JADE MAN'S SKIN
This extract, which Daniel Fox read at SF in SF bookshop, is also available as an Agony Column podcast.
Human feet turn naturally uphill, and here in the mountains there was always somewhere higher. Sometimes they had to scramble and that was good, it meant they could stop walking awkwardly beside each other and go single-file; just once, the first time, he turned and crouched and reached down a hand for hers. Old habit, remembered pleasure, yearning, forgetfulness: she was still who she was, he forgot that he had changed, and Jiao was nowhere in his head at just that moment.
Jiao must have been still very much in Siew Ren's head. His clan-cousin didn't move at all for a moment, and then very deliberately didn't take his hand; she stretched for a different grip, clambered up another way, came to the top of the boulder and walked on without even looking at him.
They walked, they climbed independently and together, and in the end he said, "Siew Ren, if you don't want to talk..." Touching was something else and he knew it, he'd been stupid, unthinking; but if all she meant to do was reject him, stony silence over a cold shoulder, he thought he might go back to the emperor.
She spun around, fierce in starlight, and said, "No, I don't want to talk. I want you to talk. I want you to say what's happened to you, what you've done to yourself. Look, it's still summer, you haven't been gone so long; but you've come back someone else in Yu Shan's skin. Hardly his skin, even," stumblingly, "even the way you look is different. What have you done...?"
He opened his mouth to tell her, knowing before he took breath that it was hopeless, a waste of breath, he couldn't begin to explain what had happened to him except for the one thing, the jade beneath his tongue, the little nodule of stone that her own tongue might have found out if they had still been as they were before - but then it didn't matter because actually she wasn't looking for answers, she wasn't actually looking at him at all any more.
Looking past him, rather: staring, with an expression he'd never seen or thought to see on her face, hers especially. Of all the women in the world, she was not the one to be utterly awed and utterly frightened. She'd faced the emperor with hardly a twitch; and these were their own known mountains, there was nothing to terrify her here. Even a war party coming down high over the hill to avoid the watch, she might see the danger but she wouldn't be afraid. She certainly would not be awed. She wouldn't stand there with her eyes as wide as her mouth, caught in cold silence on a hot night.
Besides, he'd heard nothing: not the scratch of metal on metal, not the hissing whisper of a foot softly laid in grass, not the least hint of anything beyond the normal sounds of the forest in its night. He still didn't. Between the birdsong and the occasional crash of a late monkey in the canopy, the rush and burble of distant water, the sough of wind and his own breathing, Siew Ren's, there was nothing. He was sure.
And then he turned, and -
Oh. That was - not nothing, no. The opposite of nothing, rather: an entirety, an engulfing.
He was vaguely, heedlessly aware of himself stepping back, because he dared not stand so close; reaching his clan-cousin and stopping there, because he dared not leave her to stand alone.
Feeling her take his hand, like a promise that he would not leave her; she would prevent it.
Fear and awe, yes: caught so perfectly between the two, he had no thought of leaving, any more than he had any thought of going closer.
On a rock above their heads, against the twisted shadow of a twisted mountain tree burned a tiger.
It stood as still as they did only more so, magnificently still, still as the rock beneath its vast paws. Except that it was a living, liquid thing, still only because it saw no occasion to move.
Jade tigers, they were called. Stone tigers, sometimes. This one might have been stone itself, true jade just for that moment, if god or man could have cut jade into an absolute of tiger, the essence of it, sight and touch and power. If he could have touched it, Yu Shan was sure of harsh fur and a hot body, skin and muscle and bone beneath, the imperative of movement imperiously contained.
Its eyes shone: two chips of jade, exactly the green of the deep-sea stone, exactly the green of the emperor's eyes and his own. More than that, its fur shone green between the bands of black.
It ... considered them, seemingly. He thought those eyes saw what he had confessed to nobody, the chip of jade in his mouth; he thought they saw how far the stone had penetrated. He thought the tiger was a jade-eater too, or else it was born in the mountain's heart, born of the stone, jade in its blood from the beginning.
He thought he might die from not breathing.
Sometimes he wondered if he could die at all, but not now; now he wondered how he might dare to go on living, having seen. Having been seen.
The tiger leaped down like moonlight pouring from a jug, a vivid flow immediate in movement and immediate to halt. When it had landed on the path before them, it was entirely still again.
Then its whiskers twitched, it opened its mouth and breathed out. Yu Shan smelled the deep smell of the mines, jade and dust and air that was sodden with stone. He had missed that. The tiger's eyes said yes, as though something had been understood between them.
And then it had turned and was leaving, leaping away, and was gone; and its absence was a sudden aching hollow in the world that the night could rush into, rush and rush and never hope to fill.
Siew Ren clung to his arm two-handed, like a monkey on a rope. Eventually - because one of them after all did have to say something, do something, change the world, or else they would only stand there for ever in the same bewildered daze - she said, "Do you, do you think that was an omen?"
"I think it was a message," which might be the same thing, if an omen was a message from the gods. "I just don't know what it means."
She nodded, her cheek against his shoulder, and they were quiet again, still again.
"Was it even real?"
"It was real. See, it left pug-marks on the path," an enormous spread of paw and striking deep where it had landed, so much weight behind it, how could it not be real?
"Yes," she said, "and its breath smelled of forest pools with the sun on them - but if it came from the gods, that still doesn't mean it's real."
He knew stone tigers were real, even if he'd never seen one before. The mountains were full of stories, and he had stroked the fur of a skin, it almost seemed long ago now, in the jademaster's palace. Even so, he understood her doubts. If a god were involved, it could be real and real and still not actually exist, not now be padding through the forest with the rumble of hunger in its gut and a weary ache in its bones.
He found it hard to imagine, tired. Sleeping, that was hard too; it was either there or it wasn't, he couldn't see it in any other way. Not vulnerable, turned away from the world, adrift.
Hungry wasn't hard at all. He thought it might have swallowed them both, quite neatly. If it had done that - well, he thought they would both be really dead. That was real enough for him.
He didn't say so, quite. Only, "I don't know how to tell the difference, between something that's real like we are and something that's real because the gods sent it."
The notion itself was unreal, that the gods would send something to him. Or to them. She had seen it, or at least smelled it, differently; perhaps it had been two different messages, both equally incomprehensible?
At least Siew Ren seemed not to be hating him just now. That would return, no doubt; her anger had simply ebbed, in the face of something infinitely greater. Something shared. Something for Yu Shan to be grateful for, except that that seemed like a monumental impertinence: neither jade tigers nor gods would stoop to interfere with mortals simply to hush a quarrel or smooth over a betrayal.
He assumed not, in any case. Perhaps that was impertinent too, and he should just be grateful.
Extract from Jade Man's Skin, by Daniel Fox
Del Rey, February 2010
© Daniel Fox, 2009; reproduced with permission