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Показать все книги автора/авторов: Hiaasen Carl, Montalbano William
 

«A Death in China», Carl Hiaasen и др.

PROLOGUE

Changan, China, 213 B.C.

"Where is Confucius?" the emperor demanded.

Princes, nobles, councillors, generals, diplomats, servants and eunuch-ministers mimicked the emperor's angry mien. Square-jawed, flint-eyed, they stared at the cluster of old men whose robes and formal bearing marked them as scholars.

Silence wrapped the throne room. It was not a question to be answered. Everybody knew Confucius had been dead nearly three hundred years.

"Is Confucius in heaven? Where is heaven? What do your books tell you? Is he a bush, or a river, or a bird that flies through the forest? Does he live still?

Tell me, scholars."

The eldest scholar, gnarled as the cane he clutched with both hands, responded in a voice that held no fear.

"Where the master is we cannot say. But his spirit is among us men."

"You know nothing!" the emperor snapped. "Am I then just a man, like any other?"

"You are foremost among men, and more," answered a councillor named Li Su in prayerlike incantation. "You are Qin Shi Huangdi, August Sovereign, the Son of Heaven. You are the Emperor of the Middle Kingdom."

"Have I lived as other men?"

The ritual required a general to answer: Men Qian, the emperor's best.

"Your feats have surpassed all others."

The emperor allowed himself a smile and cocked an eye; a parody of surprise.;

"You have unified the Middle Kingdom," the general continued. "You have given us a great wall, stretching many months' journey, from the great ocean to the desert to protect us from the barbarians. So wide six horsemen may ride abreast.

So tall and so strong that it will never be breached."

"So I am not just any man, am I? I am the Son of Heaven, ruler of the mightiest empire. Tell me, scholars, in your wisdom: Is that not right?"

The old man ran a clawed hand through his wispy beard.

" 'Let the prince be prince, minister be minister, father father and son son.'

So it is written," he said.

The royal fingers kneaded an elaborate bronze chalice, and a serving boy, unnoticed, carefully poured more wine.

"They are all men. Men die. But I am different; the Son of Heaven. I shall not die. My body may stop, but I shall not die. I shall be immortal."

There were none to vouchsafe the emperor a response. The eldest scholar folded his hands around the cane and stared out over the exquisite royal city, where five palaces and fifty temples drowsed in the summer sun.

"I have heard the criticism of the scholars," the emperor said. "They ridicule my dealings with sorcerers and alchemists. They deny immortality because it is not written in their books.

"Scholars! It is not enough for an empire to be strong and orderly. No, they insist as well that the emperor must also be a sage, must also follow the teachings of Confucius, who is not here."

The eldest scholar replied softly, as though rebuking a child. " 'To govern is to set things right. If you begin by setting yourself right, who will dare to deviate from the right?' That is what Confucius said."

"I am the Son of Heaven and I have set things right in this world as I will in the next. You have seen my preparations. They have taken more than thirty years." The emperor cocked his head. "Did you not believe what you saw?"

"I believe in the majesty of the work I saw," the old man said evasively.

"Majesty? Yes, my old friend." The emperor nodded. "Majesty indeed. A mountain whose insides have been carved into the shape of the cosmos by hundreds of thousands of workers who have labored a lifetime. I have made a generation of peasants dig through subterranean streams and seal them off with bronze to create a burial chamber where I shall rule for eternity. Palaces, pavilions-with fine vessels, jewels, stones and rarities. With quicksilver I have created the waterways of the empire, the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, and even the great ocean itself, and made them flow mechanically. Perfect models. And above I have depicted the heavenly constellations, and below, the geography of the earth. All this you have seen?"

"Yes," the old scholar answered.

"And the vaults?"

"Yes."

"Majestic, would you say? Large vaults surrounding the mountain, filled with clay soldiers, thousands of them; infantry, archers, charioteers and generals.

Each carrying a real weapon." The emperor's eyes flashed.

"Your celestial army," the scholar said.

"It will protect my perpetual reign." The emperor emptied his cup. "And having seen my tomb and my army, scholars, can you still deny my immortality?"

There was a long pause then. Every eye was riveted on the small group of scholars before the throne. After the pause, the eldest replied.

"Ideas, like Confucius, are immortal. Men die."

"Fools!" the emperor screamed.

The next day, four hundred and sixty wise men, gathered from all corners of the empire to assay the emperor's immortality, were made to watch as soldiers burned their books.

Then they were led to a deep pit not far from the emperor's celestial kingdom.


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