ton, muttered quietly, “Ah, what to choose, pain or failure?”

Jade CityTon had undoubtedly intended the question for his classmates and not meant for it to be overheard, but Master Sain’s senses were sharp. “Considering that if you fail to pass the Trials at the end of the year, you’ll never wear another pebble of jade again in your life, I would venture to say pain,” he answered drily. The schoolmaster glared down the row of hesitating pupils. “Well? Are you hoping for the bricks to cool?”

Emery Anden rubbed the training band around his left wrist, more out of habit than any real need for additional contact with the jade stones studded into the leather. He closed his eyes, trying to grasp and focus the uncommon energy only a small percentage of Kekonese ever learned to manipulate. A choice between pain or failure, indeed, as Ton had put it. Unleashing proper Strength would break the bricks, but exerting Steel would prevent him from being burned by the blistering hot clay. Unless, as this exercise was meant to instruct, a person could do both: use Strength and Steel in conjunction. A truly skilled Green Bone, of the kind Anden and all his classmates desired to be, could call upon any of the six disciplines—Strength, Steel, Perception, Lightness, Deflection, and Channeling—at any time.

Next to Anden, there was a resounding crack and a muffled yelp of pain from Ton. This isn’t as hard as algebra, Anden reassured himself, then slammed the heel of his hand into the center of the top brick. It crumpled into the one underneath it, and that one into the one beneath it, in a cascading wave of force that lasted only a second but that Anden felt clearly like a line of slowly toppling playing cards, the impact shuddering back up in the other direction as well, dispersing into his arm, shoulder, and body. He pulled his hand away at once, snapping eyes open and examining his hands.

“Hold them out,” said Sain, sounding nearly bored. He paced down the row of students, rubbing the back of his pebbly skinned neck with disappointment. “I see some of you will be spending your break time this afternoon visiting the infirmary,” he said, wrinkling his nose at the blistered hands. He kicked an unbroken brick on the ground. “Others will be bruising yourselves in remedial Strength training.” He came to the end of the row, looked down at Anden’s six broken bricks and unburnt hands, and grunted—the closest thing to praise the deputy headmaster ever offered.

Anden kept his eyes humbly on the cracked bricks in front of him. Smiling or relishing personal success would be an uncouth thing to do, and even though Anden had been born on Kekon and never been off it, he was always on guard against giving the impression of being foreign in some way; it was an old and unconscious impulse he’d had all his life.

Sain clapped his hands together. “Put your bands away. I’ll see you next week, when we’ll do this again until you improve or are too crippled to graduate.”

The trainees touched clasped hands to their foreheads, stifling groans and shuffling aside for the year-threes who came forward to clean up the rubble. Anden turned away, unbuckled the training band from his wrist, and stowed it in its case. Then he squatted down, steadied himself against a wall, and squeezed his eyes shut as the crash hit. Higher jade sensitivity meant worse jade withdrawal, even from short exposure. Sometimes it took Anden twice as long as other students to recover, but he was practiced now. He breathed and forced himself to relax through the disorienting sensation of the world being torn out from under his feet, everything going dim and fractured around the edges, before finally righting and settling into a duller normalcy. In under a minute he had it under control and stood back up, shouldering his bag.

“I heard a grunt from Sain over there,” said Ton, submerging his hand in the basin of cool water a pair of the year-threes had dutifully brought over to their seniors. “Nicely done, Emery.” The name came out sounding Kekonese: Em-Ri.

“My bricks were thinner,” Anden replied politely. “How’s your hand?”

Ton winced, wrapping his palm in a towel and holding his arm stiffly across his stomach. He was a scrawny boy, shorter than Anden, but his Strength was excellent. Jade was strange that way; sometimes it was a skinny woman who could bend a metal bar, or a big, heavy man with the Lightness to run up a wall or leap from a roof—more evidence if there needed to be any that the abilities jade unlocked were something other than physical. “I wish medical Channeling worked better on skin wounds,” Ton said, glum. “Had to happen right before Boat Day, too.” He paused, glancing up at Anden. “Hey, keke, a few of us are planning to hit up the bars in the Docks before the ship sinking next week. You want to come, if you don’t have other plans?”

Anden had the distinct feeling he was being invited as an afterthought—that was often the case—but of course he did not have other plans, and he thought that perhaps Lott Jin would be part of the group going, so he said, “Sure, that sounds good.”

“Great,” said Ton, “see you then.” He cradled his burn and started across the field toward the infirmary. Anden began to walk in the opposite direction, toward the dormitories, musing as he went. After more than seven years at the Academy, he’d grown accustomed to existing in a respectable but somewhat lonely social borderland that only he inhabited, one in which he was never actually excluded, but never actively included either. His classmates were all cordial to him (they had to be), and he could count Ton and a few others as real friends, but Anden knew he made many of his peers faintly uncomfortable in more ways than one and didn’t expect complete acceptance.

Pau Noni, one of the other year-eights, jogged up to him from across the field, her face flushed from the humid midday heat. “Anden! You have a visitor waiting for you out front.” She pointed down the path toward the Academy’s entry pavilion.

A visitor? Anden squinted toward the gates, nudging his glasses up the sweaty bridge of his nose. Nearsightedness made it even harder to come off jade and lose one’s sense of Perception. Who might be visiting him? Anden’s schoolbag bounced against his shoulders as he loped across the training field.

The small east field was one of several on the sixty-acre campus. Kaul Dushuron Academy was built on a hill in Widow’s Park. Although the bustling city of Janloon and its suburbs extended on all sides, the Academy’s high walls, and the old elm and camphor trees that shaded the long, single-level buildings, separated the grounds from the metropolis and preserved the feel of a traditional Green Bone training sanctuary. The Academy was Kaul Sen’s legacy, a tribute to his son, but even more profoundly, it was one of the most visible pieces of evidence that Green Bone culture had cemented itself into a central position in Kekonese society. When he stopped to consider it, Anden could appreciate that the Academy was as much a symbol as it was a school.

As he came to the small rock garden behind the main entrance, Anden slowed. A man was sitting on one of the low retaining walls, slouched in a posture of boredom. He wore tailored beige pants and his shirt sleeves were rolled halfway up his forearms; his jacket was draped on the wall next to him. At Anden’s approach, the man rose to his feet with languid grace, and Anden saw that it was Kaul Hilo.

A nervous sensation crept around Anden’s chest.

“You look surprised to see me, cousin,” said Hilo. “You didn’t think I’d forget to come wish you a happy birthday, did you?”

Anden had turned eighteen a few days prior. The day had gone unacknowledged, as personal celebrations were considered gauche and frowned upon by the Academy’s instructors. Anden recovered and touched clasped hands to his forehead in respectful greeting. “No, Kaul-jen, it’s just that I know you’re busy these days. I’m honored you’d pay me a visit.”

“I’m honored, Kaul-jen,” Hilo mimicked, his voice exaggeratedly stiff. The left side of his mouth curled into a teasing smile. “What’s with all the formality, Andy? This place isn’t sanding you flat, is it?” Hilo spread his arms wide. “It didn’t work on me.”

You’re a Kaul. The whole school is named after your father. There was privilege even among jadeless initiates; anyone with a different lineage or less talent would have been expelled for the number of misdemeanors Hilo had accumulated as a trainee. Now he was the Horn of No Peak. Go figure.

Anden tried to relax in his cousin’s presence. Hilo was nine years older but appeared not to have aged at all since graduating, so passersby might have guessed them to be of similar age. “How’s Grandfather?” Anden called Kaul Sen his grandfather, just as he called the younger Kauls his cousins. “How’s Lan-jen?”

“Ah, they’re their usual Pillar-like selves.” Hilo sauntered toward him.

Anden slung the pack off his shoulders, hastily removed his glasses, and stuffed them into a side pocket. They were new frames and he didn’t want—

He barely had time to toss the bag behind him; Hilo grabbed him quick as a monkey snatching fruit, hands closing and rotating like metal vises on Anden’s wrist and elbow. In a single violent twisting movement, he wrenched the younger man toward the ground.

Anden went with the momentum, dropping and sinking his weight to slacken the arm lock; he pulled his cousin close as they staggered together. Hilo kneed him in the side, twice, energetically, and Anden wheezed, folding up, clutching at Hilo’s arms with the limp-limbed sway of a religious supplicant. His forehead bounced off the other man’s shoulder.

The sharp taste of jade energy filled his mouth. Hilo’s jade. Clinched this close, its resonance washed over Anden—humming, throbbing, pulsing with Hilo’s every heartbeat, breath, movement. Blood pounded into Anden’s brain; it wasn’t a true jade rush, but it was something like it. He grasped for it urgently, trying to hang on to the rippling edges of his cousin’s aura, like clinging to steam. When Hilo moved to knee him again, he used the second of imbalance and drove a straight palm strike into Hilo’s sternum with enough Strength to make him let go and stumble back several paces.

Hilo’s smile stayed in place; he danced a couple of steps to the side, then came back at Anden with light-footed menace. Anden braced himself. He couldn’t run from Hilo; that was not an option. No matter how badly he expected to be beaten. Hilo struck him in the body with blindingly fast, playful blows that left Anden reeling and biting back whimpers. Anden smacked the next punch out of the way, shuffled in on an angle, just inside Hilo’s range, and sheared his arm across his cousin’s bicep, driving past his guard and smacking him under the chin with the ridge of his open hand.

Hilo’s head snapped back; he stumbled and coughed. Anden didn’t hesitate—he punched his cousin in the mouth. Hilo said, “Wow.” He spun and buried a solid kick in Anden’s stomach with enough Strength that the younger man was thrown from his feet and landed on his back in the gravel.

Anden groaned. Why are we doing this? He was only a student, prohibited from wearing jade outside of supervised training sessions. Hilo was a powerful Green Bone. The odds were not even remotely even. Of course, that was hardly the point. He scrambled unsteadily back to his feet and kept fighting; he had no choice, not if he wanted to avoid being beaten to a smear.

They’d attracted spectators. A number of nearby younger initiates had migrated over to get a better view of the Academy’s top senior student being knocked around by the Horn of No Peak. Hilo seemed to enjoy the audience, glancing at the students occasionally with tolerant amusement. Anden was suddenly, absurdly concerned that the bystanders who did not know Hilo might assume he was angry or cruel. They might not notice the way he moved with a relaxed air, a friendly attentiveness on his face, as if he and Anden were having a conversation over lunch instead of beating on each other.

Anden took Hilo’s punishment and gave back all he had; he attacked the ribs and kidneys, he bloodied his cousin’s face again, he even stooped to going for the knees and groin. Finally, though, Hilo swept him to the ground and pinned him with a knee between the shoulders, and Anden lay staring sideways at the world and breathing dirt, unable to move, wishing it had been anyone in the family besides Kaul Hilo that had shown up this afternoon.

Hilo rolled off Anden and sat on the ground beside him, legs extended, leaning back on his arms. “Whew,” he said. He lifted the front of his expensive-looking shirt and wiped his face, leaving sweat and blood stains. “Less than a year before you graduate, Andy. I have to take advantage of this time while I can. Lan used to beat the shit out of me when he was jaded and I wasn’t yet, did you know?”

Lan, Anden did not say out loud, thought you were crazy. Lan had told Anden before that Hilo would attack his older brother, insist on fighting him even though Lan was eight years his senior, larger, and jaded. Lan had no choice but to beat him near senseless on more than one occasion.

“Once you have your jade, you’ll get me back. Look at you now. I’m a Green Bone. I’m the fucking Horn of the clan. And you gave me this”—he pointed to his bloody lip—“and this”—he touched a swollen lump on his head—“and this.” He lifted his shirt and showed Anden the dark bruise on his torso. He dropped the shirt back down and grinned so cheerfully it made Anden stare. “I always knew you were something special. You could feel the jade on me, couldn’t you? Could use it, even. You know how rare that is? At your age? Just think what you’ll be like when you get your own green.”

Anden appreciated his cousin’s praise but did not feel nearly so proud of his performance. He hurt. He felt like a mouse that had been batted around by a bored tiger for several hours. He wondered: Was it because he was not full-blooded Kekonese that he didn’t find this remotely as fun as his cousin did? The Kekonese, so the gross ethnic stereotype went, couldn’t say no to any contest of prowess. One could not go to any sizable social gathering without some physical duel breaking out—anything from spitting seeds into cups, to a heated game of relayball, to actual fights. It was customary politeness after such matches (which were usually benign but sometimes deadly serious) for the victor to voice a self-deprecating comment (“The wind was in my favor,” “I had more to eat today”) or to extend some praise that allowed his opponent to save face (“You would be unbeatable with better shoes,” “Lucky for me your arms were sore”), no matter how minor or unlikely the explanation.

So it was possible Hilo was just being polite in his approval. Anden didn’t think that was the case, though. No, this had been Hilo’s way of relating to him, measuring what he was made of, whether he was the sort of person who, outmatched and with no hope of winning, gave in or fought until he was no longer able.

Hilo got to his feet and brushed off his pants. “Take a walk with me.”

Anden wanted to explain that he really ought to go to the infirmary. Instead, he struggled to his feet, picked up his dusty schoolbag, and limped silently along beside his cousin as the man strolled down the rock garden path. Now, apparently, they could talk.

Hilo pulled out two cigarettes and offered one to Anden. He lit Anden’s first, then his own. “You’ll have to start out as a Finger like everyone else; that’s just the way we do it. But if all goes well, you’ll be a Fist in six months. I’ll give you your own territory, your own people.” Their spectators had dispersed. Hilo looked across to the far end of the field where some older students were lining up for training exercises. “You have to pay attention this year and start thinking about which of your classmates you’ll want as your Fingers. Skill is important, but not everything. You want the ones who are loyal and disciplined. Who won’t start shit but won’t take any either.”

The combination of the adrenaline crash and Hilo’s words made Anden’s fingers shake. He took a drag on the cigarette. “Kaul-jen,” he started.

“Godsdamnit, Andy. Do I have to beat you up some more? Stop talking to me like that.” He threw his arm around Anden’s shoulders. Anden flinched, but Hilo pulled him in and gave him a fierce kiss on the cheek. “You’re as much my brother as Lan is. You know that.”

Anden felt a rush of embarrassed warmth. He couldn’t help glancing around to see if anyone had witnessed Hilo’s outburst of affection.

Hilo noticed, and teased, “What, are you worried about them getting the wrong idea? ’Cause they know you like boys?” When Anden stared at him, stunned, Hilo laughed. “I’m not stupid, cousin. Some of the most powerful Green Bones in history were queers. You think it matters to me? Just don’t forget: Soon you’ll have to be careful about who you’re with, who might be eying you for your green.”

Anden sat down heavily on the stone retaining wall. He fished the glasses from the pocket of his bag and tried to wipe some of the sweat-muddied dirt off his face before putting them back on. His cousin’s advice seemed silly; he was not in any romantic relationship and there were times he was resignedly convinced he might never be. He wasn’t inclined to share that sentiment with the Horn, though, and besides, he had more pressing anxieties related to his final year before graduation. “Hilo,” he said slowly, “what if I can’t handle jade after all? What if it’s not in me? I’m only half Kekonese.”

“The half you have is plenty,” Hilo assured him. “Some foreign blood might even make you that much better.”

Jade sensitivity was a tricky thing. Only the Kekonese had the right amount of it to be Green Bones. Anden’s mixed-race parentage made him a borderline case. More sensitive, no doubt, which with the proper training might mean stronger ability—or might mean a lethal propensity to the Itches. “You know my family history,” Anden said quietly.

A group of children carrying buckets and shovels was being led across the field by an instructor. They staggered with fatigue under the hot sun but knew better than to complain. The first two years at the Academy consisted of constant studying and demanding physical labor mingled with consistent, gradual jade exposure; these children wouldn’t even begin studying the six disciplines until they were year-threes. Jade tolerance was built up through rigorous mental and physical conditioning, just like a muscle in the body, but beyond that there was an element of luck and genetics. There was no telling why some Green Bones could naturally carry a heavier load of jade without ever suffering the terrible side effects, while others could not.

Hilo scratched an eyebrow with his thumb, his other hand still on Anden’s shoulder. “Your family history? Your grandda was a war legend; your uncles were famous Fists. They say your mother could Perceive a bird flying overhead and Channel from such a distance that she’d stop its heart in midair.”

Anden stared at the tip of his burning cigarette. That was not what he’d been thinking of. “They called her the Mad Witch.”

One night when he was seven years old, Anden had found his mother sitting naked in the bathtub in the middle of the night. It had happened after a hot day in the middle of summer, he remembered that—one of those scorchers when people iced their bedsheets in the evening and hung wet towels in front of fans. He’d gotten up to pee. The light in the bathroom was on, and when he walked in, he saw her sitting there. Her hair was hanging in limp, wet strands over her face, and her shoulders and cheeks were shiny under the yellow glow. The only thing she was wearing was the three-layered jade choker she never took off. The bath was half full, the water pink with blood. Anden’s ma looked up at him, her expression blank and confused, and he saw that she held a cheese grater in her hand. The skin of her forearms was shredded, the flesh exposed like ground beef.

After a moment that felt as if it would never end, she offered him a small, sheepish smile. “I couldn’t sleep; I was too itchy. Go back to bed, my little.”

Anden ran from the room and called the only person he could think of: Kaul Lanshinwan, the young man who was often at their house, his uncle’s classmate and best friend, before his uncle had thrown himself off the Way Away Bridge early one morning the year before. Lan and his grandfather came and took Anden’s mother to the hospital.

It was too late for her. Even after they sedated her and removed all the jade on and near her, she could not be saved. When she awoke, she thrashed in her restraints, screamed and cursed them, called them dogs and thieves, demanded they give her back her jade. Anden sat in the hallway outside of his mother’s hospital room, his hands clapped to his ears, tears running down his face.

She died a few days later, screaming until the end.

Eleven years later, the memory still crept into Anden’s nightmares. When he was anxious or doubtful, it resurfaced. Waking unsettled in his dorm room, he couldn’t bring himself to get up and go to the bathroom. At such times, he would lie staring into the darkness with his bladder aching and his throat dry, his skin prickling with a psychosomatic, insidious fear that his blood carried a curse that meant he, too, was fated to die young and deranged. Power ran in his family; so did madness. It was why, even though the Kauls had encouraged him to, he had never changed his name, preferring to keep the foreign name of Emery, which meant nothing to anyone, over his maternal family name, Aun, which came loaded with expectations of greatness and insanity, neither of which Anden desired for himself.

After the death of Anden’s mother, Lan had spoken to his grandfather. Without any ceremony, the Kauls took Anden in, made him part of the family, fed and housed him until he was ten years old and of age to be sent to Kaul Dushuron Academy with Kaul Sen’s money and blessing. So it came to be, remarkably, that the ruling family of No Peak was all the family Anden had. His mother’s side had flamed out in tragedy. His father was nothing more than a distant memory: a uniformed blue-eyed man who had fled back to his faraway country, to pale-haired women and fast cars.

“Your ma, she had a bad life—it started bad and it ended bad,” Hilo said. “You won’t be like her. You’re better trained. You have all of us watching out for you.” He stubbed out his cigarette. “And if you really need it, there’s SN1 now.”

“Shine,” Anden said, calling it by its street name. “Drugs.”

Hilo wrinkled his nose in contempt. “I’m not talking about the stuff that jade-fevered wannabes brew up in dirty labs to sell to weaklings and foreigners on the streets. Military-grade SN1, what the Espenians parse out to their own special ops guys. It’ll take the edge off the sensitivity, give you a bit of a buffer, if you need it.”

“They say it’s poisonous and easy to overdose, that it’ll take years off your life.”

“If you’re an untrained, water-blooded foreigner shooting it up all the time like a junkie,” Hilo said sharply. “You’re not that. Everyone’s different, you don’t know what wearing jade will be like for you yet. I’m not saying you’ll need help, I’m just saying it’s there. We can get it for you no problem, if you need it. You’re a special case. There’s no shame in that, Andy.”

Only Hilo was partial to calling him by that foreign-sounding nickname. At first it had annoyed Anden, but he didn’t mind it now; he’d grown to appreciate that Hilo thought of it as something special between the two of them. Anden noticed that his cigarette had burned down. He ground it out and put the stub in his pocket so as not to litter the rock garden and earn any reprimands. “I wonder if shine would’ve saved my ma.”

Hilo shrugged. “Maybe, if it had been available back then. But your ma had a lot of other problems—your da leaving, your uncle offing himself—that might’ve pushed her over the edge anyway.” He studied Anden with concern. “Hey—why are you so worried all of a sudden? You’re going to be a Green Bone soon, don’t look so fucking glum. I’d never let anything happen to my little cousin.”

Anden hugged his bruised torso. “I know.”

“And don’t forget it,” said Hilo, leaning against the wall. “By the way, Shae says hello.”

“You talked to her?” Anden was surprised. “Is she back now?”

But Hilo was unsmiling now and gave no indication he’d heard the question. Instead of answering, he muttered, “We’re going to need you soon, Andy.” He scanned the grounds, as if noting the number of students. Most of them were already affiliated in some way with the clan—the children of Green Bones and Lantern Men. The Academy was largely a feeder into No Peak the same way its rival, Wie Lon School, was a feeder into the Mountain.

“Soon, we’re going to need every loyal initiate we can get,” Hilo went on. “Lan wouldn’t want me saying this to you, but you ought to know. The truth is Grandda’s got more than one screw loose and a few toes in the grave. Ayt Yu is dead, and that tough bitch Mada is coming after us. There’s trouble on the way with the Mountain.”

Anden regarded his cousin with concern but didn’t know what to say. All summer there’d been rumors around campus that tensions were growing between the clans. So-and-so’s older brother was a Finger who’d been insulted by someone in the Mountain and a duel was sure to follow. Someone else’s aunt had been evicted after her building was taken over by a real estate developer affiliated with the rival clan. And so on. But it wasn’t anything that Anden hadn’t heard before, off and on over the years. There were always minor clan disputes going on. Closed off as he was in the Academy, the impending trouble Hilo spoke of seemed distant to Anden, something that concerned his cousins but was not anything that would affect him personally until he graduated next spring.

He was wrong. It came for him the next week.

---

Fonda Lee is a black belt martial artist, a former corporate strategist, and action movie aficionado. Born and raised in Calgary, Canada, she now lives in Portland, Oregon with her family. Lee is the award-winning author of the YA science fiction novels Zeroboxer and ExoJade City is her adult debut.

Jade City publishes this November from Orbit.

Image of Zhou dynasty jade dragon, via the British Museum.