The Dragon of Hei Shi’an wore a tropical blue qipao and sat like an empress amid the Belle Epoch grandeur of our liner’s Green Room. To my knowledge, Grandmother had never left Chandeille’s atmosphere. A sudden decision by its matriarch to go abroad caught our clan by surprise. Why now? Why Pator IV? Was it safe? Not even Oldest Sister received an explanation. I was not permitted to inquire. As Youngest Grandson, my responsibilities were to keep quiet, present agreeably, and position myself right and behind the Dragon while she entertained important people.
Tei-Su was a garden world settled by gardeners.
Those gardeners, Geomancer Sect, molded every aspect of our home into harmony with that energy they insisted flowed through space. We, Jin-Mei, Little Seeds Who Had Fallen, could not match Geomancer Sect’s technique. However, we could build pavilions and entertain ourselves amidst their splendor. Acts of filial obedience performed upon the floors of those expansive edifices allowed matriarchs to showcase success as nurturing overseers of clans which gave Court, Family, and Ancestors proper respect.
On a garden world crafted by warlocks, the province of Hei Shi’an encompassed a subtropical archipelago ten thousand kilometers from Mandate of Heaven Seat. It was known for pearl cultivation, tile betting, and enormous red barges that hosted performing arts extravaganzas. Our clan, governors of for centuries, never mattered at Court.
It was important to not matter at Court if you did not have an army. We had a navy. But no one claimed the Mandate of Heaven by sea. An island province ten thousand kilometers from importance (and the flattening influences of war) built very spectacular pavilions. Entertainment was our battlefield.
On that battlefield, I often served in this capacity of Lovely Tray Robot.
Ordinarily, other Youngest Grandsons would serve with me. At every hand gesture (conversations between matriarchs could not be interrupted by instructions) we would step, like silent assassins of drama, between towers of pastries and beverages. Upon collecting what the gesture required, we would place it on flatware and deliver the treat to its spot on the correct table — allowing our fine narrow figures, wrapped in just enough silk, to be appreciated only as long as absolutely necessary.
Rarely would any journey procure more than one exquisite snack. You couldn’t have a conversation stuffing your face. You couldn’t appreciate the craftsmanship of a table that was cluttered with trays. One cookie would look like every other cookie in the Universe if forced to share space. Living in Geomancer Sect’s garden gave us, Little Seeds Who Had Fallen, time to appreciate these truths.
Frankly, they were true.
At the beginning of my performance, staff aboard our gargantuan civilian carrier politely expressed irritation. It took ten years to become a Green Room bus boy. Servers had twenty, some more — longer than I had been alive. They spoke at least five languages each and received continuous training in the customs of prominent guest cultures, including those of the frequently high flying Jin-Mei. It was true the staff could serve even demanding Little Seeds Who Had Fallen quite well. But few who were not the ruthless overseers of a Sang Do clan had ever witnessed a matriarch showing off the control she exercised over her dynasty.
Irritation elicited by my frequent trips mutated into bemusement as I strained, absurdly, to match the frosting of a wafer with the blue filigree of a Rouvenor plate. Bemusement mutated into fair curiosity over how much I would rotate each dish to make sure the guest admired the cookie upon it from sufficient perspectives. Perhaps there was even admiration for how quickly plates that were no longer required disappeared from the table without a trace.
I, however, remained somewhat irritated.
The Dragon’s guest was not another matriarch. No matter my performance, I could not establish our clan’s dominance or claim another Youngest Grandson to do with as I pleased. An unassuming middle-aged Vherokior woman, Doctor (also Sister) Odeirada was a research administrator highly placed within her organization. Neither she nor her companion, a young Achuran woman introduced as Orbital Science Acolyte Obayashi Heiko, had any cultural basis for appreciating my carnival routine. To them, rotating a cookie two hundred and fifty degrees was ridiculous.
Other guests in the Green Room were philanthropists, politicians, and investors who had contributed to Sister Odeirada’s engineering project on Pator IV. Such luminaries expected only the highest level of professional service. But they would not want to spend the time it took to watch a cookie rotate two hundred and fifty degrees.
“Yes, just put the desert on the table, please.”
The Dragon of Hei Shi’an was not only showing off her breeding program. My absurd, silent, assassin-like delivery of porcelain plates bearing solitary cookies accomplished what the professional staff could not. I prevented other guests from interrupting. Earlier, Sister Odeirada presented details of her work. Accustomed to inquiries about horrors and secrets, she ordinarily limited time spent in crowds of important people. Blocked by Dance of Subservient Peacock, however, important people found no easy access to horrors and secrets.
All of that would have failed if Grandmother asked bad questions. But the Dragon despised technology. She wanted details on Vherokior sand painting. It was only fair. Several years earlier, Sister Odeirada arrived on Tei-Su with an insatiable interest in religious statues. Grandmother’s collection ranked among Those Four Which Could Not Be Differentiated Further.
More than painting, the Dragon wanted to know about painters.
“Would any be willing to come to Tei-Su?”
“Our Tribe moves,” replied the Sister. “Some will come.”
I was not sure what the Dragon wanted with Vherokior sand painters, but it made her so happy, later she complimented my performance.
“You would have won all the grandsons.”
We were not able to spend more time with Sister Odeirada aboard the liner.
Following instructions transmitted by sisters, I explored. Oldest Sister wanted to remain current with hospitality trends. She considered Green Rooms unworthy of study. They hadn’t changed in eons. Haggard business travelers generated more profit than pampered crust. How large were their suites and what was in them? What were the closets like? How much stuff did people leave in their rooms? Where did they leave it? Was everything convenient?
How should I discover this information?
Charm! Wit! Prostitution!
There were rules she had to follow with market research interns. I visited several of the liner’s nightclubs before spotting a promising target. Youthful but not quite young, he was an accountant associated with some Aliastra executive who had been present in the Green Room, earlier. The red junk host clubs of Hei Shi’an were legend. Narrow Jing Ko pretending to be overdressed feudal lords preened for Saan Go eager to experience The Life. Middle Sister ran our dynasty’s very lucrative companionship venues. I was required to put in tours as host for key managers Middle Sister wanted to recruit.
Slipping comfortably into that role, I slid up to the accountant. Gallente, he was typically tall and broad and athletic in that way of corporate fitness centers. As he drank, I learned the Aliastra executive felt aggrieved. He wanted to discuss licensing arrangements, but cookies blocked his path. Cookies! Giggly drunk, the accountant held up a rolled pastry and bellowed like an aggrieved senior executive.
Alcohol and flirtation produced a grabby stumble into accommodations for haggard business travelers. The accountant had a little lip of fat above the waist which testified to his successful metamorphosis from post-collegiate destitution into favored minion with an expense account. He slipped quickly enough into hazy slumber. The red junk host clubs of Hei Shi’an were legend for good reason.
I took note of suits, shoes, watches, personal trinkets, and professional accessories. I documented where everything lay in disarray, and wondered if anyone ever sat on those little couches in anyone’s room.
The balcony seemed very innovative.
An extension of railed steel opened onto what would have been a large bay in military applications of the liner’s hull. Overhead a dome of stars twinkled; below, passengers splashed in a pool spread across multiple levels.
Orbital Science Acolyte Obayashi appeared on a balcony a few floors down and across the bay. While the Sister was an ordinary woman, Obayashi cut a menacing profile. I spent an hour showing her pastries. I was not mistaking identities. Only one of us was naked, however, so I wondered at her purpose in visiting these suites. She had her own room adjoining the Sister’s in Gran Luminaire Class.
Behind me, the accountant made fumbling drunk person noises and tried to stand up. I looked back reflexively. In the moment between, Obayashi disappeared. Irritated, I decided to claim full rights as victor. It represented a new experience for the accountant. Sagacious Texts admonish us to explore new experiences.
In the morning, the favored minion was a whirlwind of haphazard dressing. He was late! In fact, it was quite early. I observed that if he didn’t leave everything lying around in piles, it would be easier to get dressed.
We arrived at Pator IV.
I looked for Sister and Acolyte, but neither counted among recently disembarked guests. All travel to Kailesh Sarovar went by rail. Trains boasted only so many executive compartments. The delegation therefore crossed Sobaki Monument in multiple groups. We took the second train. Having spent most of her life on the 351st floor surrounded by Geomancer Sect’s penultimate tropical paradise, Grandmother glued herself to the window, stared at the desert, and snarled at the frequent underground segments.
Weaving in and out of tunnels, we followed canyons cut by improbable erosion up the flanks of a gargantuan shield volcano. Mountain cedar gripped sheer walls. Remnants of long abandoned villages flashed passed. The people who built them took care to leave space between the lowest structures they cut into sheer cliffs and narrow rivulets far below. We were told that without warning, unseen storms further up the mountain might open the floodgates of watery hells. Rope bridges once connected villages across ravines. I imagined it would have been like the weave of star gates, but the ropes had long ago rotted away.
Occasionally we caught views of distant ice.
Pushed up by the volcano’s bulk, humid air rushing north from Mioar reached a height to precipitate as snow. The maglev burst into the caldera. Kailesh Sarovar, the highest lake on Pator IV, filled most of the vast basin. Far banks were too distant to resolve. Above their glimmer rose the mountain’s final, awe-inspiring rim. Five crags stabbed higher still into a sapphire sky. For each Crag of Kailesh, one mystic served as Crag Listener. Train attendants informed us excitedly that one Listener, away for a long time, had finally returned.
“And she has built a miracle!”
The lake was a goddess. Water Tower rose from her center. The name was hopelessly — perhaps even insultingly — modest. Water Tower was a gleaming web of impossibly flexible ceramic plastics that stretched straight into the sky and literally out of sight.
“Oh!” cried Grandmother.
A joint effort between Vherokior Tribe and every major corporation in the Federation, the engineering marvel managed to dazzle even the techno-skeptic Dragon of Hei Shi’an. Sister Odeirada’s presentation aboard the liner failed to do her masterpiece justice. Everyone in the train moved over to stare until we pulled into the terminal.
Sarovar City formed a crescent on narrow land between lake and caldera walls. The settlement was said to date to roughly a century after Vherokior Tribe entered the desert. For almost all of its existence, it served as a remote place of pilgrimage. In the centuries leading up to space flight, it was all but abandoned.
Now, Sarovar City gleamed as a unique and dazzling destination.
The architects of this new ancient place cast structures in modern metallic clay blocks made to look antique. Uniquely Vherokior windows formed from checkerboards of colored glass sparkled like sheets of jewelry. There were no vehicles on the streets. Young couples walked on journeys of spiritual discovery in hopes of auspicious conceptions. Old couples took pleasure in continuing to journey together. Engineers and technicians ran about piers connected to the terminal. Technically operational, Water Tower generated strong fields that complicated air approach.
Grandmother and I made our way to Roof of Sobaki Hei Shi’an Tower Pavilion. The staff greeted us formally. Grandmother reviewed their lines as courteous overseer, but I knew she was rushing as much as she thought she could without anyone noticing. Up an express lift, across Seat of Heaven Observation and Dining Hall, she stopped a centimeter from the towering display window and stared at Water Tower some more.
It was undeniably a marvel. Still, Grandmother hated technology. I wanted to ask what about it fascinated her so much, but I knew better. She started moving her arms, gathering energy from the earth, pulling it up her body, and releasing it to the heavens. Again and again, gathering energy, raising it, releasing it.
“This is the answer,” she said resolutely. “We must build another.”
It was almost an order.
“Where?” I dared to inquire.
She shook her head. There was no point in pursuing. I would only be banished to Pool Of Warm Water And Grumpy Masseurs. Even without pressing, I was told to inspect the rest of the hotel. Three Saan Go materialized as if by teleportation. We were waved off. The managers knew they were lucky to have me and not Oldest Sister. We got along well; besides, the hotel was flawless. Little Seeds That Had Fallen started building entertainment pavilions many millennia ago. Once comfortable, the Saan Go started mentioning that strange things went on at other venues before our arrival.
“Overdoses,” whispered the general manager disdainfully.
“To all our guests,” insisted a deputy, “we have reiterated a policy to fully cooperate with authorities in matters of contraband. Discretely, of course, but also firmly.”
“It is curious, Owner, don’t you think?” asked the general manager. “The city is under tight security because of the Tower’s opening. Who would think to bring contraband to their rooms?”
“Curious,” I agreed. “People who pull strings only just started to arrive.”
“Yes, that’s right,” nodded the Saan Go in unison. “Very curious.”
Several days later, Sister and Acolyte visited the hotel. The Dragon put on a great feast. I was not required to perform Dance of Subservient Peacock. Grandmother spoke with Odeirada privately afterwords, while I showed Orbital Science Acolyte Heiko around Tower Pavilion.
“I like this,” she said. “I will stay at these facilities when I am able.”
“Please ensure Mlle. Obayashi has a proper entry in the system.”
“Owner should not have gone to the trouble of instructing his inadequate servant.”
“We depend upon your kindness.”
“Kindness is my joy.”
I liked the general manager.
Next morning, Sister Odeirada arrived with an ancient sand painter and his youthful apprentices. The Dragon had earlier ordered space prepared in one of the atriums. Rock tiles quarried from the volcano’s flanks glistened in redirected sunlight. The old painter studied the layout. Satisfied, he positioned apprentices around the perimeter with bags of colorful sand. Racing, or hobbling quickly, between bags, he threw sand around like a child. He stomped and kicked and swept. It seemed an improbable technique for producing anything mystical. Guests emerged onto overlooking balconies. I thought of the accountant’s little lip of fat and half expected to see Obayashi’s menacing profile.
Most guests overhead ordered breakfast delivered and continued to watch.
After producing something akin to the vivid abstractions always popular in Caille’s most exclusive galleries, the sand painter marched to the center of his creation. Slowly, spiraling outward, with fluid and gliding fingers he began forming boundaries between chaotic splashes of color. Speaking very brief instructions, he summoned bags of color, here, wooden slats to step on, there, and assigned apprentices to the task of finishing details in certain segments. Breakfasts became lunches became dinners with dessert and cocktails; then, beneath a square of diamond stars, a serpentine dragon stretched out eight claws to every nook and cranny of the atrium. It was magnificent.
Applause rained down. The painting would last for a day and then children would be invited in to destroy it. That was the custom. “The past is sand,” a Crag Listener — perhaps Sister Odeirada — would recite. “Follow instead the wind.”
Grandmother was clearly moved.
With deep bow, shocking for a woman of her status, she formally invited them to join her on Tei-Su. Paperwork would be ready by dawn. Master, apprentices, families, everyone — all would be accommodated. Her appreciation for the art was sincere. By casting her invitation so broadly, however, I understood a bit more of the Dragon’s plan. She wanted magnificent artwork other dynasties lacked, of course. More than that, she sought a solution to our world’s problem of losing its artists to the stars.