Dee takes a long, sweltering journey south to the city of Canton, and thence, he hopes, to the hellish prison island of Hainan, also called the Shore of Pearls, where the Empress is fond of exiling “inconvenient” officials, especially those whose suffering brings her the most pleasure—poets, scholars, defenseless elderly men. The doomed Scholar’s Rebellion sent many such men to the island, and Dee is determined to go there, find them, and perhaps bring them home. Canton’s throngs, seething markets and ships from every part of the known world fascinate Dee, but he means to waste no time in getting to the island. He is instantly thwarted: an entrenched, clannish eunuch bureaucracy blocks his way; no amount of perfume can mask the redolence of corruption and graft. Bubonic plague has also arrived in the city, as has a brilliant Persian physician whom Dee befriends. Abu Zeed, who has a theory about rats, fleas and plague, is as eager as Dee to get to the island. The exotic, numberless diseases of the tropics are what attract the insatiably curious physician. Another Persian befriends Dee—a woman, who causes Dee to put his two faraway wives out of his mind and thoughts.
In distant Loyang, Hsueh Huai-i is hard at work, in every sense, assisting the Empress in her ultimate ascent: public “miracles” suggest that Wu’s rule is fulfillment of Buddhist prophecy. Soon, Hsueh, on a mission for Wu, materializes in Canton like a phantasm, carrying with him an ornate box, empty for now, but of a size and shape suitable to transport a human head…
Dee and Abu Zeed conspire and sleuth, and in the midst of a rash of murders of prominent eunuchs in Canton, finally travel to the island. An uprising of prisoners and lepers, an encounter with a bizarre insect-worshipping cult and a harrowing escape from agents of the Empress are but a few of the dangers the two elude before fleeing the island. Both learn deep lessons about loyalty and betrayal, and the shifting, overlapping, shape-changing nature of the two.
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