your Signed copy today!
Price: $3.99 (eBook)
Download to your Kindle (eBook)
Barnes & Noble.com
The People's Treasure is the fourth installment in The Jade Owl Legacy Series.
Before the first Emperor conquered the Han peoples and the world came under the sway of Heaven, the villagers of Yu-shui-ch’ien paid homage to the creatures under Mount Li, pledging to keep the ch’i world alive and the feathered-kin’s lineage intact. In return, they received a great gift — a treasure that promised them power beyond aspiration. Now the China Hands hear this prophesy from the three women. Now Rowden Gray must gather the relics to redeem the promise — to awake the sleeping and the dead. It is the time for the heroes to seal this pact before the Moon days devour the Earth.
The People’s Treasure (Book IV of the Jade Owl Legacy) resuscitates the green hoot bird from its hiding place and sends it on a journey back to its source — a race across three continents. It sets Professor Gray and his China Hand adventurers on the brink — a showdown with their ultimate challenger. The most action-packed installment in the series, The People’s Treasure is a full-spectrum tale of those infected by the jade relic. The ageless mysteries are finally revealed and Professor Gray’s team must face a grave responsibility when the villagers stir and the feathered-kin awake.
The Jade Owl Legacy Series is a five-book suite well received by both fantasy and history buffs alike. It begins with discovery in The Jade Owl, moves to the paranormal in The Third Peregrination and mysticism in The Dragon’s Pool. The People’s Treasure is high adventure that delivers fans to the brink of the cataclysm destined for the last installment, In the Shadow of Her Hem.
The night birds perched in the shadow of the eaves, their stalking brought to rest. Their chicks peeped for succor — for night crawlers and fireflies, brought to the nest by attentive parents. Swallows knew how to hunt for night crawlers and the best places to dig them out. However, when it came to the fireflies, swallows took care, because when flying over the place called Campo Culadura, fireflies stalked the night birds as prey. So swallows learned new strategies that diverted the bugs far from the eaves. Tonight, however, the fireflies were calm, their luminescence easily dowsed by cutting bites — food for the wee chirpers.
The quiet eaves of Villa Tostacaroni settled over family slumbers — light and heavy snoring blending through the corridors in a single nocturnal song. From the upper rooms came breezy sounds from the three girls, who dreamed of parties and ragazzi — of days airy with childhood pursuits. Papa and Mama were away in America, their rooms vacant, as was the eldest brother’s room, he also being away on business. The younger brother and his wife had settled in for a comfortable sleep, with an amorous prelude, but now settled into a duet of snores that alternated over the counterpane. Other night rattles and coughs and sleep talking, from the servant’s quarter, joined the night choir. However, the loudest snores came from the old woman’s room — from Berenice Tostacaroni, sister to the padrone, and, before her illness, the estate’s resident dragon.
Berenice rarely dreamed and, if she did, she couldn’t recount them. She hadn’t uttered a word for over a year and was unable to walk, although the doctors failed to diagnose why. Of course, they were told that there was an incident at the Villa, in particular on the grounds of Campo Culadura. However, the family omitted the details — the strange activity that the field had exhibited; the glowing flowers, the humming and susurration of the asters — voices that spoke on the wind. But after the incident, there had been a corpse — a tall American ex-Curator-General, who was as petrified as Berenice was hobbled. The coroner declared it a death by electrocution — the anomaly attributed to a lightning bolt, despite the fact that no storm had occurred that evening — not a cloud in the inky sky. But the family knew. Not precisely, but they knew that lurking under Culadura’s soil was la Matrigna’s secret.
Now Berenice Tostacaroni stirred in her bed, her shoulders whipping from side to side. A barrier kept her from falling out, but she convulsed so hard that the lock shimmied and the bed guard slipped. Berenice pushed her way up, managing to sit, her legs slung over the railing, her feet fluttering. Her eyes, bolt open, sought the moonlight, which cascaded across the floor, illuminating her wheelchair.
“Gran Dio,” she stammered, her arms giving way.
She careened forward, crashing to the floor.
“Gran Dio,” she cried.
The floor was cold and . . . she felt it. She had not felt anything in a year, but she felt the floor’s chill upon her knees. Berenice panted, waiting for pain that never came. Her own voice scared her, foreign to her, her throat dry and brittle. She rubbed her elbows across the wood until she sensed the throw carpet, and then spotted her chair, the large wheels casting a shadow across the room.
Her panting calmed as she pulled her way toward her chair, her arms gaining in strength, her feet finding purchase. She hoped that the wheels were locked, so that the chair wouldn’t roll away at her touch, but the closer she came, the further it seemed to be. Then she banged her hand accidentally on the credenza.
A clear sound — a good sound. She continued to knock, hoping that it would draw help. She found the knob and opened the drawer slightly, just the thing needed. She latched her hands into the drawer, pulling again, her body sliding closer to the credenza. Finding her knees, she pushed up. The chair was within her grasp now. She lurched forward, but missed.
“Gran Dio,” she cried.
The chair, which proved not to be locked, rolled toward the window, rattling the panes when it became caught in the curtains. Berenice pounded her fists on the floor, and then rolled over onto her back, weeping helplessly. Then, the fireflies swarmed into the room. Then, they gave her their instructions.
“Tadzio,” Clarissa whispered.
She nudged her sleeping husband from deep sleep. He wasn’t roused. He just buried his head in the pillow.
“Clari,” he murmured. “What is it?”
“I hear something?”
“No. I thought I heard a voice — a woman’s voice.”
Tadzio tossed the pillow aside, reluctantly slinging his legs over the side of the bed. He rubbed his eyes.
“It is probably Carla talking in her sleep again.”
“No, it was not the girls. It was a deep voice.”
“Impossible,” he said. “But I shall check it . . . for you.”
“I am not crazy, Tadzio.”
Tadzio stood, and then stretched, his thin young naked body touched by the moonlight. He reached for his shirt, but as he did, he stopped, his face turning into the light. Clarissa gasped.
“Your eyes, Tadzio. Your eyes are . . .”
Tadzio held his hand up, and then touched his cheek. He didn’t need to seek out the wall mirror to know that his golden eyes had turned blue. He felt the warmth of the spirit that often came upon him — a glimmer that he knew well, but denied as impossible. Still, he heard a woman’s voice, just as his wife had told him. He shook his head briskly, the demons falling aside. He finished dressing, pulling his briefs up over his nocturnal bulge, and then wrapped his shirt into the waistband.
“Stay here, Clari.”
There was whispering outside the door. Indeed, it was Carla’s voice. Tadzio reached for the latch, but before he could open the door, there came a knock.
“Tadzio,” came a raspy voice, not feminine, and definitely not his sister Carla.
It was his father-in-law, Virgilio Silvestri. Tadzio jarred the door open, surprising the old man, who stood with his hand to his heart.
“Gran Dio, Tadzio,” he said. “You startled me.”
“Startled you, Papa Silvestri? Why are you up and crawling about the corridors at . . . what time is it?”
Clarissa was up now, gathering her robe about her shoulders.
“Papa, what is wrong?”
Tadzio noticed shadows behind Virgilio — frail shadows that huddled like mice.
It was Carla and the other children, Stefania and Marla, dressed in nightgowns and appearing distraught.
“We heard something,” Carla said.
“You probably heard Papa Silvestri, who should not be roaming about at this hour.”
“No, no,” Virgilio said, his hands protesting. “They were up before me. I stumbled on them in the hallway. I heard a woman calling and, if I am not mistaken, it came from your aunt’s room.”
“How can that be? Zia Berenice has not uttered so much as a hiccup in over a year.”
“Maybe there is a burglar,” Clarissa suggested.
“Maybe this family had too much wine at dinner,” Tadzio countered.
Still, he pushed over the threshold and led this night band down the corridor to the stairs. He turned to them, and then shrugged.
“Nothing,” he said.
Then, he heard a knock, and then . . . footsteps. The girls gasped, Clarissa hushing them. Virgilio came forward, his walking stick clenched in his fist. He motioned to Tadzio, pantomiming a thrashing. Tadzio nodded, and then took the stick. He crept down the stairs, the sounds on the first floor continuing. They were indeed coming from Zia Berenice’s room, but they were sounds on the move.
Tadzio didn’t care whether the others followed him now. If there was an intruder, he could handle the stick well. He had been a swordsman not long ago — a Dragon Rider with considerable skill. If the thief hadn’t a gun, Tadzio would prevail . . . or so he thought.
He reached his aunt’s room. The door was ajar. He cautiously entered, looking for the familiar lump on the bed that would be the woman, but the covers were thrown aside. Berenice was gone. He gasped, and then inspected the room. Clarissa and Virgilio followed him. Between them, they inspected the place — the open drawers, the empty chair, and the curtains blowing in the night breeze.
“She has been abducted,” Tadzio said.
“How so?” Clarissa asked.
“Well, she cannot walk, so someone must have taken her.”
“Unless . . .” Virgilio said.
His speculation was interrupted by a scream — a gruesome cry from the parlor. Tadzio wasted no more time in the bedroom.
Carla and Stefania held onto Marla, who, although no longer screaming, was shaken. Tadzio relieved them of their charge, but didn’t need to make a query. He could see the sight for himself. Standing in the parlor was Berenice Tostacaroni, covered in . . . fireflies — their golden green glow lighting her spectral face, her lips trembling. She was standing — something she could not do, or would not do, and she appeared to be speaking, although not coherently and in a deep voice. Tadzio recognized his aunt’s voice, but because it was guttural and perhaps because she hadn’t spoken in so long, the words were gravelly.
“I do not understand,” Clarissa stammered.
“Stay here,” Tadzio said. “Calm Marla. Papa Silvestri, follow me, but be still.”
“I have seen the fireflies before,” Virgilio said.
“So have we all.”
They had become a family secret — the demons of Campo Culadura. It was best to stay out of the field at night, because the fluorescent flowers and the buzzing bugs were there every evening. The neighbors sometimes spoke about it in town, but never in front of the family. There had been queries from the provincial archeologists who had heard that the Villa was built on an Etruscan bone yard. They wanted to excavate, but these queries were politely dismissed. Errant ghostbusters would show up at the door with their Geiger counters asking to spend the night in Culadura, but their requests were always denied. There had been one death in that field already, and poor Zia Berenice’s ailment happened there. Yes, the family had seen the fireflies, but never in the house.
Tadzio approached his aunt, who breathed heavily, her lips trembling. Suddenly, her eyes darted. He halted.
“You still have the touch,” she said, her voice strangled.
Tadzio recognized the voice. It was no longer his aunt’s imperious sound, but a thin, masculine voice, squeezed through feminine lips.
“Nick?” he asked, but he knew what he had heard. He didn’t expect confirmation.
“I am not Nick,” Berenice said. “I am a speck, floating like this court of fireflies.”
“I feel you,” Tadzio said.
“Perhaps,” she said. “The One is fractured, but he is still the One.”
Virgilio stepped up, scanning the woman. It was clear that he didn’t understand the meaning, but he knew how to remedy the house of flies. He swept his hand across Berenice’s face. Suddenly, the flies grouped tightly into a mask, a mask that Tadzio knew to be the One. He pushed Virgilio’s hand aside.
“No, Papa Silvestri. This is a sign.”
Virgilio grumbled, and then stepped back to the threshold, where Clarissa cowered.
“There is a place,” Berenice said. “A place that you know well. A place where the land is green and the mountain looms over the glowing streams. A place where the people thrive, their industry crucial to the plan. It is here that you rode the wind, and shall ride the wind again, when the promise is fulfilled.”
“Fulfilled,” Tadzio said, his voice trailing. “It is far away and . . .”
“The One is fractured. You, Dragon Rider . . . you must make a start.”
“You have the touch still.”
Tadzio closed his eyes. He saw the mountain and the people. He felt the wind beneath his cape and smelled the musk of the dragons. All the warrants had been left vacant with the events at the Dragon’s Pool. He knew this to be so, when he witnessed The Great Marshal fall and dissolve into that portrait in the ch’i banner. It was final, until Tadzio returned to Fiesole and Campo Culadura. Now the fireflies portrayed the pieces, an atomized version of the One, speaking through this woman — his aunt.
“You must do it,” Berenice said. “You must do it now.”
Clarissa sidled close to Tadzio, holding his arm tightly.
“Tadzio,” she said. “It is a phantom. It is one of many that haunt this place. I know you want to believe that Nick Battle still lives, but he is gone.”
“Yes,” Tadzio said. “He is gone, but not . . .”
“He is, caro mio,” she said. “By all the Saints, we must not be tempted by . . .”
Suddenly, the fireflies glowed brighter, their hum increasing. They drifted from Berenice’s form, threatening Clarissa. Tadzio waved his hands at them.
“Go,” he shouted. “If you want me to do this thing, you must leave this house and leave my family alone.”
Clarissa shivered beside him, but the bugs dimmed. They scattered one by one, their light fading as they found recesses and chinks for departure. When the last one fluttered away, Zia Berenice gasped, and then crashed to the floor.
The family was busy now — Marla, Carla and Stefania rushing to their aunt’s body, fretting and checking for vital signs. Berenice was awake, but as mute as always. Virgilio went for the wheelchair. The invalid state had returned now that this event had concluded.
Tadzio remained transfixed upon the spot where the old woman had proclaimed a new warrant. The fireflies were gone. Berenice was taken away. Even Clarissa left him, she attending the old lady’s needs. Still, something lingered, because Tadzio had . . . the touch.
The warm Tuscan breeze stirred memories — memories that Tadzio would have liked to forget. However, he had been haunted too long by Nick Battle’s touch at odd times and in strange ways. Sometimes it was a comfort, a warm heart that calmed him. At other times, it roused him to action. In all cases, his eye color changed from gold to blue. He sensed his wife in the parlor.
“Clari,” he said. He grasped her arms. “What color are my eyes.”
“They are yours,” she said. “Your eyes now. Not his.”
“But I still feel him. He tells me things that . . .”
“Ignore him, Tadzio.”
Clarissa embraced him, holding him so close as to press this haunting from his soul. But no matter how hard his wife squeezed him, Tadzio knew what had to be done. He heard Papa Silvestri’s heavy step.
“All is sorted,” Virgilio grunted. “Let us put this horror to rest.”
“Yes,” Tadzio said. “We must put it to rest. Papa, fetch your wheelbarrow and the spade.”
“No, Tadzio,” Clarissa pleaded. “È stolto.”
“As foolish as you think it is, it must be done.”
Virgilio shrugged, but left to fetch the spade. Tadzio went into the foyer, hesitating on the landing. He scanned the staircase.
“What is it, Tadzio?”
He leaped up the stairs two steps at a time, Clarissa following at her own pace.
“What is it, Tadzio?”
Tadzio darted past Marla’s room, and then Carla’s, and finally to Stefania’s. That room had been his stepmother’s when she had first arrived at Villa Tostacaroni — before the wedding. He pushed the door open, his little sister having taken up residence this evening with Marla. He didn’t want to invade Stefania’s domain, but it wasn’t a little girl’s assets that he sought. It was something else.
“What is it, Tadzio?”
Clarissa followed him in. Tadzio scanned the room. Every corner. Every shadow. When he faced his wife, she gasped.
“Your eyes,” she said.
He smiled, because the change was timely and needed. He scuffled to the baseboard under the window, feeling its length until his fingers pawed a curious slat. It wiggled.
“This is it,” he said, a smile blossoming across his face.
He pulled the slat free, his hand plunging into a secret compartment. He withdrew two items — a length of red leather and a pearl white canister with a curious Chinese character emblazoned on its front lid.
“The shield,” he said.
Suddenly, he heard a sound from outside — a squeak. He stood and peered down at the pathway that led to Campo Culadura. His father-in-law pushed the rusty old wheelbarrow over the butterscotch-colored tiles. The spade rattled inside it.
“È stolto,” Clarissa said. “I don’t want to lose you.”
“It will be safe,” Tadzio said. “It calls to me.”
“As it called to Zia Berenice? Even if you do not die, I fear I shall lose you to this thing.”
Tadzio was silent. He grasped the leather swatch and the pearl canister, and then marched toward the door.
“Shall I come with you?” Clarissa asked.
Tadzio paused. He considered the question. In fact, he asked the question to himself as if he expected someone else to answer.
“Assoluto,” he said. “Vene, cara mia. Vene qua.”
Clarissa shook her head, perhaps wondering how Nick Battle’s Italian had so improved.
“Papa Silvestri,” Tadzio called. “’Spetta per me.”
Virgilio halted, setting the barrow on its feet.
“I suppose,” he said, “you need this barrow so I can haul your stupid corpse away after you attempt this foolishness. È stolto.”
“Perhaps,” Tadzio said.
They were at the turn in the path, just before it descended into the gardens of Campo Culadura. There was still time to turn back.
“Tell him, Papa,” Clarissa said. “You do not know, Tadzio. I was there that night.”
Clari and Virgilio had witnessed the aftermath of Berenice and her lover, J.J. Gillenhaal, when they tried to exhume what la Matrigna buried in the bone yard. Berenice was stunned and Gillenhaal was . . . burned black as his heart. Since then, the gardens came alive each night. Then there was Clarissa’s wedding day, when Rowden Gray lit the great fire and the gardens sang, and the susurrations began to take on human voices. Tadzio may have known the peril, but he didn’t know the horror that Clarissa had seen.
“Tell me nothing,” Tadzio snapped.
He grabbed the spade, hoisted it over his shoulder and rounded the path.
The gardens were overgrown — tall and ghastly under the Tuscan sky. Stars winked down, but the flowers winked back. Some plants were corn high, the field having only been a wasteland until la Matrigna worked here. Now it flourished between the path and the old Etruscan burial site.
Tadzio didn’t hesitate. As he brushed the first flowers, they burst with luminescence — violet and gold. The sparks rustled beneath his legs creating a wake that he knew would scare his wife and father-in-law, who followed, muttering warnings. Tadzio ignored them. Then, he heard the voice.
Tadzio halted briefly, but then continued cautiously. He watched the fluorescent rings above the flower heads. They shimmered beyond his touch. In fact, they were leading him to the place. He hastened.
He wanted to answer the voice. He wanted to say, Nick, I hear you; just as Professor Gray and Silky and Simone heard you. However, he didn’t want his wife to think that he was crazier than he already was. Suddenly, a spot blazoned before him, and he knew. Tadzio kicked the ground about him, until his foot slammed upon a stone — a marker that he remembered when he was a child, when this field only grew onions and rocks. He set the canister and leather swatch down, and then swung the spade, slamming it into the ground adjacent to the marker. It made immediate purchase, sliding beneath the rock.
“This is too easy,” he said. “Now I will be cautious.”
“Be careful, Tadzio,” Clarissa whispered.
She hovered over the marker as if she were its resident sprite.
“I will try, Clari, but when I pry it loose, things will happen.”
“Then, do not do it.”
He looked at her in the glow of the flowers. She could see his blue eyes.
“I know what I am doing, dearest.”
He pushed down and the marker tilted upward. The harder he pushed, the higher it went until it toppled. When it did, the handle of the spade began to glow, electricity shooting up through Tadzio’s hands. But instead of piercing him, it shot across the field to something else — a scarecrow. The bolt suddenly lit it up — fireflies shaped like a man. No — a woman.
“Tadzio,” the shape cried. “I am in hell. Free me. Take it home.”
Tadzio dropped the spade. He hunkered beside the hole, and then, using the red leather swatch, reached in and lifted out that which had been hidden for so long. It glowed green. It purred.
“La Giada Gufo,” Virgilio mutter from his place near the barrow.
“The Jade Owl,” Clarissa stammered.
Tadzio gasped. The thing glowed brighter, calling him inside — inside the hole, where he saw the top of an urn. Suddenly, the world was alive. Approaching through the flowers were forms — translucent forms. Tadzio almost dropped the Jade Owl back into its hole. He thought to run like hell, but this would be the end of him and his loved ones. These gathering specters from the ancient world were not benign. They were angry, as if this relic had been their claim and he was stealing it like a thief in the night. Exactly. He was a thief in the night and they guarded their treasure, as rightly they should.
Ammaliatore, came the whisper. Take it home.
Home, Tadzio thought. Where was home for this thing? For a start, it must go back to the person who buried it here — Rose, la Matrigna. But Rose was in New York, presenting her life long exposition at the Gran Museo di Arte — the Met.
Ammaliatore, take it home.
Tadzio wrapped la Giada Gufo in its red leather shield. He heard a hoot and realized that it was awake.
“Clarissa. Quickly. Give me the shield.”
Clarissa appeared puzzled, but then retrieved the canister, unlatching the front, holding it to receive the relic. Slam. Latched.
Tadzio stood, taking the canister.
“Gran Dio,” he cried.
All at once, the fireflies dimmed and drifted away. The specters moaned, but also faded, and then Campo Culadura collapsed. The flowers ceased to sussurate. The tall asters and dahlias fell and shriveled. The high grasses withered. The field was a cold, barren place — as barren as it was when la Matrigna buried her little secret in the Etruscan bone yard. Still, Tadzio felt the intruder’s pulse.
Suddenly, there were shouts from the Villa. Tadzio tried to turn his attention away from the vast wastelands about him, but he was weary, drifting toward the wheelbarrow, which offered him safe haven. He sat in it.
“Tadzio,” Clarissa stammered, coming to his side. “Am I losing you?”
“No, dearest,” he gasped. “This task has weakened me, that is all.”
“But . . .” she said. “You are leaving.”
He touched her cheek, and then pulled her into the barrow.
“I must take this thing to New York and I must . . .”
“We were parted for too long once. I will not allow it again.”
Tadzio clasped her cheeks and kissed the pout away.
“We are creatures of destiny, cara mia. I do not choose. I am chosen.”
Suddenly, lanterns waved at the field’s edge, at the path’s end. The girls were shouting. Clarissa jumped to her feet, but Tadzio pulled her back into the barrow.
“They are safe,” he said. “They are celebrating because Zia Berenice has been released from her hell. Perhaps she will be a better person for it.”
“Perhaps,” Virgilio grumbled at the barrow handles. “I doubt that.”
“Please, Papa,” Clarissa said.
Tadzio hugged her, and then sighed. He was so weary and yet there was hope now for the one that lodged within his mind and inside the canister that pressed between him and his wife.
“I must write a letter tonight, and then I shall sleep late . . . very late in the morning.”
Virgilio grunted again, and then lifted the handles. He pushed his children over the broken ruin of night’s decay that lay between the marker and the swaying lanterns. Tadzio was asleep already, but he would need to rouse himself to pen and ink to call forth assistance for this task — for this warrant; to call forth his companion in destiny, the other Dragon Rider — Master Marsh.