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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Emperor's Son: Part 1

The Emperor’s Son

Chapter 1

  Hei Ming Jong cleared his mind and studied the board with a strong, determined look. There were 361 possibilities, a square of nineteen by nineteen points, minus those that had already been made, and each one had to be considered, however briefly. He could not be allowed to think the game rested in only one corner or one spot, the game was everywhere, every piece connected, however distantly, all tugging at each other, forming potential lines of rescue or enveloping waves of destruction. Shining white saviors or dead black raiders, innocently standing alone for now, but capable of expanding lightning fast in any direction, a stone dropped into a pond of possibilities, each of which had to be taken into account. Could he ignore the threat? Was there some place more valuable he could seize instead? It didn’t immediately look like a dangerous move, he traced out where he could escape in the next five moves if he ignored the threat now, but could he expect his opponent to have made a threat that would not work? Surely his opponent saw something that he did not, foolish child that he was. Time ticked as the judge watched silently and impassively. Other officers watched the game, whispering to one another their thoughts, while the great majority of the camp went about its routine business. Checking their equipment, tending to the horses, cooking their dinners of rice, cabbage, and a dash of fish. Soldiers needed meat or they would be too short and too weak. Peasants were always ready to join the army for that extra fish they could not afford with the product of their paddies. It was terrible how little the peasants ate, he thought, but that was their karma. God’s will that there was not abundant food for all, not his, but there must be abundant food for some or they would all starve together, there could be no rulers, no protectors, no guiders, we would become mere beasts, living day to day, hand to mouth, with a mind that opened and closed with the horizon and the sun’s rising and setting. For the peasants’ sake as well as their own, then, the fish that they fish for and the rice that they grow must go into our bellies, taken out of their backs and put into our gullets, and it was karma that they were born peasants and I am the son of an emperor, not my fault but the will of the Dao, the spirit, the life-force, the balancer of things and the arbiter of karma. And this is not helping me place my next piece I must concentrate and what is Lu Huang thinking I see nothing, nothing, no threat at all.
  Hei remained transfixed for two minutes looking at the opponent’s move, tracing out again and again what moves he would make in response to each possible next move Lu could make, checking twice each time to make sure the result was safe. Then, satisfied that his five pieces were safe if he moved elsewhere, he spent another five minutes searching for the best possible move in empty space there was. Not too far away from home, from mei, or they wouldn’t seize territory but only become in a separate struggle for life and all the land would be wasted and trod under by the armies marching and battling. In empty space they would probably live, but what for? The enemy would live as well, and the board would disappear futilely, his options would decrease and he was white, not black, which meant he could not afford to decrease options because he moved second, not first, and started off behind and must find a profit somewhere or sink. Far enough away that I earn the most possible points, enough to pay for the next five moves I’ll have to make for ignoring his attack. A twelve point move. Or at least eight points, and after the five turns, from there, another four could be earned, if I darted nimbly and lightly from lily to lily in this beautiful empty space, yes, eight and then four was more elegant than twelve, my master will approve, though he sits there with that stony silent face right now, he will smile inside when I make these two moves. If only I could play as well as him someday, surely I could die content. . .Hei placed his stone with no further hesitation, the polished milk-white jade heavy and smooth and pure and beautiful to see and feel between the fingers and the perfect ringing sound of the wood as the stone struck its ground, a martial sound, a proud sound, as though the stone were announcing itself to its enemies and calling out the names of his opponents—in the ancient days when wars were fought by champions and duels of the bravest and noblest decided the fate of nations, how different these days are. Yes, the heavens are a cycle, that is karma, the seasons follow one another, always the same, just as night follows day, and day follows night. Even when the moon goes out or the sun goes out, even when the shooting stars fly through and leave showers of their fire to streak the sky, all of it is a cycle and our astrologers can predict them all before they happen and our old men can remember when they happened before. Yes, and life is a cycle, old spawning young who grow old and spawn young and so on forever, even my life is just a cycle from whence I know not to where I know not, but for all that how changed things are now from how they used to be.
  Ten minutes had passed while Hei thought out his move. In contrast Lu looked at Hei’s move for a few seconds before deciding it could be thought of later, as the sente was his for the rest of his attack which Hei had ignored and afterwards the sente would still be his, as it had been continuously since the beginning of the game, which his karma had been good enough to give him this day, the smooth, dull jet stones which were more beautiful than women to see and more wonderful than women to hold which gave him the initiative, the sente, for which no amount of thanks could be given. Hei was too good otherwise, it was hard enough as it was. He struck, Hei reacted as he had to, Lu followed and Hei retreated again, Lu pressed again and Hei finally connected his five stones all the way back to home, where mei was not yet but mei would be if Lu ever wasted his time trying to assault it. The corners were castles that only fools and masters ever attempted to storm. Never besiege a castle. One of the infinite lessons Go taught the officers of Liu-Yang before they were released from the schools to become leaders of men on this great board of the middle kingdom, the center of the universe. Instead Lu placed an innocent enough piece to the side but again Hei had to fill in, and finally Lu had to fill in to respond to the offensive-defensive move so that all his new ground could not be counter attacked, and it was Hei’s first turn with sente, but surely that attack had been worth it, especially if Hei had moved there and not here as I had hoped, though foolish of me to hope, Hei studied it for ten minutes and of course he wouldn’t move there. That is my problem, I never think long enough and he always does. I make mistakes and he doesn’t. Not the obvious ones. Though he’ll always tell me how many mistakes he made that I never even saw but terrified him, he’s better at playing himself than I am, by all the gods. Here I’d counted on him going there and that way I would preserve sente but he went here, and his defense became offense all at once and I had to protect myself when I had wanted to disengage and look at his move in the empty space and now I never even took the time to see what he could do next from there and it will be harder to gut that territory, to slip inside and take out the innards, the fat that nourishes his line, the farmland that feeds the troops. How I wish to gut those intruders and surround his men and annihilate them, but Hei will never let it come to that, he skitters about like a waterbug across the lake, like the hummingbird kissing its flowers, ready to leave at any time without a trace, floating on air and only touching with the beak, never committed and always ready to retreat but somehow gaining ground anyway. How I hate playing Hei because I’ll never beat him and every time we play I lose face before our shikijo, our master, and before the other officers which I must command someday in war and what will they think, as I shout to them “forward!”, won’t it be in the back of their minds that this is the fool Lu who always loses at Go because he always attacks and never defends until it’s too late and this stupid Lu is shouting forward and that must mean we should retreat, not advance, if we hope to live. And if that is in the back of their minds, he might as well resign from the army now, because an army that did not trust its commander was already dead. And a commander that could not trust his army to follow his commands would go insane and have to kill himself for shame. So what is the use of playing, shikijo? I am a fool at Go but I am good at other things, let me go on to other things and escape this shame even though I love this game and love Hei and love shikijo and this very minute of the camp quieting down and huddling around campfires surrounded by my friends and comrades who I’ve trained with all these years and even though these are peaceful times and we wander around only because we should, it is good that the emperor’s son is my friend and that I am making him a better warrior, because someday he will lead us all and it is my karma to make him the best leader possible even if it makes me a worse leader, because I was born of a craftsman and he was born of the emperor.
  Hei moved again after healthy deliberation on how to extend his lily pad from five moves ago, happy with himself that the attack had gone as he predicted. This move would certainly repay all the cost of retreating his line back to home, and besides that line had become thicker and stronger now that it was connected, and maybe later he could go back to it and extend it further, now a juggernaut which could not be destroyed but only slowly brought to a halt with ropes of later pieces stretched far out to contain the momentum and not be overwhelmed. Yes, things were better now. He could not help but smile a little and his heartbeat quickened. Enough of that, the game would be an hour yet, though it must be finished before nightfall, will your heart race for an hour like some courier’s horse? Calm down and drop your lily pad, turn it into a spider web, then turn it into a locust cloud, stronger and stronger until the game ends, but always loose and separate, not thick and clumsy like some stupid bar that has infinite life but no space which can do nothing but bludgeon about and secure no new homes at all. Hei could already see the future pieces which would eventually be placed there, and there, and there, the yosi points which controlled groups of six points and twelve points each, which would make his formation invincible and overflowing with territory, even though Lu will take one of them he is too late. I got the first two moves in this void and so I will get two of the yosi, that is the way of Dao, of symmetry, and truly so long as I don’t make a mistake this game is mine. . .
  An hour later, both of the players agreed that they saw no more moves they could make of any worth, and the last light of the day faded to the many cheers for Hei Ming Jong, who had won by a healthy ten points even though he was white, which meant he had won by 15 points counting the komi. Hei smiled to see all of his friends cheering for him, smiled to see the Shikijo belabor Lu for making an attack when it would only work if Hei made a mistake. “It is okay to rely on the stupidity of your enemy if your enemy is stupid, but it is stupid to rely on the stupidity of your enemy if he is wise. Know your enemy or your self and you will win half the battles, know both your enemy and your self and you will win every battle, know neither your enemy nor your self and there is only disaster in your future, isn’t that what I’ve taught you? Surely you know Hei is not a fool? Because Hei is not a fool you lost even though you were black and should have won.” Lu nodded and flushed, wishing he had thought that move out before making it, wishing he could play over from that point, when before he had been doing so well. Can’t be helped. My karma to lose. At least it was too dark for the others to see me blush, that would be too terrible.
  “Hei Ming Jong, do not be so proud, you reached too far here, because you were confident of victory and your prior success, why does that make you think you can play like some drunkard in the end? What if Lu had gone here instead of there? You could not have connected, not and saved your entire other group, and then where would you be? A victory of 8 points if you had been safer, and because of that move, it would have been a victory of only 1 point, or even a loss. What if this was your real army? What if you are so sloppy with these men that you win by only one point, and then find out that you must play another game but you can’t move for four turns because last game those four stones had died?”
  Hei blushed and ducked his head. “Then we would surely be destroyed, shikijo.”
  “Yes, yes, at least you understand that. Four moves on any board is too many to ever recover from. But now it is time for sleep. You are both young, you must sleep if you wish to grow, and you must learn quickly, yes? Learn quickly, before there is no more time to learn.”
  “Yes, Shikijo,” they both said together and bowed. Then they shook their heads at each other with silent laughter, knowing they would see pigs fly before their master complimented them at Go, gathering the priceless stones to put back into their wooden bowls. Hei was still thinking of moves and countermoves and formations and lifelines, abuzz with the effort and his brain still spinning out Go, not knowing that the game was done and he no longer had to think about it. He carefully, quietly slowed his mind down, tried to make it relax, to rest so that he might rest as well. The game had been exhausting and exhilarating, but he could not sleep so long as these pictures of the battle kept burning through and making him almost automatically start placing stones and countering attacks. Even though it was all only in his head it still felt like the real game and he could not sleep until he had won it all over again. Mind, body, feelings, none of them follow my lead, Hei thought ruefully, they are always scattered about doing this or that, and all that is left to me is approval or disapproval. Can’t be helped. That is karma. God’s choice that I have no choice, not even over myself. How father will rage when I tell him I’ve fallen in love with a peasant, that going for a drink of water, she had been coming to fetch water and bring it back to her family, and now I’m in love with a peasant and it was God’s will, certainly not mine, I had thought only of getting water and rejoining the camp, but she won’t leave my mind or my heart and my eyes can recreate her just by closing them and what will I do? She looked so terribly thin. How little peasants eat. Of course I had to carry the water back for her, how could she possibly carry it the two miles back to her little home, every day, twice a day? Impossible to think of, her carrying that much weight miles when she couldn’t even weigh that much herself. . .of course I had to carry the water and then for two miles I stared at her and talked to her and when she thanked me by putting her hand on my arm I fell in love and it was karma, not my choice, that we met going for water at that very moment, so karma must make my father understand and karma must find the way for me to marry her or else there is no symmetry in the Dao but only chaos.

Chapter 2

  Hei Ming Jong was twenty years old, but he still felt like the day he had been caught eating rice cakes after being told he could not eat that day because he wouldn’t keep quiet during some ceremony or other. His father had been ready to execute him on the spot, only his mother had saved him then. “If a child will not heed my discipline, what further discipline will he heed the more? If he defies this, my punishment, he’ll defy the rest and laugh in my face the while. What’s the use then of keeping him, this unruly devil, to plague us in our old age, when he can be choked off now and done with as an example for the rest of the children? Little time and expense has been wasted on him as of yet, but if we delay, on our own heads be it!”
  “Yes, yes, of course you are right, but he was hungry, it is hard for children not to eat, and I am sure he forgot, in his childishness, your orders not to eat and did not mean to defy his father the Emperor of Liu-Yang, whose word is law and all must bow before. Surely you just forgot, son, in your hunger, your father’s wise orders and did not mean to disobey him?”
  Hei had been five, and crying in fear and also shame, but he did not know what to say. Of course he hadn’t forgotten that he wasn’t to eat, he had just wanted to eat and thought he could get away with it, because he was the Emperor’s son and could swear the cooks to silence. How could he have guessed that the Emperor had already told them to be on the lookout for his son and to summon him if he dared to ask for food? But now what could he do, he could not lie to them, but how could he tell his father the truth, that he had brazenly and knowingly defied his orders, hoping to get away with it? Either way would be his ruin, so Hei decided not to say a word, say nothing at all, and just keep crying and somehow mother would save him from his folly.
  “Look at him! He says nothing in his defense! And what defense can he have? Did he hear my command? Is not the rice on his lips and hands? Has he gone against me or not? Shall treason be punished with death for everyone else, but for Hei, with life and rice cakes? Shall the Emperor be thought a fool in the world because he cannot control his own house? No, by the Dao, there will be harmony in my household, and by the Dao, there will be balance, and when I say, “do not do this,” it shall not be done. And when I am defied, the consequence must follow!” Father shouted, all the cooks and maids looking on petrified in terror.
  “Yes, yes of course everyone will obey you. Yes, everyone knows that, of course little Hei knows this. Tell your father, Hei, tell him you know that you must obey your father in all things, that when he says ‘do’, you shall do, and when he says, ‘do not’, you shall do not. Please, child, tell your father you understand and obey!” Mother was equally frantic, her words quickly passing from one to the next.
  Hei had gulped back his tears and kowtowed before his father, putting his head to the carpet on all fours, crying over and over for mercy, that he knew his father’s word was law and that he would always obey, always, that he would be a good child and please don’t execute me for treason even though I deserve it because it will never happen again.
  After a minute of silence, father nodded brusquely, deeming it a fit apology, and left with, “Do not presume upon my mercy again, child.” Mother had hugged him and wiped his tears away quickly. Scolding him with a ferocity of her own, “Is this how you honor your father, by defying him in his own house? First you must disobey us and disrupt the court and make father look foolish, and then, with this tiny punishment, that you should not eat for the day, you flout even this, and shame me, that I cannot control my own son, who has no regard for honor or shame? Is this the son of an Emperor, who the people must trust to rule over them? How shall I be spoken of, who breeds such adders up for progeny? If not for your own life, think of mine, before you go slinking and lying about again. Now get back to your room, and think of what you have done, and what you plan to do in the future.” Afterwards the two parents had gone to their chambers and laughed at the terror Hei had shown at his father’s words, thanking karma that children were like wax when young, and required only a strong impression then, for it to become hard and fast in that mold for the rest of their years. Remembering a similar moment in Rin Su Jong’s childhood and how well it had worked for the older brother as well.
  From that day forward Hei had been an obedient son, if not perfectly, as much as he possibly could and still be happy. Until today, when as though something outside of himself had snatched away all his wits and all his scruples and cast him helpless before his father’s wrath once more. Because Hei had no thought of dissimulation or plotting, when he had returned to the capital, he simply cast his fate to karma and told his father what had happened.
  “So you love a peasant? Well then, you are of age, have done with her until your senses are restored. I suppose we have waited too long to marry you off and this is the result. Very well then, dally with her until we find a good match for you amongst the kingdoms. Just don’t throw too many promises and jewels to her, or it will be hard on her in the future. I shall consult with your mother to find a suitable match from one of the seven kingdoms. A second son is sufficient for a first daughter, you need not fear in that. Besides, it would be best to marry into Ch’i, as they have been grumbling especially hard these recent days about supposed slights and offenses, and this could bring harmony back to our borders.” The king waved his son away, the audience ended.
  “I’m sorry father, but I don’t mean to marry anyone but this self-same peasant. Nor love any other but her for the rest of my days.”
  His father turned an angry gaze upon his son. “What is this presumption? Did you hear what I said? Love whomever you will, you will marry as I command, as I see fit, or you will no longer be my son.”
  “I understand father, and I beg forgiveness, but I have only one answer to all your queries and all your commands: that it can’t be helped, I will marry her and no other.”
  “So you will, will you? You will marry her and no other? We shall see about that! Until you come back to your wits you shall be confined to your chambers, your peasant wench be damned. I should like to see you marry her there!”
  “Unless you take my head from my body, I shall marry her.” Hei said confidently, “But do as you like until you see for yourself.” The funniest thing, Hei thought as guards escorted him to a small room which, nonetheless, had all the amenities one could wish for, is that she doesn’t even know I love her, much less that I intend to marry her. The funniest thing is I don’t even know her name. Or if she’s even married already. Or anything at all about her. And for this shadow of a dream of an image of a girl, I have already pledged my head upon the chopping block. What a ridiculous feeling this is, how ridiculous I am to obey it, I shall surely be the butt of every comedy and satire for all the days to come. Truly I am mad to have said this to my father, I am mad but it can’t be helped, I can do nothing else, I must have her. And the more terrible the price to get her, only the more terrible this passion for her will grow, until one or the other shall have its way! Dead or married! Let God choose betwixt the twain!
Sun Jong paced back and forth in his room, his wife studiously quiet and calm. “What can be done with this boy?” He finally asked in exasperation. “He is as determined as a rock, he speaks to me like he’s never spoken before. ‘nevertheless’, and ‘be that as it may’ and, by God, when did this happen to our perfect son who has till now consigned himself to our wishes without complaint or excuse and excelled in all his studies and all his commands as an officer? Why, just the day before his shikijo says Hei could become eight-dan at Go with proper application. Eight-dan! Can you imagine the fame that will bring our House? All the seven kingdoms would be amazed. God be praised this hasn’t leaked out any further, that he keeps his tongue and says nothing of why he is being held in disgrace. A peasant! A filthy peasant! If I knew her name I would kill her and be done with it.”
  “Speak not of such things. How can she be blamed? It was karma.”
  “It is karma that he is a prince and she is a peasant, is it not? How can it be karma that they love each other? No! This is just a willful stubborn child with a petty whim, it must pass.”
  “But it’s already been two months. I’ve spoken to him, you’ve spoken to him, even little Yue has spoken to him. What can be done? He no longer listens to any of us.”
  “Stubborn child! Could he not inherit a foreign throne by marriage and be equal with his older brother? Has he not been brought up to be an able ruler and warrior? Was anything lacking in his care? What reason to go against us now?”
  “It is karma.” Mae Ling Jong said again, soothing him as she had yesterday and the day before. “No one is to blame for karma.”
  “And shall I, the emperor, back down after I have said it will not happen? Shall I back down from my own son? Not if he must stay there for a year, ten years, one hundred!”
  “But he has spoken the same, that nothing short of death shall swerve him. Has he ever lied to us before? Did he hide this from us, knowing how you would respond? Is there any reason to doubt his resolve after he has spoken it?”
  “What can be done?” Sun asked in exasperation. “Suppose I kill him, what point to that? There is no gain in that. It makes no sense. What can I threaten him with? He must know I will not kill him. He’s no use to me if I chop off his arms or break his mind. There he is, invincible in his cage, because there’s no gain in harming him. I’m the Emperor and he’s completely disarmed me.”
  “It’s your kindness that disarms you. If nothing more can be done to him, then there is nothing but to keep him where he is, or allow him to marry this peasant woman and disappear into obscurity. He is only the second son, his children will not be Emperor, so does it really matter if they are peasants?”
  “He is a wise and good man, well thought of in many courts. With proper diplomacy, he could have married a princess and ruled in his own right. Such folly! Only thank God we did not approach a princess yet, if she were scorned in favor of a peasant, they would declare war, all because of his stupid heart!”
  “But he is promised to no other. We needn’t worry about that.”
  “So he hasn’t started a war, but what if his marriage could start a peace? How do we know what potential good his marriage shall cost us, even if it does no harm? Suppose it is harmless he marries this peasant and disappears, what of that? Is it not harmful of him to not do good for us, to lose what gains we can gain from him?”
  “It can’t be helped, what princess will accept such a grudging mate? He is no use to another girl, however high or fair. It is karma that his heart has been taken, karma that it will not relent, how can we dispute the will of Heaven? Shall we say to the Dao, “this and this may you command, but for our son it is needful that he promotes good will between Liu-Yang and Ch’i, and you shall have no authority over him?”
  “We cannot dispute with the heavens, but I fear they are laughing at us, and this is some joke of theirs rather than hidden wisdom.” Sun Jong sighed. Karma that his son suddenly and unlike anything in his preceding conduct should fall in love and defy me. Is not the abruptness of the change the mark of heaven and not the will of man? Is not Hei just as much a pawn of karma as I, who must submit to him? One day, my son, the next, full of ‘nevertheless’ and ‘as you will, but it shall be as I say—‘. Oh, to have my son back! Not to man, but to the Dao I must bend my head. Surely it is grace enough that my eldest son was not afflicted with this madness. I shall wait two more months and if he still does not bend, it is karma and there is no changing it. If he marries a peasant, he shall no longer be my son, but merely a peasant, so have I said and so shall it be. Let him love who he wills, but I will not support this shameful act, not with word or deed. Let him work for his bowl of rice a day from sunup to sundown, and feed his own children that shall ask him for sassafras and shrimp, with yet less rice than his own. Let him groan in worries and cares that he should grow sick, and his entire family starve without his back to aid them. Let him wear nothing more than a loincloth, and allow his children to run around naked, and his wife to wander bare-breasted through the fields, subject to all onlookers, for lack of cloth to clothe her. Shall having his way be so great as he imagines? Shall he not repent his choice, and come back to me asking forgiveness, that he knew nothing of a peasant’s life and would do anything to escape it? Will he not be chastened by this and come back willing to marry whom I say, in less than a year if even that? Marry as he likes, but he’ll make a concubine of her soon enough, and then I shall have my son back, and the favor to Ch’i that shall quiet my borders. Yes, it is karma that he shall marry, but who can know what his karma is from there? Perhaps his road is more circuitous than he believes.
“Will you not desist with this senseless obduracy?” Rin Su Jong asked his younger brother as they sat over a go board, one of Hei’s only sources of entertainment in the prison of his room. “It drives my father to distraction, it destroys the harmony of our house, it makes us all lose face—to love a peasant! Think of others and not of yourself for a moment.”
  “How can it be helped what others think or say about my actions? Have I done anything to anyone? Have I harmed anyone? Then why is it my fault if someone should decide to take grievance for something or other that I’ve done? It is you who has chosen to be shamed, my father has chosen to be distracted, his dictates have disturbed the peace, which could peacefully let me free. No matter how long I stay here nothing will be changed, so why this storm? It is your choice, not mine, for it to end and everyone to be happy again. Your choice, then, not mine, to be sad now.” Hei negligently placed his stone in a safe place, not concentrating on the game but only the argument. His brother was a good man, but Hei did not fear him as a go player.
  “Sophisms,” Rin waved his hand to clear the air of Hei’s arguments. “A prince should marry a princess, what is more simple than that? Suppose you love this peasant, so be it! What is that to you? It is your duty to marry a princess all the same. What is love? A butterfly in the wind. A light and trifling thing. Let love fly where it wills, and let you do what is right and just.” Rin placed a third stone around Hei’s single one, knowing that would make Hei retreat a pace, though he wasn’t sure how that would help him, at least he kept sente with it.
  “It is as you say, but nevertheless, I am determined.” Hei retreated one back to give his stone two more lives.
  “This ‘nevertheless!’ Always this ‘nevertheless!’ How can you agree with me and still say ‘nevertheless!”
  “Because you are arguing with my mind, and not my heart, which says ‘nevertheless’ to me and thee.” Hei smiled ruefully.
  “This heart of yours is leading you to disaster. Shall father forgive you your heart and its ‘neverthelesses’ ? You will be disowned, and even I won’t be able to help you. Father is healthy and not so old, will you live in exile from your family for the next thirty years? How little Yue will cry for the lack of you! Should she be punished for your heart’s ‘nevertheless’ ?”
  “It wrings my heart when you speak of her.” Hei moved another L and Rin’s attempt at encirclement was annulled. Hei supposed he could have cross-cut instead and stamped out the attackers, but that would be shameful to Rin and why attack when I’ll win anyway with just these L’s? “But what can be done? It is father’s will that I can not be prince and married to a peasant, not mine. If you care for Yue, ask father to reinstate me.”
  “You know father will not budge on this.” Rin grimaced. “If you still attended dinners and functions you would hear how angry he is with you as it is, and that’s before he has to relent to this foolish marriage. How will it be after? I doubt I’ll dare to even mention your name. And think on this, if you do not marry a princess of Ch’i, our little Yue may have to marry a prince of Ch’i, to make it up.”
  Hei paused. “Surely father has not promised Ch’i a marriage, knowing I cannot marry!” There was a real note of worry in his voice that had been resigned up until now.
  “No, no promise has been made. But who knows what the future will hold? Times are tense with Ch’i. If you were at court you would hear their ambassadors. Threats are brewing across the border of our lack of ‘respect’ and the Tang complain of our ‘exorbitant’ tariffs. This would be a good time to make friends, not enemies. And if you are not willing, then who is left? I am already betrothed to the lady Qiao Lin Fu, to ensure the ancient line of the Fu kings of Liu-Yang are consubstantial with our own, that can trace only back to our grandfather. Did you ever hear me complain that I was only marrying a lady and not a princess? Me, the eldest son? Did I ever chase after women here and there, or complain I did not love my wife to be? Why should your heart have sway and mine not? And here is little Yue, only thirteen, shall she be made a queen, her maidenhead stolen to appease Ch’i or Tang? Is your love worth more than her tender limbs?” Rin pressed the attack, trying to divide the L’s.
  “Father wouldn’t!” Hei backpedaled, connecting with a diagonal now that a straight line couldn’t be done. Which made Rin retreat a space to keep his piece alive, so Hei naturally united the bottom trunk to the new line one space further back. A shame that Rin kept sente, but he was black and that was karma.
  “And suppose it is that or war?” Rin had now attacked the top part of the diagonal, but that was too much even for Hei, who cut it off into the awaiting arms of the rest of his army. Rin did not have to place more stones to see their fate, so he abandoned the attack and moved for the yose point in the right-hand corner.
“Even then! That is too cruel.” Hei finally answered, having thought about it for a minute. “Yue still plays with dolls, and she should be a wife and mother? For shame. We have more honor than that, to deliver our sister to Ch’i wolves for the ravaging.”
“How fortunate for you to make demands of our family honor while proclaiming you have no intention of upholding it yourself!” Rin snorted.
“Goad me as you will, I do not believe father would marry Yue to anyone, and I do not believe that Ch’i would demand such a thing, suitable only for barbarians, on pain of war! This is far-fetched reasoning that my love must be sacrificed when there is no danger and you the heir and father healthy. Let me go, you shall never know the difference! I am not needed, I’m the spare!” Hei laughed. “And thankfully we have both lived to maturity, it is karma that you are willing to rule and I am not. Is it not for the best to avoid having some younger brother nipping at your heels, ready to inherit the throne ahead of your own children? That only causes dissension and distrust between brothers. Why not remove me now while we still love each other?”
Rin laughed in return. “Shall I believe you capable of harming a fly, much less killing me and usurping the throne? Surely if my threat is idle yours is idler still.”
“Shall I threaten to usurp you so I can be released from this room? I am resolved to marry, and why doubt my resolve? I shall make you want me gone if I must.”
“It is not my choice, but father’s, so cease your joking.” Rin looked at the board with disgust and saw that Hei had somehow claimed over half the board as territory and there was no good place to attack him left. “Why I even play you is beyond me.” Rin shook his head and gave up light-heartedly.
“It’s because you miss me and want me happy.” Hei smiled and started gathering up the stones.
“Shall I tell my father another ‘nevertheless’?” Rin sighed.
“It can’t be helped.” Hei sighed again. “How I wish this could all come to a happy end and our family be at peace again.”
“And I as well, but you and father are as stubborn as rocks, and when have two rocks meeting on a road ever budged to give the other way? I fear you two shall sit and wait for the other to give until you’re both grayed with age.”

Chapter 3

Hei Ming Jong had kept perfectly in his mind the place where he had met the girl he loved, but he did not know if she remembered him in the least. Much less what she would think of him, or if she had met another during his house arrest, or anything of the sort. He had left his father’s house penniless, though little Yue had sneaked out to see him off, and offered him her own jewels and the very silk off her back to enrich him, saying she could always get more, but that would not have accorded with father’s edict and so he left penniless, and penniless I must go to this girl and offer my now base-born hand. As a prince she surely would have swooned at my suit, but what am I now but a fleshy dandy, who knows nothing of farming nor husbanding? Though it is stretching thin to think me a fop, who has lived in the army these past five years. The muscles to lift a hoe are little different from those that lift a sword. The long marches shall see me from row to row, my saddle sores shall comfort my back sores as I lean over to pick the rice. I am not useless to her, and the Dao knows I love her more than any other ever could. I have come this far, and shall I go no further? I have given up everything for her, though she knows nothing of it, and shall I not have her in good stead? Hei had not even been allowed a horse, so it would take weeks to return to that little village and its little well. Though the rice was irrigated, that was the rice’s water, muddy and foul, mixed with the offal and waste of beast and man, and the people had to get their own water all the same. Now if canals could be dug like tunnels, and then pushed up to the rice by some force, how clean and pure it would be! But instead all those downstream from the very source must fear for their health, and so it is karma that we must work so hard for a resource so abundant. God’s will, not ours, that the water we need is so full of worms and pestilence that our poor continuously suffer whether they drink it for thirst, or avoid drinking it though thirsty. God’s will that water is so precious it is almost impossible for the poor to be clean, even though we have the greatest rivers in all the middle kingdom, and the richest soil that rice grows as if by its own will in such amounts that we sell it to other lands. The peasants starve so that we might trade their rice for silk, iron, and all manner of good things. But what is to be done? Shall we have rice and no iron, and be conquered in war and have no tools in peace? Shall we have rice and no silk, and die of this southern heat and humidity that is so conducive to the rice? Shall we have rice and not the ingenious inventions and skilled workmanship of Tang, that gave us compasses to guide our ships and abacuses to count our cows, paper money to conduct our business and a counting system which makes business easy? Once Tang owned all seven kingdoms on account of their greatness, but even now where would we be without them? And shall we have no spices from Mae-Dong, that get them from yet further west, to preserve our meat with, and make our cabbage as good as meat to taste? Suppose we kept all the rice for ourselves, would we be any better off? And even then it is not a fair question, because the moment we had more rice, the peasants would have more babies to eat it with, and in a single generation we would all be back to starving again, Liu-Yang’s women are as fertile as their river valleys, there is no end to the hungry mouths they birth. Hei smiled and shook his head. No longer ‘the peasants’, but ‘we peasants,’ he should say. If not for this strange love he too would despise them as his family had done, but he must give over these airs and come as one penitent and beseeching, not imperious and demanding. For where was his empire now? Liu-Yang has many people, more people than any two other kingdoms put together, even Pi, that shares as great a river as our own, and shall I despise the peasants for this? Is it not our strength, to have so many hands and backs under one head and guided by one will? Does not the Empire live or die based on the ko of rice these fields produce? So leave off this plague of peasants talk, for you are one of them and surely you don’t intend to hate yourself.
If only I could be a peasant and yet visit little Yue and yet stay with the army where all my friends remain and did not have to give over my entire previous life of nobility. Surely this choice was madness, that, having won my way, already my heart turns to grief and longing. If only Yue hadn’t caught up to me on the road and cried for me to come home, that she would be good and never say anything mean again if I would just stay her older brother. This same heart I risk everything for, is it made of flint or yet harder stone, that it could ignore those tears and my sister’s pleas? Why is a heart torn so between loves? Shall I prefer one? Then I am miserable for the lack of the other. Shall I prefer the other? Then I am miserable for lack of the one! And how now, shall I have them both, when at such cross purposes they stand? And is this not true of everything? Here I must trade rice for silk, but who among us does not wish for both rice and silk? Or here I must go to war to protect my land, but who among us does not wish for land and peace? Here I must spend time with this friend, only to lose time with another friend, who decries my wandering ways and fickle fellowship. Here I must tell the truth, and be mocked for it, or tell lies, and be honored for it, and who among us would not wish for both truth and honor? I have chosen happiness, my lot is sorrow! Beware any choice at all, walking down one path only leads you further from the rest! And shall I make no choice? Then have no path at all! Is this karma, that each life may enjoy only one thing, if even that, though we want them all? Oh if only I could remember my previous lives and look with hope to my future lives, so that in each one, I could seek out one perfection, and in each other, the next, until I had hoarded up all the joys of life and man, and in the next life to have only to sit down and review them from one to the next, and that should be my heaven! But it can’t be helped, not man but God is maker and ruler, not I but karma has chosen my fate, and it is for me to embrace it or deny it, approve or disapprove, and naught else. And who is mad enough to deny his own karma, and like a dog, run from his own life? Then let me accept this my decision and God’s, or continue in these tears and laments forever to no purpose or end.
And with that a measure of peace was restored to his mind, and his step became more firm and sure. Foolish enough to lose all that he had before for hopes of what was to come, yet more foolish that through regrets over what came before, he lost all that was to come as well.

“Peace, Lae-Ling! Enough of this gossip, you know I am a maiden. Let Jon speak me fair to myself and all the world, until he speaks of marriage, what of it all? And shall he speak of marriage, with no farm of his own, and no means to support his family? Shall I leave my father’s house for that?” Da Fing Zhou shook her head vehemently and returned to her loom with expert care.
“You are too penny-pinching! Jon is set to inherit the farm when his father dies, isn’t that better than most men can offer? Suppose times are rough at first, what of it? Are there children at first? Your wealth will rise up apace to your needs, unless you continue rejecting all these suits and have no home at all for your own.” Lae-Ling lectured, her best friend and married already six months ago, who thought it a tragedy that they had not married together as they had done everything else together. “Until you marry you are only a child, only a grub! Until you marry you know nothing of life or anything. Until there rests a child in your belly how can you call yourself a woman?” Lae-Ling obliquely pointed out her own pride in her own swelling belly. “What, did the gods make man and woman so that they might live apart, and bicker about inheritances and farms? Or did they make a stick and a hole, to come together with? And how can I speak of anything with you when I can’t even describe this? I am at a loss whenever I’m with you to say anything, so far apart we are now.”
Da laughed. “And yet your mouth never finds a moment to cease, for all this loss of speech! Though I had cried ‘peace!’ and ‘enough!’ a dozen times, here I’m told that you speak too little and not too much.”
“Please consider Jon again, and if not him, then another. What, will you always be this beautiful, like some princess who avoids the sun and soaks her face in rose water? Like some sorceress who can summon devils and spirits and bathe in the blood of newborns to restore her youth? Or will you have some charm or amulet to ward away death and her sister decay? Many claim to have them, and all are willing to sell them, but so far I have seen it do little good for all our elders nor even the sellers themselves! Then trust not to sorcery or chance, but marry now when the gods have decreed you should be beautiful and that men shall flock to you. Do you believe these suitors will last forever? Fie on you, is your mother so beautiful that you count on winning over wooers when you reach her age?”
Da laughed again. “Your six months with all your prating has stretched to sixty years, I fear, and I am already a withered hag if I delay a day more.”
“Don’t leave these things to chance, that on everything depends. A good husband is the only difference between bliss and misery, for all the rest of your years! Come now, do promise Jon you will marry him, how long must he wait and pine for you?”
“Did I ask him to pine for me? What are his tears and groans and sighs to me? He is the cause of them, not I, and it is his to continue or cease--I certainly have done nothing to encourage them.”
“Oh, could a woman’s heart be so hard as yours? Do you feel no pity, no remorse for the man?”
“Perhaps I do feel for him, shall I become miserable in his stead? Shall any dog in the street suffer that I must quickly run to it and trade his pain for my own? Let him make an honest living, and then he may speak of an honest wife to live with.”
“Let him make an honest living, and he shall have a dozen honest wives to choose from.” Lae-Ling threatened. “Strike now when this ‘honest living’ of yours is assured, though it come by and by, and his heart is yours. Shall you stake your chances on a love by and by, when his honest living is made?”
“Oh, let him not love me, if his love is so quick to change the moment another girl bats her eyes! Have done, Lae-Ling, how you vex me with these questions! Have I not resolved? And when have I broken my resolve?”
“And if I had resolved to kill myself, would you stand by and allow it, all because I say, ‘I have resolved, and when have I broken my resolve?’” Lae-Ling countered again.
“Ach, you are too clever for me, please, peace! Peace! Let me work in peace! Though you have the better of me with that endless-speaking tongue, at least let me weave as I am accustomed to weave, and not usurp my reputation here as well.”
A male voice interrupted their conversation, coming in from the fields. “Da Zhou, you have a visitor. Would you please come out?” Father didn’t sound the least happy with strange men asking for her. Had this stranger brought shame to his house, was this why she had put off marriage so long? If so he was going to thrash her, whether mother would have it or no. He was poor but he would not be shamed in his own house by harlots, daughters as they may be. His house was not a house of harlotry, and he would thrash the whore right out of her if he saw one fair look between them.
Thankfully that was not to be. When Da Zhou came out to meet this stranger, her only look was curious and confused. “Who is this, father, a friend of yours? Or a distant cousin perhaps?”
“He says that you met once before, while fetching water as you commonly do.”
“Oh, but I have met so many people fetching water, how could I remember one from the next? And why should this fetching of water bring him to our house, what should it matter who sees me on my daily walk?”
Father smiled and turned to the stranger. “You see how it is, I fear you have made the journey in vain, she remembers nothing of you and perhaps that is just as well, Jon has already confessed his love to her and it would not do to scorn his father, who owns full twice as many rice plots as ours.”
Hei kept his face straight while thinking to himself, ‘and what if my father owns all the plots of rice in the entire land, shall I be equal to this Jon of yours?’ “I am but a poor man and have but a poor claim upon you, good maid, that once I walked with you and carried your water, but I daresay my love is like unto a thousandfold a thousand Jons and all their fathers’ rice plots.”
Da Zhou blushed, not being used to such words. Did she remember this man? Was there someone who had carried her water back once, that had struck her in the least? For a pretty girl there were always men ready to carry her water, and she always thanked them when they did, but who was he to take any more from that than what it was? She stood flustered. “How is it you can love me so much and I not even know your name, nor, it seems, you even know my own?”
“It is karma,” Hei shrugged. “But easily amended, for my name is Hei Ming Jong, and yours, I believe, is Da Zhou, if your father spoke truly when he called for you.”
“Such a name for such a title, what, shall peasants call themselves after emperors?” Da scoffed, trying to find time to know what to say about his first words.
“It is the name my father gave me, and so I shall go by it all the same.” Hei spoke carefully.
“And shall you love me, for this, that you once carried some water back for me?”
“Yes, and more than a thousand Jons I love you, and for that alone.”
“I am at a loss--how can words so lacking in wit be with wit gainsaid?” Da smiled to herself though, what a strange and peculiar man. How unlike Jon in his pose and his looks, how unapologetic his words and pressing, as though they had some merit merely because they came from his lips! Is this not some joke or conspiracy of Lae-Ling’s? Or some god pretending to be a man to have a fling with me, who has caught his eye, and will disappear on the morrow? There hasn’t been someone so rare and interesting to spar with in all my years, and I shall miss this mystery and excitement when it is gone, which it must be in only a few moments more.
“Only try me, and you will be satisfied. Shall I write thee poems? I have the fairest hand and the most courtly speech. Shall I sing for you? Or dance? Or play an instrument? All of these I can do and better than anyone else. Shall I woo thee with fair words? Have I not already done so more than this Jon or any other? Shall I seek out opals or pearls for you to wear? Only give the word, and I shall find them. Shall I vaunt my strength and martial skills? Bare-handed I could handle half your village, with a stick two villages together. Shall I shoot arrows into trees or jump hurdles in a saddle? Ask, and I can do it, and better than all the rest. Have I too little money? And do you think with all these skills I can not earn it? Am I untrustworthy? Have I not sought you out, who could not even remember me, after four months, solely from one instance with thee?”
Da’s eyes widened with remembrance. “Oh I do remember! Yes, four months ago, was it? But you were dressed so gallantly then, with a sword at your belt, and the best silk of Ch’in on your shoulders. And is this the same man as then? What, why come to me in leathers and speak of pennies, when four months ago you looked nigh unto royalty?” Father’s eyes slanted in suspicion that Da was genuinely falling for this madman.
“Fortune’s wheel turns, and those on top soon find themselves below, but belike it shall turn again, and I count it fairest fortune to be bereft of silks and swords, but to hear these words, “I do remember!” from your lips. Now from mine I swear, that I love thee and no other, and I must die without you, and must kill this Jon and a dozen of his rice owning fathers if you choose him before me, so spare us all and say that you shall have me, that my karma is not a cruel trick but a replacement for all I’ve traded for thee.”
“Hold it! How can you ask my daughter’s hand so abruptly? Is this how you, from foreign parts, are accustomed to deal with each other? Be assured that it is not our way, and you can not go about willy-nilly saying ‘you and no other’!” Father spoke, incensed. Even so, he paused, remembering the man’s claim that he could wrestle down half the village. And also his threat to kill any who stood between him and her. This man was too unpredictable to risk lifting a hand against him, though his forwardness merited it and a boot to his arse as well.
“And here is the second time you have said this ‘karma’. What is karma? I’ve never heard of it before.” Da asked, completely ignoring her father.
Hei looked stunned. Who hadn’t heard of karma, the fate of all things the Dao animated and controlled? Marvelous ignorance, to not even know how it is you live or why you live as you do! Hei gathered his thoughts. “Karma is your fate, as merited by your actions, now and in previous lives, which the Dao gives out to all for the sake of harmony and balance, so that what you do unto others shall return unto you, in one form or another. It is fate and justice and destiny and necessity. How can one be ignorant of it, when it is with us every moment of our lives?”
“The gods control our fate,” Da countered. “Everyone knows that. For travelers, the god of traveling holds sway. For farmers, the god of farming, and the god of earth, and the god of rain, and the sun god, well, and many gods, but farming is so important that one god can’t be expected to rule it all. For warriors, the god of war rules, and for everything, there stands its requisite god, watchful and jealous of the others that they might encroach on his sphere of influence and steal away offerings and prayers meant for him.”
Hei laughed uproariously. “Shall a god of travel be fearful and jealous, lest too few people travel, and he be powerless? Or shall a god require offerings to be happy that humans can make but he cannot? Surely you jest. These gods I take for nattering midwives who all crowd around a single birth, pushing and prodding each other for the delivery, and yet none of them the creator! Is the god of gods humanity, then, that all the gods should exist only to serve us?”
“How can you speak such things!” Da Zhou hissed, crossing her fingers to avoid the evil eye. “Do you think the gods are deaf? Do you insult the gods and dare their anger? Beg forgiveness while you can, lest they strike you down where you stand!”
“By God I shall not. With a stick I can defeat two of your villages, but with this pinkie I shall defeat a thousand thousands of your fractious and quibbling gods!” Hei laughed again.
“He is mad.” Father and Da Zhou said together.
“Not mad.” Hei assured them quickly. “Only better informed. In high places and sagely I have trod, and amidst libraries of books I have often sat, and with the best scholars of the land I have been taught, and this only is why I laugh, that you have not had the same chance as I to away with these silly superstitions, and know the truth.”
“Are you the son of a scribe, then, to know so much? And shall you become a scribe, for the support of this daughter of mine you insist on having?”
“Certainly, if you wish me to be a scribe, I shall become one forthwith.” Hei smiled, having been taught by the best scribes all that they knew.
“This karma, is this what scribes write about in their books?” Da Zhou asked hesitantly. To her and other peasants, reading and writing was a type of magic, that only sorcerers could hope to command. She had always wondered what all those readers and writers were saying to each other, those deep secrets which could be carried from one to any other if they only knew the code.
“This and many other things. They chart the course of the stars, they chart the course of the oceans, they travel to all the far off lands and tell us of them, they recount our history and the fables of the three dynasties. They draw circles and triangles and speak of rules about them. Why, what can a book not do that a mind can do? What shall a mortal know that a book cannot speak to another? All that is, is written, and all the wisdom of the world begins with this, that you can read it.” Hei answered.
“This sounds more like sorcery than scribery.” Da Zhou spoke, but in her heart she was soaring to unthought of heights. And if he teaches me how to read, and lets me walk with him in these libraries? Shall I not give him sons for that? Is there any treasure not worth giving for that? And that my children shall read and write and become proud officials of the court as well! Whatever his strange love for me is, or his strange deportment, or his strange dress, that he can read, is this not reason enough to marry him? Yes! Reason enough and more to overwhelm a thousand Jons! O what fortune that he should love me, he a scribe, and I a peasant!
“Then I shall not be a scribe, and be whatever else you please. It is all one to me.” Hei Ming Jong shrugged, not in the least deterred.
“No! No! Perish the thought! Be my scribe and teach me these things and I shall be your bride! There is nothing I won’t give thee! Do you wish for sons? I shall have sons. Do you wish for daughters? Daughters I will give! Do you wish for a happy home? Shall I not make it so? A warm bed? Am I not warm?” With that she snatched up his hand with her two own. “Give off this thought of other things! A scribe, a scribe, and my husband you shall be!” Da was practically fainting with excitement. Her cheeks glowed red and her eyes darted to and fro across his face like a thirsty gazelle.
“Enough, I have heard the words, now may I die happy.” Hei beamed triumphantly. “Let’s off, then, to the nearest city. I shall pass the civil exam forthwith.” Father would not have him be a part of his court, but he could not begrudge him winning a position of merit, in some local magistracy or another, which would suffice them both for wealth and honors. The thought hadn’t occurred to him until she brought it up, he was sure he would have to farm or herd, but this was far more reasonable. He had just sort of thought that of course everyone knew as much as he did, that all of them had the same skills as he did, but when he thought about it, he was suited for more than the farmers were, he could do more.
“What, shall you take my daughter with this talk of witchcraft and this mockery of our gods? No, this has gone on too long, and if I had suspected Da, who has rejected so many suitors before, to bend so willingly to this your crazy suit, I should have broken off speech long ago. But no more! Be off, sorcerer and madman! Trouble us no more.” Father attempted to push the man away, but suddenly found himself caught by the arm and fallen over.
“I am sorry sir, to shame you in front of your daughter, so please don’t attempt to hit me again. Now shall we go? Whatever dear things you have, be ready to carry them with you, as we have a long walk and no beasts to burden our things with.”
“Yes. . .yes of course.” Da looked once more at her father, who she had thought a giant and invincible, so easily handled that she wasn’t sure it had even happened. He was not boasting before. Am I marrying a scribe, sorcerer, or warrior? What of it, all three are grander than I! It is karma that he should appear from nowhere and speak love to me, is it not? Do these things happen without God’s will behind them? Isn’t that what he said when he came, that this was karma? On Karma’s head it be, then, for I shall follow him from here on.

Chapter 4

  Hei Ming Jong sat with his wife in his humble quarters adjacent to all the other civil servants that surrounded the palace of the Emperor’s Court. During the day he copied down the claims and counterclaims of townsmen who came before the judge, and looked up with others the various codes and laws and precedents which could apply to the current case. After a couple months of this he had begun to see everything in categories, boxed into simple preordained arrangements which followed inexorably one from the next. For everything a law and a law for everything. Karma, but without any mystery, all written down cleanly and simply, to be read off a sheet of parchment. What, have you stolen a cow? Then you shall be whipped and fined three cows. What, have you reneged on your deal, witnessed by two others? What of it, that none of you could sign a contract, two witnesses are two witnesses, and the law of Liu-Yang requires only two witnesses to testify that the deal was made. For this you shall pay the damages accrued by the other for your reneging, and a black mark shall be painted on your door to your home, your shops, and on each of your clothes, and if you are ever seen without that black mark that warns all honest men away from you—then on your head be it. What, did it not rain enough for you to possibly fulfill your word? It was karma, not you? Well then, and you can’t repay the damages because this lack of rain has ruined you as well? Then shall I recompense you both, and you, having this new capital, shall make good in this next year what karma denied you for this—and you, also a victim of karma though once removed, to you shall this farmer pay in full the original contract, plus another twenty percent when this next year allows it of him, and thus shall your losses become gains. Do not thank me but the Emperor, who in his mercy makes the laws.
  Hei Ming Jong, from this seat of record taker and keeper, began to know more about his father through his law than he did as his son. The elder son had been groomed for matters of law and treaties, he had been groomed for the military, as his brother’s loyal and trustworthy right hand. One of the worst parts of rule was the lack of people one could trust, and there could be no possibility that the commander of the armies would turn on the Emperor, or all was lost. Even trusting that role to a brother was a necessary risk, such was the venomous influence of ambition. Though the emperor of course was the commander of all the armies, he could not be out in the field with them all his days, like his generals were, and he could not promise them advancement and rewards that his generals could should the army mutiny and crown him emperor. All the Emperor could promise was the normal pay and normal discipline, which no soldier was ever content with, lest he bankrupt the nation. But what does a general care if the nation should go bankrupt, if he’s already willing to send it into a civil war and bleed the nation white and weak to any foreign vulture--what, shall he even be as honorable as that?—or shall he not invite the foreign vultures in for the feast too if only he gets his share of plunder? Wildly the ambitious man can promise what the prudent man could not possibly give, who looks to the future and not just the moment, for his son’s rule and their sons’. Why else did the mandate of heaven give unto one family alone the scepter, but this, that they might care about the future as well as the present, and preserve peace and prosperity for the people, wishing peace and prosperity to be his children’s inheritance? Shall rabid wolves, or starving jackals, run the state, with eyes only for riches and glory that, once reached, is the fullness of their desires, and let the rest burn if only enough remains for them? And knowing their reign precariously gained, and precariously kept, until the next wolf or jackal shall seize it with equal treachery and force from the one before—what future plans should they make? If they expect to reign a month, shall they make provision for a silted canal that will endanger next year’s commerce? No, it was karma that one family should rule each generation passing to the next, as the only other choice was chaos and war and shortsighted snakes that devoured each other and themselves in their haste to gorge upon the lives and life’s work of others.
  And, being courtly in speech and manners, well-learned and well-favored, soon Hei became the chief clerk of this judge whom he found wiser the deeper acquaintance they made. Each judge was appointed by the Emperor, who studied their character, after they had passed all the tests given by the scribes to study his knowledge. And if all of father’s judges were as good as this one, then the people were truly blessed. Hei hadn’t seen him take a bribe, or favor anyone, or stray from the law to his own wishes in any case yet. When Hei had commented after the two had left, one the farmer of a large plantation and the other a wholesaler, the contract being that the wholesaler would buy the rice at a steady price however much the farmer made, and in return would make the profit by selling it at his leisure to the people when the market favored it, that it had been especially kind of the judge to give of the public revenue to the farmer which he could have spent on himself, he was given a thorough answer.
  “I cannot afford for these men to go out of business. Oh, perhaps these two, but this type of person is the only thing that keeps our city from starving. If the craftsmen cannot rely on a steady influx of food from the peasants, they shall have to become peasants themselves, or die, correct?” The judge didn’t wait to hear the answer. “Now how can the peasants provide a steady influx of food when in farming there is nothing steady or reliable? Can a farmer grow crops like the carpenter makes boxes, or the cooper barrels, or the shoemaker shoes? Is it this-and-so-many an hour, and at this rate, and you shall have your goods at such and such a time? The city and the country do not live anything alike. Shut down the city for one day, and all is lost. If anything hinders this city from its due course, its natural process, then it turns into a chain reaction and suddenly millions who were well off today are out of work and starving tomorrow. Suppose the barrel maker doesn’t make his twenty barrels in time, but gives the merchant only ten. The merchant has twenty barrels of cloth to deliver to the journeyman, who sails that day for the barbarian islands in hope of spices and rubber—ten barrels of cloth are thus lost, and the merchant goes bankrupt right there for the lost chance to sell them—and the journeyman now doesn’t have sufficient goods to make a profit from, to pay his crew with, the cost of the ship, the food, water, repairs, et cetera, and he must perforce not even make the journey, which would only be to his loss. Now the stockholders of the ship who had invested in insuring it, lest it be attacked by pirates or sunk by storms lose all their capital, having no portion of the profit from this journey that never happened. Perhaps they go out of business as well, these the richest men of the city. Meanwhile the people relying on receiving spices and rubber as their supplies are set to run out in a week must close down, having no new supply of raw materials—is there any end to it? That is why in the city there can be no thought of, ‘as karma wills’, or ‘it is in the hands of God,’ or ‘let us attempt the venture and see what shall come of it,’ no, everything must be promised and assured, and if a promise is broken, the penalties must be so enormous that the city saves itself from any such cancers before they spread. We must operate as naturally and automatically as the sun rising and setting, or the moon waxing and waning, so that the astronomers can say, “on this hour shall the sun be covered by the moon,” and just so can a carpenter say, “on this hour you shall receive your ordered goods.” But can farmers make such promises? Can they say anything more than, ‘it is karma that it should be so or not,’ ? Do farmers control the clouds? The bugs? The pestilences that lay low crops and animals as well as themselves? Do farmers control anything? Farmers throw their seeds to the wind and pray to the gods good fortune. But can that prayer support a city? That would be our ruin. But here is our salvation, this wholesaler who buys the rice when the rice is made, and saves it for when the rice must be had. Nothing short of salvation! The farmer has a good year, but so do all the other farmers, there is too much rice for the city, the price goes so low that it costs the farmer more to bring it to market than he gains from selling it—so the excess rice is thrown away, or if sold, the farmers go into debt and must give up their lands because they could not pay for all the things they bought on rice wealth they thought they would have. Then the farmers have a bad year, and there is no rice at any price, and we all lay down and die. Is this wisdom? Is this harmony? The Dao is the spirit of balance, young one, that is its fundamental nature. When things are in balance, things are as they should be, and good. When people are in balance, they are as they should be, and good. When communities are in balance, they are as they should be, and good. Now this community is sick and unbalanced, because sometimes the harvest is good, and sometimes it is bad. But with this merchant it is balanced. Is it a good year? Nevertheless, I will buy it at a good price, though it costs me a good deal, and I must risk the chance of not being able to sell the rice, and lose the money all-together. Because perhaps later the rice will be wished for, and then I will have it, to sell at a better price than now. Thus the large farms that feed the city are insured that their business will not go unrewarded, and will continue to farm through good years or bad, knowing their market secure. Thus will the city not starve even in bad years, because there is rice to be had from the wholesaler. Sure the villagers will complain that the wholesaler’s prices are too high—but how else shall he have the money to buy the rice in the first place? And how else shall he recoup the losses of rice stored up to no avail, which he can’t sell at a good price no matter how long he waits? They complain because they do not see the beautiful, precarious harmony he is giving them, the balance he is balancing across time, some times tipping it to the farmer’s benefit, sometimes to the city’s, but keeping the farmer farming and the city working and both of them prospering. But I see the balance, and I must preserve it even if they do not.
  “Earlier I spoke of the insurance sailors gain by selling a portion of their potential profits to others, who will recoup his losses if the ship is destroyed by karma. But are sailors alone in danger of the twists and turns of karma? Is it not a risk to wake up in the morning and walk outside, because lightning or a falling stone or a wild horse could kill you? And the more complex the enterprise, the yet infinitely higher the risk, by a geometric and not an arithmetic rate. Insurance is the only way to reduce those risks, and make business possible. Currently ships make the most profit, and so private people will insure them, wishing to become rich. But what of the businesses that make slight profits, scraped out year by year, and have slight risks, that dog them year to year? There is no insurance for them, though the consequences are just as disastrous, because no private person has patience enough or money enough to give it to them for such a small, protracted return in the future. So the Emperor in his wisdom has mandated that we shall insure them, at our good judgment, knowing the people and whether it was karma and not foolishness that beggared them. And though it gladdens me to help those two simply because they are now helped, it was no act of kindness or mercy, it was an act of survival, for myself and the entire community. All virtue and all piety must sum down to this, that we align our own will with God’s. And the Dao’s will is that there be harmony and balance in all things. Thus it is to us to balance out risks, and, gaining on this hand, turn around and support those that lost on the other hand, for all share in the risk, and shall half vaunt themselves and the other half starve, when it was karma and not themselves that delivered some and destroyed others? And shall each year, half and half and half again vaunt themselves, so that seven eighths have now starved and died? Better that we take some from those that gained, and give to those that lost, and be like the Dao, which returns fair for fair, and ill for ill, though not instantly, over time. For those that vaunted themselves, how happy they will be to not starve the next year, when others must give to them! It is only this narrowness of sight, this foolish lack of thought to time, which disrupts harmony in our own lives. So many people come to me complaining of some loss they suffered today, and did they ever think to what they’d gain by it tomorrow? So many criminals come to me unrepentant, and did they ever think to tomorrow? How now, shall they not be caught, sooner or later? And how now, shall there be anything left to steal, if everyone is a thief and everything is stolen? Every day I must deal with people’s foolishness, and refer them to the wisdom of the Dao, as though they had never heard of it before and could not have looked to it themselves. What more can God do? Does karma not ordain the way? Why can’t people follow it? That’s what I always end up asking myself at the end of the day. ‘Does karma not return this for that? Will they never learn that there is a God, whose soul is harmony, and whose will is balance, so that there will always be a this for a that?’ There isn’t any question to it, it is the nature of the Dao, the nature of being, it proceeds without thought or conscious decision, it is the Isness of is! And yet people still expect it will somehow bypass them, and, ruling all nature, the Dao will overlook themselves. There is a karma to all things, and for all things a karma. For every this, a that, and every that, a this. Are they not taught this as children? If not by others, by the very world they see around them? Can they not deduce it from the absolute and eternal changeless sway it has over nature? Oh, curse it, I have spoken too long and my wife shall be asking after me. And your new wife shall certainly be frantic over you!” The judge laughed, remembering the early days of love where both of them had been frantic over every little thing, good and bad. “Get ye hence, for your life, man! Late another hour and your meal shall be poisoned with gall, as surely as this leads to that.”
  Hei had laughed and thanked him. It felt so good to hear those words, ‘your wife’. They were magical words. It made him glow with pride every time he heard them, that he had a wife, that she loved him, and that he cared for her, and would be ready to care for their children as well, when they came. And from the complex erudition of the courts, to return to the simple and clear-polished mind of his wife, gave him the best of both worlds. Not that she intended to be simple for long. Hei mused to himself, holding her in his lap and she holding the book they were both reading from. Her haltingly and he guidingly. But she had insisted from the start, that she intended to teach her children, and for that she intended to know more than they ever would, because wasn’t she twenty years ahead of them, and so shouldn’t she always be? Surely he did not intend to shame her in front of her children, and have them laugh at their mother because she was stupid and foolish? And will I bring shame on you, when I meet with the other wives of the court, and they see how stupid and foolish I am, that I know nothing, and prate like a peasant about gods and sorcery, instead of God and karma?
  It was sound reasoning, but even without it, he would’ve taught her, because he had promised to before they had married. And even beyond that, because it was fun to spend this time with her, and to have this medium to connect with. What, should he come home and just stare blankly at her until it was time for bed? Better to have her delightfully in my arms, and to be doing something together as well. Sharing something, beyond just each other’s touch.
  “Oh, Hei! Is this possibly right? Both his arms and his tongue and his member was cut off so that he would not spoil his lord’s women and not be able to say what happened in the harems? That is too cruel! Southern barbarians. What, are humans too profusely equipped, that this limb or that should be chopped off, to improve our performance at various tasks? Too cruel! Aren’t we made this way? And who has the right to gainsay the will of God, and make us any other? Too cruel! Shall humans be things and not beings, that they can be subtracted and divided about and sold on the market? What next, why not chop him apart into all his parts and sell at the auction not slaves but just legs, arms, heads, members, and the rest? “I have need of heads to feed my pigs,” “I should like legs to carry my palanquin,” “I need arms to work the bellows,” Why then, just cut him apart and a single slave shall do it all! Too cruel! Why is everywhere else and everywhen else one long list of cruelty and crimes? Better to kill a man than chop him up so, at least then the murderer counts him a man and not a butcher’s backyard!” Da was torn between outrage and pity, wishing to throw the book across the room and to read on to see what became of the tyrant. Surely karma would not reward him for it.
  “It is karma.” Hei shrugged. “Perhaps it is the climate. The south is too hot, and makes them always bloodthirsty and savage. And the north is too cold, and it makes them bloodthirsty and savage. And the west is too dry, and it makes them bloodthirsty and cruel. And the eastern islands are too far apart and too few, and it makes them bloodthirsty and savage. Leaving only the Middle Kingdom, being in the middle, with balance enough to make a balanced people or a harmonious way of life. Whatever the case, there are only these seven kingdoms, and the rest is barbarians. And if the barbarians had their way, they’d destroy us too, and have the whole world covered with the howling beasts that they are. Karma that we were born here and not there, is it not? Such good fortune that I could live here with you, at the same time you lived, in this happy city, which happened to be in need of a scribe. It’s hard to even encompass how much fortune it took for you to be sitting on my lap.”
  “How lucky we are that all our borders are with kingdoms and not barbarians! On one side the sea, and to the other, Pi, Ch’i, and Tang. Filthy barbarians.”
  “Liu-Yang is lucky that we are bordered by only civilized nations, but imagine if they should league against us. A thousand times more dangerous than any amount of barbarians. And all we have is rivers and river valleys, no fortifications at all. Time and again we are eaten up by others and then thrown up again when civil dissensions loosen their far-off grip. We live in constant fear of them precisely because they aren’t barbarians, but ordered armies with trained rulers supported by a skilled workforce and tax base and a love of country which allows them to take far more losses than a barbarian is willing to for the sake of rape and plunder. No, I should wish a border with barbarians over one with Ch’i, those snakes of diplomacy and intrigue.”
  “How do you know these things?” Da asked him, her voice suddenly changed, squirming around and looking seriously into his eyes. “You say you’ve read a lot of books, but can a book write down that right now Ch’i is threatening us? That they are using intrigue and diplomacy against us? That you fear a war is coming soon? Does a book write the future for you to have read it and know what will come?”
  Hei tried to look away, she stopped him with a hand on his cheek, pulling his eyes back to hers. What can I say? “It’s just a guess from what I do know, what is likely to happen, based on what has happened.” There, that was sufficiently vague.
  Da sighed. Looked down and closed the book. “Someday, will you love me enough to tell me the truth, and not hide from me even in my arms? Someday can I hope to know my own husband?”
  Her sigh hurt more than her previous demand. But he could not tell her. How could he? “I am the Emperor’s Son, thrown out by my father for love of you.” Too ridiculous. Would she even believe me? And if she did, would she ever trust me again? That I wouldn’t leave her to become a prince again? Will she ever think herself deserving of me? Or worse, will she think me so good that it is my duty to rule, and not waste my life with her and this backwater court? I cannot tell her. If I tell her I will lose her. The icy cold clenching of my heart tells me that, even if my mind would like to trust her. It is too terrifying to risk. Who will believe a lover offered the entire world instead? Isn’t love a butterfly in the wind? A thing of light and air? Who would possibly choose love over empire, over riches, power, beautiful women, sumptuous feasts, family, friends? Who but a madman would stay with her, my beautiful wonderful Da? My heart knows that it will not swerve, but how can her heart know that? It will haunt her. It will divide us forever. And how happy we were a moment ago!
  “All that I am is this, the lover of Da Zhou. There is nothing beyond that.” Hei finally said, hoping that was enough.
  Da sniffed, two tears began to run down her cheeks. “But I am Da Fing Zhou, and how can we love each other when we know nothing, nothing, nothing about each other?” She shook his arms away and jumped out of the chair, miserable and angry all at once, running to the bedchamber and slamming the door behind her.

Chapter 5.

  “Then it is agreed, Pi shall have the Liu river basin, Tang shall have the Yang river basin, which is the natural extension of the Yang river they already possess, and Ch’i shall have the rest. Who has heard of a nation so defenseless, with no natural borders, yet bordered by three kingdoms such as ours, to remain so arrogantly independent, holding all of us ransom by our stomachs, demanding everything to the very seat of heaven for the rice we need? How can we trade fairly with their flinty hearts and sharper’s eyes, starving our people so that we must always raise our offers, with no limit at all, seeing as how our only other choice is to sit quietly and die? Will all the middle kingdom be held hostage to their damnable rivers, and shall they conquer us not with strength or courage, but only the product of filthy peasant’s labor?” Chi’s king asked the assembled host.
  “Pi can feed itself well enough,” Pi’s king admitted. “But so long as that damnable nation overflows all the kingdoms with its rice, it’s impossible for our people to sell any of ours, and gain anything from our own labor save a mere pittance sufficient for survival. Until that nation’s production is brought under control, and they stop selling it willy-nilly to everyone and everything, Pi cannot gain any proper living for its own. Let Pi control the rice, and then we will set a fair price to it for everyone else, and in return gain the fair standard of living we deserve, that these prodigious southerners have stolen from us. Pi is just as great a country as Liu-Yang, and yet because they breed like rabbits, they can call upon such enormous levers and pulleys of labor, that they dwarf our production like the sun to the moon. They have stolen our rightful living from us with their impossibly fertile wombs and their teeming ant-like masses of workers, it must be stopped, if any honest man hopes to earn an honest living.”
  “Tang cannot survive with only the headwaters of a river, cut off from the sea, and have the rest of our river flow through their lands to the great ocean of trade, at the mercy of any taxes, tariffs, customs, or duties they wish to impose. At any moment all they would have to do is deny us passage on our own river, sprung from our own mountains and fed by our own springs and our own melting snow, and Tang would shrivel up and die for lack of access to the rest of the world. With only jungles and mountains for our companions, we would be cut off from contact with the Middle Kingdom, having nothing more than the southern barbarians we must constantly defend ourselves against. Whether Liu-Yang has done us wrong or not, we cannot wait until the day they choose to kill us, and leave this dagger at our hearts hoping that not one of their Emperors will plunge it in. A king does not defend his subjects thus! We must have our river, whole and untouched, all the way to the ocean, or we will always live at the whim of others, and kowtow to their every command like slaves.” Tang’s king finished.
  “Then we are all agreed, Liu-Yang must cease to exist, as an affront to us all. Let us this day pledge our league and loyalty to each other for this noble cause, this snuffing out of our common foe. Though the cost may fall on one more than another, let us not grumble about it, for the cost of failure is intolerable for all of us. Let the cost of success be howsoever high, we shall all be gainers by it. And Liu-Yang defeated, let us pledge now that we shall none of us wax proud and covetous, and wish for anything more than our concord and stated needs have here produced. We three kings in peace have decided upon war, and after the war, we must in peace remain, or we will have gained nothing from this exploit but a new zone of war for us to fight in. And shall Pi, already beset upon by the constant piracy of Weh, have time to fight over the Yang river as well as the Liu? And shall Tang, invaded constantly by the southern barbarians, have time to fight over the Liu river as well as the Yang? And shall we, being bordered by all the middle kingdoms, have time to defend anything more than our modest strip of land to the coast? Tang and Pi cannot be foes now, sharing no borders with each other but only peaceful commerce—shall we by changing the borders, change our alliances, and by gaining land, only gain new foes? Perish the thought! Let not greed nor covetousness disrupt this harmony we have always shared, nor new lines on a map wash away the blessed bands of friendship and peace that have held these many years!”
  “Hear hear.” The assembled host cheered to that. Chi’s golden tongue was renowned, being in the very center of all the Middle Kingdom, they were the masters of diplomacy and had learned to talk the very mountains to move about where it was most convenient, and the very rain to fall where it was most needed, and the very beasts to walk peacefully into the snares of trappers. To convince these two kings who had always been at peace to remain at peace, then, was a simple enough move. Until, of course, Chi’s king thought, I wish them to war with each other. It was all so easy, the human psyche, rouse their anger by creating supposed slights to their honor, rouse their fears by helping them imagine all the nefarious tasks Liu-Yang could be about, give some money here and there to change a few people’s minds, create a few atrocities of Liu-Yang bandits raiding across the borders. . .so very easy to play one side against another, and we always the ultimate gainers by it. Karma that the wisest and best strategists should be at the center of the seven kingdoms, so that we can deal with all of them and all must deal with each other through us. Karma that we rule the Middle Kingdom though we only have soldiers in our own. How proudly these fellow kings speak of their rights and independence, but when has any nation done anything without our approval or suggestion? Like a spider we touch a thread, and at the edge the entire web trembles, and with our slightest stroke the whole world convulses. Let them buzz about, then, they are all trapped in our web, to be sucked dry at our convenience. We will give our neighbors their shows and ceremonies and pomp and circumstance, so long as we keep the power, what is that to us? We know ourselves to be the new dynasty of all the Middle kingdom, let them deceive themselves as they will, it only helps us rule the more. Except Liu-Yang, which refused to listen to anything we said, and that ridiculously proud ‘emperor’ Sun Jong.
  It was simple, Liu-Yang was getting too rich and too numerous, soon it would even dare to challenge Ch’i, and it must be put down before then. None could be allowed to become strong enough to challenge the capital, but each kingdom must turn on whichever one was ascendant at the time. He had nothing against Liu-Yang, and the territory to be gained wasn’t even worth much, but the balance of power must be kept. The Dao sought harmony and balance in all things. That was why each nation could boast of one resource that the rest wished for, so that there would be harmony and balance between them. And as the Emperor of the Middle Kingdom, Ch’i must act as the Dao’s viceroy, and ensure that balance would remain. Liu-Yang was getting too bloated, and for its own good was sickening the rest of the body, so it must be cut off, drained out, until it returned to its healthy place and healthy position in the body. The head was put at the top of the body to show its ascendancy over the rest, its closeness to heaven showed itself the viceroy of God, so who but the head of the Middle Kingdom had the mandate of heaven? The self-styled emperor of Liu-Yang was a petty stomach, the cud-chewer of the Empire, and it was time to return that rebellious bloated body part to its destined role, as the servant to all the rest.
  “Generals! Good fortune in battle!” Chi’s king stood up with his cup of wine rousingly. The rest followed suit and clinked their cups together. So very easy.

  Rin Su Jong mounted his charger in a brooding calm. Even though threats of war had been coming for so long, he had never thought it would actually happen. He had thought it was just a negotiating tool to bring down the price of rice. Every year after the harvest all the kingdoms grumbled about the profits Liu-Yang was making, never stopping to think that Liu-Yang had to live the entire year on the harvest that took place over a single month. But it had never come to this, not in his lifetime at least. Liu-Yang had a history of wars as long as any other nation he supposed. But the sheer ferocity of the invasion, the speed and the determination of the opponents, and their numbers. . .he was not sure whether such a tempest could be stopped.
  “Father, the army is mobilized, we are finally ready to take the field.” A week had been lost before they had even been made aware of the invasion by messengers. Another two weeks preparing the supplies, arms, and men for a campaign, and every day, every hour absolutely vital to the success or failure of the war. It had taken so long that now, surely, the myriad forces invading from the separate kingdoms of Tang and Ch’i had already united at some crossroad or another, fielding an army much larger than Liu-Yang could summon in a moment. We have so many men, Rin Su Jong thought, but all of them useless, without transportation and communication to give them some purpose. By the time the war is decided we’ll have barely had time to take them off the fields and teach them how to hold a pike or load a crossbow. If only the cowards had declared war like civilized nations instead of raiding barbarians, we may have been able to transform our manpower into actual military power. But this was idle wishing. They would have to win with the veteran corps they had standing ready, and that was just that. Transportation and communication! If only there were a way to make them faster. So that they could know the position of the enemy forces, the position of our own forces, their size and strength, and be able to maneuver them to where they should be instead of where they are, and for commanders to actually receive those orders in time for them to be applicable to the situation and respond to them in a predictable fashion. By God, I would give both arms and both legs for faster transportation and communication. Everything hinged on that, and they were already three weeks behind. That was like starting with a handicap of three stones. What could be done with the one corner left to us? Absolutely hopeless unless they made some ridiculously stupid mistake.
  Sun Jong rolled out his map, trying to find the best terrain to fight them on. Liu-Yang had no mountains to prevent the enemy from marching wherever they pleased, but he expected they had come not for any natural formations or positions, but were intent on the destruction of his army as the quickest and least damaging means of conquest. There was no point in prolonging a war on soil that they needed to feed their own people with. That was one blessing, the invaders were not barbarians, they weren’t killing, looting, or burning as they went. But perhaps that was a curse in disguise. If they looted and burned then they would quickly be hated by the people and we would have far more support than we do now. What should peasants care who rules them? The only difference is the taxes they had to pay to their local officials. They knew nothing more of government than that. And also, maybe that had slowed them down so he could have fought them piecemeal, one at a time, instead of their entire combined forces. God forgive me but I wish they were barbarians and not the most learned men in the Middle Kingdom. What a strange opposition, the craftsmen of Tang and the scholars of Ch’i, against this backwards agrarian society which never knew more of the world than their own village. . .Why? What have we done to anyone? I have always been peaceful and considerate to those kings, have they not eaten at my tables and gone hunting with me through the forests? A black thought passed his mind over the lost chance of a marriage. If that could have stopped this war, I will never, ever, forgive him. Not in a thousand lives. I will seek him out in every future reincarnation and spit on him and curse him for the traitor he is. Worthless, treacherous, ingrate. I should take his head for this war we told him was coming that he alone was in a position to stop. Did he listen? Did he care? Did he stop to think of anyone but himself? Damn the child, there’s no time left to think of him now. There were no mountains, and he could not afford to get stuck in a siege, which he would inevitably lose, being outnumbered and their army fed by the abundant countryside and giant granaries that also served as banks for the entire land. They could steal food enough for years to besiege us with. The only good terrain left was a swamp, then. Find a neck of solid ground surrounded by swamp, lure them into it because they won’t know it’s a swamp, and then destroy them pinned as they are from the solid land we possess. Besides, they were not used to the heat and the wetlands like our men are. Lure them into the swamp and they will die of the climate we are inured to. And the swamps are impassible, so it doesn’t matter how many men they have, they’ll only be able to attack us on the narrow neck of solid land we choose to defend. It is the best chance. And if his theory was correct, that they were after him, not any particular stretch of land, if he decided to fight on a swamp, they would come fight him in a swamp. He had won wars in the past, he could win them again, if it was karma. There had been heavier odds than these against his forefathers when they had revolted against the old corrupt Fu dynasty and installed a new emperor under the mandate of heaven. If it was his karma to save his people and his nation, then he would save it. Heaven sided with the right, or there was no heaven and there was no right.

  “It makes no sense,” Tang’s king commented, looking through his spyglass. “They’ve positioned their whole force in this thick line and left both their flanks hanging. They must know something we don’t know. Nobody is that stupid.”
  “What’s so stupid about it? He needs to concentrate his forces to have any sort of numerical equality, and that means his front has to be shorter. It’s not like he wants to float his flanks, but what’s the use of anchoring them if we can charge straight through the middle?” Chi’s king replied. “I say we carry out the attack as planned. The messengers all report success on Pi’s side. They are in position.”
  “God be praised. That was a gambit.” Tang’s king sighed in relief. He looked once more, then put his spyglass away. “Whatever Liu-Yang has planned, it hardly matters anymore, does it. With Pi in position he’s already dead.”
  “All that’s left is aji.” Ch’i agreed ebulliently. “All that’s left is washing the bad taste out of our mouths.”
  “At dawn then?” Tang asked.
  “Why not? Do you think he is going to move from the spot of ground he chose? No, he won’t attack. He’ll sit there like a snake in his den and wait for us however long we take. Such a helpful enemy.”
  “I still don’t like those floating flanks. Maybe he has forces we haven’t accounted for.”
  “You credit him too much. What can one kingdom do against three? It’s over, trust me. Tomorrow’s the end of the Jong dynasty.”
  “As you say then.” Tang shrugged. It was incredibly hot even now that the sun was setting. And the land was crawling with bugs. Buzzing in giant clouds so you were afraid to even breathe. What a hellhole this south was. As bad as our jungles, except pretending to be plains. Oh well, it wasn’t like he would have to live here. He just needed to own it, to secure his land’s future. Let the peasants of Liu-Yang live in the muck and the filth and the heat. All they wanted was that downstream current which flowed like gold all the way from their mountains to the sea. It was karma that dictated a single country must own a single river. It was the lifeline of transportation and communication which unified all their interests. Ridiculous to divide what karma has brought together, to draw lines on a map across lines of God, destroying the symmetry and the harmony of the Dao for their own petty interests. Karma that Sun Jong has delivered himself into our hands and will be crushed tomorrow with barely a fight. What more is needed to show heaven’s will? That Pi wasn’t detected for an entire month of marching through Liu-Yang was nothing short of a miracle. Traveling out of uniform, as peddlers and journeymen and peasants and pilgrims, coming from the same stock and working under the same hot sun, the men of Pi could not be discerned from the men of Liu-Yang. And now they had reformed, more or less whole, directly behind Sun Jong’s forces. Even planning it nobody expected it to work this well. So useful that none of them had declared war and Sun Jong could only guess who his enemies were by their banners.

  “Sire, the general of the left requests assistance immediately on account of the heavy assault on his side. . .”
  “The general of the right demands immediate reinforcements and insists the battle is on his front, the rest must be feints considering the number he is facing. . .”
  “Sire, the cavalry report it’s nearly impossible to stretch the left flank on account of the ground. They can give no sure measure of the enemy forces on that side.”
  “Damn it, we must know! Staff sergeant, you will go personally to the left flank and scout that position! Send word immediately of the strength of the attack. Messenger, tell the left flank they have permission to withdraw to a more defensible position, if practical. As to the right, they must hold! We cannot commit any more forces to them when the left may crumble at any moment. Tell them to hold, by God. Hold.” Men on horseback galloped away in all directions. “Rin!” Sun Jong shouted at the top of his lungs.
  “Yes father!” Rin saluted, riding back from where he had been overseeing the catapults. One of the blessings of their fixed positions was they could use catapults while the enemy had no chance to drag them through the marshes or build them anywhere. But their catapults were useless if they could not find the enemy position. By God, of all the moments for his cavalry to fail. “Rin, you will ride to the right flank with your personal guard. Take command and make sure they hold that line. If they retreat we’ll be attacked from solid ground in our rear and our entire position will be worthless. Tell them this is the best ground they have and their only hope is to win where they stand.”
  “As you command.” Rin Su Jong saluted sharply and rode off with fifty picked men. Perhaps that was reinforcement enough. Or at least enough to raise their morale. At dawn he had thought one front or the other had to be a feint. It was only becoming apparent this four hours later that a complete assault had been ordered on both flanks. At least they hadn’t gotten around the flanks as no doubt they had intended. March all they like, it would take them days to go a few miles on this ground. Only their own path of retreat was open.
  Then a scream was heard from nearby and artillery men and staff sergeants, the coordinators of the forces, were suddenly dropping everywhere from whizzing crossbow bolts. Crossbows were so powerful they punched through any armor, their only fault was the time it took to reload. If they could find the snipers before they got off another volley. . .Sun Jong wheeled his horse furiously, and stared at an entire phalanx of pikes marching in perfect step forward like in a parade, the banners of Pi waving in the wind and a marching tune of drums beating ominously to keep the men in formation. So many. He watched them coming, not knowing what to do. The division he had kept in the rear, which he was waiting to see if he had to commit to the left. . .it must already be destroyed. It must have been the only reason the battle had even lasted this long. . .he had nothing left to throw at this many. . .he had never even guessed Pi was his enemy. They hadn’t even said a cross word to him this entire year. . .he never could have known. . .at least Rin was on the right flank. . .maybe he could still escape with a portion of the army. . . “Staff sergeants!” He shouted, looking to either side. A few men gathered protectively around him, others clutched wounds and tried to stand back up to protect their emperor. “Send a message, send a message to both flanks, we have been attacked in the rear in force, the emperor is dead, fly and preserve what forces you can. Tell Rin Su Jong he is the new emperor and to rally what forces can escape. . .tell. . .oh God I guess it doesn’t matter anymore. Ride! Ride!”
  They rode. Another volley of crossbows came flying out from between the pikemen’s heads, having finally reloaded. Two, three, five down. . .would any be left to deliver the message? Then a blow to his side, so strong it sent him spinning off his horse. The stirrup broke as it was meant to, and he fell to the grass which was blessedly firmer than the swamps around him. An incredible jolt of pain, he had fallen on the shaft. It snapped beneath him, the point grinding against a bone somewhere inside him. Oh God let me die now this hurts too much. . .

  “Three cheers for Pi!” “Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!” The men shouted, filthy and bone-tired and melting from the heat of battle and the damn wetlands. When both armies had been entirely bogged down against fierce resistance, giant boulders and flaming pitch being flung on their heads, their cavalry practically sinking to the bottom of the mud, struggling to take each step forward much less reach the opponent’s crossbows who were merrily raining death down. . .suddenly the sound of Pi’s drums and the enemy panicking and fleeing, even though there was nowhere to go in this terrible swamp, and they were too tired and their horses were just as useless as ours. . .and so they threw away all their weapons and armor and just tried to get away with their lives and any of them that did get out alive wouldn’t be an army anymore anyway and Rin found dead from a dozen crossbow bolts surrounded by his guard a few hundred yards from the front. Complete victory. And it had looked like dismal failure until Pi came and saved all their lives. The gods be praised. Because whatever the kings said about karma and harmony everyone knew the world was chaotic and always fighting one force against another and that meant there must be thousands of gods all fighting one another just like humans fought one another and it was the gods, not some mystical harmony, that had given them victory this day because they had prayed and sacrificed to them all the night before.
  Liu-Yang’s head was cut off, their army was destroyed, of the ten thousand that took the field maybe a thousand had escaped, without any structural organization left to rally them. With eyes lighted up with glee though their bodies ached and sweated and soaked in misery, they knew the rest of the kingdom was a virgin for the plucking.

Chapter 6.

  Hei Ming Jong lived on the coast, which put his city as far away from the three bordering kingdoms as possible, which meant the war had not yet reached them in anything but words. The news had been troubling, but people hunkered down and went about their business as usual. What could be done? It was the army’s job to fight, not theirs. What they really worried about was that one army or another would march over and seize all their goods. Even if they were paid for, the odds of turning some foreign currency into use were desperately low. At least if they paid for it, it taught the opposing forces that the city still had a right to their property, which had to be accounted for, however thinly. That would be a godsend in the future, supposing they lost, that their right to property had already been recognized. Since the news so far had been that the enemy forces were marching unopposed throughout the land, most people took it for granted they would be conquered here as well, and the debate over every evening supper was whether their goods would be seized or purchased fairly.
  “It’s terrible business.” The judge told Hei after work. Hei had been given a general invitation to dine with his superior every evening, but so long as Da was not invited as well, it usually wasn’t worth the strained feelings. Right now he needed to know what was going on, though, and the judge was in a position to get a lot more solid information than his wife. “Right when Liu-Yang was set to do really well, to really get ahead in this world, they come smashing down. Just this year we had the most commerce going up and down the river ever. In all recorded history. Can you imagine that? More ships going up and down the river than when this was the Tang dynasty and this river the gateway to the capital of the entire world? We had ships this year that went around the southern peninsula and up the other side to the spice lands—so we can compete with Mae-Dong’s land route and get our goods from the source. Not only that, but one ship can carry a thousand wagonloads of spice. Just think about it, the amount of provision required for the drivers of the wagons, the equipment needed to keep the wagon in good shape, provision for the oxen or horses that pull the wagons, enough guards to make sure bandits don’t steal all the goods—the expense isn’t the spice my friend! The spice is reported to grow wild and the western barbarians are even said to burn it up as a nuisance so that they can have more farmland. Do you hear that? They want more food, we want more spice—suppose they grew the spice as karma has made their land for growing, and we grew the rice as karma has made our land for growing, couldn’t we supply each other with everything we could hope for? And then we, not Mae-Dong, would own the spice trade in the Middle Kingdom. If our ships could make the trip in any reliable fashion, we could get a thousand times as much spice to market at a thousandth the cost of all those wagons going all those thousands of miles to and fro.”
  “That’s a lot of thousands.” Hei laughed, knowing it was exaggerated to make the point.
  “And who sponsored that journey? The Emperor. The Emperor outfitted the fleet that was large enough that the southern pirates didn’t dare attack it, with ships bigger than ever seen before, so that the storms couldn’t overwhelm it, and with so large a crew that they could practically invade the enemy soil and demand to trade with them rather than having to beg for food and water as they made shore periodically. The fleet was enormously expensive, but we’re just beginning to see the profit from it, all the charts and observations they brought with them about the route, plus their huge loads of spice, plus the fear of God put into all the pirates from here to there when they see the flag of Liu-Yang. Just the memory of the fleet we sailed by them with will be enough to protect our merchants for the rest of their days. Who would attack any ship knowing what kind of reprisal we can make? And it’s all going to be lost, mark my words, because the next Emperor does not know about Liu-Yang or think of Liu-Yang’s business, he’ll see this gigantic fleet and think it was some pomp or ceremonial thing and cut it. Tang only thinks of the river, they will use us for our river, and any ocean-going ships can rot. Ch’i doesn’t even have an ocean, they’re completely bounded in by the other kingdoms, does anyone think Ch’i will support gigantic ocean voyages? It’s terrible. Ten more years and we’d own the spice trade and, by just growing rice, which the western barbarians clearly need, we would have so much spice that we could export that to the rest of the middle Kingdom, let Pi sell all the rice they want, we’ll have something that makes ten times as much to sell, and with that kind of capital streaming in, we could build yet larger fleets that will carry more and go further, and we’ll find some new land with some new product, and so on and so on! In ten years! And instead we’ll never know what could have happened.”
  “Putting that aside for the moment, do we know how people are being treated by the invaders? That’s what everyone is worried about.” Hei asked.
  “Oh, the invaders are civilized enough.” The judge waved a hand to dismiss the issue. “Why shouldn’t they be? Isn’t Ch’i the most learned kingdom in the world? And doesn’t Tang have the most resourceful workers in the world? They thrive off of peace and contemplation, they drink milk not blood for their upbringing. From what I’m told the invaders haven’t even seen fit to officially rule any place they’ve marched through yet. They’ve been entirely intent on seeking out our army and destroying it. When people have asked what the new rulers’ wishes are, they said something like this, “If we should lose, it would go hard on you, that you became traitors so easily. And if Liu-Yang’s troops march through here, after you’d pledged allegiance to us, it would go hard on you, that you betrayed us so quickly. So why don’t you go about your business and make no oaths until the issue is decided?”
  “They’re certainly statesmen, the Ch’i.” Hei whistled. He was glad that his people were safe, but how hard it would be to generate support from the masses when the masses couldn’t tell the difference between protectors and attackers! If his father had intended a protracted war that would sap away the morale of the invaders it wouldn’t work. Without the people thoroughly behind the king, protecting his men and not telling the invaders where each little raiding party was hiding—it could not work. Every guerilla war was a popular war, it was the last resort of the people, for the sake of the people, not a king. Which meant his father would have to decide the issue in straight battle, and he would be outnumbered two to one and out-prepared, at that, because the other two armies had known the war was coming and father did not. Oh, there had been ample warning, but how could they be sure when war would actually break out? Impossible to keep the army fully mobilized at all times, the expense would be crushing, so in the end hints and rumors, no matter how many, were of no use at all and the war might as well have come from nowhere out of nothing.
  “Then let them go back to Ch’i where they belong. Liu-Yang is for merchants and farmers, not statesmen. What use do we have of forked tongues? And what use do we have of Tang craftsmanship? Let them build their goods in Tang and float them downriver at virtually zero cost, we’ll buy it just as often now as if they lived among us! We don’t need them here, they have nothing to do with the spirit of our country, the life of our country. . .it’s like mixing salt with water, everyone loves salt, everyone loves water, but who wants saltwater? That’s just brine, of use to nobody but some fish. We’re mixing up two distinct, good things, and making our countries into some sort of mutant with too many limbs for its own good.”
  Hei smiled. “Perhaps we could trade with the southern barbarians, they always seem to have too few limbs to go around.” The judge laughed and agreed.
  “Ach, my boy, what a shame this should happen in my old age. Once the invaders come you and I and all the scribes will be out of a job, and some other type of administration and bureaucracy will take over. I’m too old to start over, I don’t want any other job than this one, and without it I’m really not me anymore. What will you do, with that wife of yours to support and all your education suddenly worthless?”
  “I can do more than read and write, I’ll be okay regardless.” Hei hedged.
  “That’s the spirit. By God, if the next generation is so full of your type that even petty scribes are this bright, by God, let them conquer us all they want, in fifty years we’ll own everything.” The judge boasted.
  Hei smiled. Father, protect this country and let this judge stay in office. He is a good judge and a good man and has a good wife who is kind to me even though I’m nowhere near her rank. I can’t just sit back and do this and that for the rest of my years, the emperor’s son catering to some foreign invader. You have to win, I can’t watch Liu-Yang disappear and become some other nation with other customs and other goals because Liu-Yang is perfect and beautiful and good and it should stay exactly the way it is. But where are you? Nobody knows where our armies are, or if we even have them. Why are they marching straight through without any resistance anywhere? What are you planning? I wish I knew the dispositions of our forces and theirs so I could legitimately know our chances and what had to be done. . .
  Stop it. This is dangerous thinking. You were just thinking of leaving here and finding father and asking him what the situation was so you could take over the military. You were. That’s exactly what you were thinking. And all of that thinking starts with you leaving Da Zhou, and you will not leave her.
  “I’m sorry sir, but I think it’s time to get home to my wife. Troubled times should see families closer together.” That was said to himself as much as his friend.
  “Too true, too true. Give your wife my greetings, then.” The judge got out his pipe and lit it up, looking away as Hei got up and left, to the endless ocean and the fat sun that was getting ready to set. So many things past, so many to come. The judge mused, looking further and further outwards. A shame to outlive the good your life had given to the world. . .living long enough to watch your life’s work come to naught. . .that was dying twice-over. .better to set these old bones down while they still think they had accomplished something and get on to a new life full of new promise again. . .but karma knew best when he should die and it was karma that he was perfectly healthy so let karma make sure he was living to some purpose and to some effect in the world. Symmetry was the rule and measure of the Dao, even the Dao had to be symmetrical, to be the Dao, and so when there was asymmetry somewhere, it could only be part of a yet larger symmetry, which he could trust to, or God was not God and karma was not karma.
  “Da? I’m home.” Hei walked in, troubled in his thoughts. What he needed was a good drink and a long bath, things warm and fuzzy enough to take the edge off his thoughts, seeing as how all the sharpness of them did was make his brain bleed with worries and cares.
  “Welcome back,” She called from the bedroom. “I’ve already drawn your bath if you’d like to have one. Oh, and I went to the grocers and paid an exorbitant amount for the vegetables. It’s ridiculous, everything we trade for from elsewhere costs ten times as much, for fear they will no longer import it, and everything we ourselves produce is worth ten times as little, fearing that we won’t be able to export it. By God, why even invade us, couldn’t Ch’i and Tang have simply threatened to stop trading with us and brought us to our knees?”
Hei laughed. “It can’t be helped. There’s always inflation during war, because the future is less certain than the present, which means, present goods are worth more than the future promise of goods, which is, after all, the essence of money.”
“ ‘It can’t be helped, you say now,’” She came out from her room and smiled and kissed him, “but when you see the bill you will sing another song.”
“Ach, save those kisses for when I am clean. That is one good I can promise superior in the future than the present. I need to tell you, my master tells me that things are going poorly, there’s no sign of. . .of the Emperor’s armies and the enemy is advancing unimpeded. The only good news is that they seem to be treating the people well, that they aren’t even stopping to conquer anyone much less loot and pillage, but just pass through with a wave of their hats and a nod of their caps.”
“What could they be planning? I confess I don’t understand these military things. It seems simple enough for everyone to just tend to their own business and get along peaceably.”
“But what if you could get along better peaceably if you changed the terms of the peace by a short and successful war? The only people who want peace are the people who benefit most from it, the rest want war so that they can benefit the most from the next peace.” Hei shook his head. “The Emperor wants above all that there will be no revolt, no civil embroilment, that might jeopardize his rule. But doesn’t every single noble dream of a war with the sovereign which would end them up in the throne? How now, let’s not stop at that, doesn’t every husband wish for peace with his wife, so long as he is getting his way, and that she shouldn’t raise up a storm of arguing and fussing to disrupt their harmony? And doesn’t’ every wife wish for peace, so long as her husband is following her suggestions, and hopes against hope he won’t insist on his silly rights or prerogatives and make a scene? Shall we stop at that? Have two sons a year apart, won’t the older son happily wish for peace with his younger, seeing as how it insures his superiority? And doesn’t the younger son constantly yearn for contest and an overthrow of his older brother which would see him the topmost in his parents’ favors? Peace is the destruction of the hindmost, war the destruction of the foremost, to the hindmost, isn’t it obvious which should be chosen?”
“But surely there’s a peace which would satisfy everyone equally!” She implored.
“Ha, that would be a miracle. More likely there can be a peace which is more satisfactory than war, considering that the outcome of war is risky and, should they lose, they would be even more unfortunate than their current state. But if they have a reasonable chance at success in war, why, they’d be fools not to have one, now wouldn’t they?”
Da Zhou wrinkled up her nose in distaste and looked at him astray. “I’m not sure why you’re wrong, but I know you are. And I also know you know you’re wrong, so I give up. I’m sure you’ll tell me yourself why you’re wrong sooner or later. For now, hurry up and take a bath, so you can hurry back and start kissing me already.” She winked and went back to the loom she’d been working at before he entered. She wouldn’t show him what she was making. It wouldn’t be a surprise if she showed him, she said, with wide, innocent eyes. He shook his head and went to the communal bath that the palace provided for all of its officials. Luckily it was getting towards night and almost everyone else was already settling in for the night. As a prince he had always had his own bath. But oh well, as a soldier he never had any baths at all, so being a scribe wasn’t all that bad a compromise. Scribes lived well enough, he mused. Well enough that they had not felt the pinch from the war as of yet. If scribes were not paid sufficiently, they’d just start taking bribes and extorting money until they had enough money to get what they wanted, and so it was better to pay them more than they really deserved, than to have all society pay the cost of corruption which was the worm that ate out the insides of a nation. Though luckily not here. Hei thought. My master is a good man and he makes sure his subordinates are good men too, but there is too much corruption in Liu-Yang. I don’t know what it is about us, this graspingness that thinks it only natural and obvious that justice, rights, law, and order were made for others but not ourselves. The corrupt man blesses the law so that he alone might break it and grow rich off it. Corruption thrives only in a civilized world where there were laws, officials, courts, and justice. Throw all the grasping bureaucrats into the jungles of the south and see how rich they’d become there, where clubs and arrows were the extent of the law. Hei smiled to himself. Corruption was a parasite, like the worms in the water. They needed a healthy host to eat from, and the healthier the host, the more parasites there would be, like a rule of nature, they will flock to it the more fruit it provides. Corruption then is the prosperous country’s greatest threat, because it becomes the stronger the stronger we become. But how is it overcome? I wish father had taught me that, as well as how to shoot a bow while riding a horse. . .well, have I not a head? Then I’ll figure it out myself if I just think about it long enough. For every this, a that, after all. So if there was corruption, there was also a cure for it. A good parasite never kills the host, but saps only as much energy as can be spared, so that it might produce more in the future. There was that. Parasites were a check to themselves, they could not grow greater than the host without killing the host, and themselves as well. But what if they did? Is it any consolation to the host, to Liu-Yang, that when it collapses, the corrupt men will collapse with it? Sure, a wise parasite, if there was such a being, would limit his predations to a healthy mean, but can we count on a parasite’s wisdom? Then let’s not look to parasites to protect us from themselves as though they could be counted on for anything, even intelligence enough to preserve themselves.
The host itself would have to defend itself from the parasites, if it only knew how. Parasites were designed to feed off the host, the host was designed to feed off the produce of its efforts, thus the host was superior at acquiring food, but the parasite was superior at stealing it than the host could hope to be at protecting it, that not being its primary function. So what was to be done? Obviously a part of the host would have to become just as specialized as the parasites at defeating parasites, and, by nature the host being larger than the parasites, it could split itself into two parts, one part still going around acquiring food, the other part protecting the food it gathered. . .but then the protectors of the food were just as much parasites as the parasites, eating of the host’s work but not contributing to the food base. So it could only be hoped that the protectors would cost less food than the parasites would cost if they could get at it. . .sigh. . .he must be going about this the wrong way, this was more of a social organism theory than an actionable process.
Curses, I need an answer by tomorrow. The judge has asked me to figure out a way to lower corruption in the city because by the time it reaches the courts the damage has already been done and he wants to stop it before it happens, not punish people after it happened. And here I have absolutely no idea but I just fall into the justification for government, that is, for my own position, which I learned long ago, that, though I take from others, and produce nothing myself, since I take less than what would be taken if I weren’t around to protect them, I’m a force for good. Who cares? Every child knows that. The judge will think me daft if I go up to him and explain that to cure corruption we need police who stamp it out that cost less to upkeep than the corruption costs if allowed to run wild. Who doesn’t know that? How can police stamp out corruption when corruption by nature is within the government? Who shall police the police? Shall judges not pardon themselves the moment they catch themselves taking bribes? Corruption started with a position of authority, and that meant it required a higher authority to stop the corruption, but if the higher authority, one step removed, was also corrupt, then he would defend his subordinates so that they would enrich him with a portion of their ill-gotten gains, and then it would take a yet higher authority to stamp them all out, until it went all the way up to the emperor, who, if corrupt, then the very mandate of heaven’s authority would finally be resorted to and the entire empire would be overthrown. But what of inbetween states? What if two levels of authority are corrupt, and the third, having so much to oversee, simply doesn’t notice that his subordinates are corrupt but assumes they are acting as they should? This is the one situation where things can be improved. If people were good hearted, there would be no corruption, so it didn’t matter how they set things up. If people were all evil hearted, everyone would be corrupt, so no laws stopping it would be enforced. But if some people, not in the highest positions, were corrupt, and those in higher positions were good, but unaware of the corruption, then, by making them aware, we can stamp out the corruption. Very good. This is a proper line of thought.
How can we make unaware people aware? The secret police, of course. The Emperor of course had an agency that investigated all the other agencies for corruption or rebellion or heresy and reported directly to the Emperor, as the last line of defense. But they could not do everything and be everywhere. If everyone were a spy, there’d be nobody left actually doing the work. Which meant some amount of trust had to be put on the workers themselves, that they weren’t malfeasants. So supposing, without the aid of a secret spy network, the workers themselves kept informed on the dubious actions of their subordinates or even superiors, and had a means to report this to the Emperor or someone else high up. Those were the two essentials. One was easily met, an anonymous drop-box could hold the tips from informants, which could be followed up with a secret police investigation into it. As to the other, the way that the workers could be aware of the corruption in superiors or subordinates. . .surely the easiest way would be to keep an account of every transaction that occurred at work, and if the amount of money they had did not match the amount of money the transactions that occurred in the workplace said they should have—there was some side business going on. But at what cost! This would multiply the work twice over, the left hand would be stuck writing down feverishly what the right hand was doing, and other such absurdities. So make an entire scribal position to the effect of recording what the others were doing. Yet another group of people who would be feeding off the work they didn’t produce, but it can’t be helped. Then there would have to be some Imperial officer corps that went around randomly checking all of these accounts, so that if they weren’t kept correctly, the Emperor could fire the bureaucrats and put in new ones, and if even the scribes who kept the accounts were corrupt, then when they were checked, if discrepancies with what the book said and perhaps what a spy knew or the obvious book of Nature showed, then they could be caught. . .supposing they weren’t caught very often, they would have to face stiff penalties to make up the difference. . .but what’s the use? Wouldn’t the accountants still be subject to the department they kept the accounts for? And if they were told to lie about the accounts or be fired, won’t they lie, even knowing of some future possible risk, seeing as how their present danger is assured? How could accountants be protected from their own masters, so that they’ll fear the Emperor more?
If Rin were here he could just tell me the answer, I’m sure father told him how to prevent corruption at Court, in Liu-Yang, because he could hardly rule the country if he couldn’t do that. . .and here I am the second son suddenly trying to do everything my older brother was taught to do. . .maybe I shouldn’t have become a scribe. . .maybe I should’ve joined the army and that way I could at least be fighting these invaders now. But Da Zhou wanted me to be a scribe. Can’t be helped. Karma that I’m a scribe and not a soldier and I must sit here in my bath while father is surely marching somewhere fighting to protect me, when I should be protecting him. Curse it but if father hadn’t banished me then I would be protecting him, I would be a general, and Da Zhou’s husband as well. Isn’t it his fault I’m here and not there? So why am I feeling so guilty that I’m not there but here? It can’t be helped, I’ve been raised all my life, taught all my life, that it was my duty to protect others, that this was what I was born for. To protect Liu-Yang, to protect my older brother who would be emperor, to protect the people who work so hard for me. . .and I am not protecting them. Can’t be helped that I feel guilty then. . .how does the child I was brought up to be know that I can no longer be who I was brought up to be? All he knows is that I am not who I was meant to be, but someone else. Of course he’ll blame me. Of course he will. But that doesn’t make him right. That doesn’t mean I’m blameworthy. Let father repent and invite me back, and then I shall go. Otherwise it is on his head, not mine, however long I am a scribe and not his general.
He got out of his bath, sleepy but not too sleepy that he wasn’t also excited about the thought of Da Zhou waiting for him. It had been a long day, so why not make it a long night too? Hei smiled. The Dao sought symmetry, didn’t it? He made his way through the shared garden, the sparse sand and rocks followed by the fountain and pond and the beautiful fish followed by the flowers and the paths that led to the trees which in the spring made flowers of their own and filled the entire garden with a wondrous perfume. Everything neat and in its place, showed off to its best advantage. Not like the wilderness he was used to, but appropriate, he thought, to a courthouse. It fit the rest of the mansion well, like an old suit of clothes. And why, if he wanted wilderness, all he would have to do is turn around and look the other way, and there was the untamed ocean, vaster than any mind could contain, stretching out and out and always raging this way and that. And if he looked up, why, there were the clouds always coming and going, always changing shape, joining with each other, passing by each other, in their endless dance. And even further than that, the blazing infinite stars that spun around the sky and the wilderness of wildernesses, the darkness inbetween them, beckoning in their own cold quiet humming way. Hei swore that if you listened hard enough, you could hear the sound of the stars shining. As far away as a million billion oceans, the astronomers say, when they studied the degree shift of the stars between fall and spring. And yet close enough that you could feel their light on your skin. . .such a beautiful world we were given to kill each other on. . .but this is too glum, isn’t Da Zhou waiting for me? Isn’t she pretty enough to look at for a while? Hei smiled, started walking again and quickly made his way to his own apartment in the complex.
“Back, sorry I took so long.” Hei opened the door and closed it quietly, knowing others were already falling asleep.
“That’s alright, I’m used to it.” Da Zhou yawned.
“Sorry, I got to thinking while I was in the bath.” Hei slipped into bed with her and kissed her as an apology.
“You’re always thinking, aren’t you? Whenever I’m watching you, whenever you’re not talking to me, you’re thinking, about something far off. I never know what. But of things far off, and you’re thinking about them very hard. And even when you talk to me, sometimes you stop talking for a while and I watch you and you’re thinking about something very far off, that I brought to mind, and you’re gone again until you come back. What are you thinking about, love? Where do you go when I lose you?”
“You’ll never lose me.” Hei spoke fiercely. “I won’t leave. Let the world burn before I leave.”
“But you leave even when you’re here, to those far off places. I don’t mind, in fact, I love that you have so many far off places to go to. That you know so much and think so much and that your eyes can blink and set themselves apart from the world because they have so much inside themselves to see. . .I love that and it thrills me. . .but please, I want to go with you. I want to go there too. I want to see far off places and far off things like you do. It’s okay for you to leave, but take me with you. Stop, and think about something, then tell me, and let me see what you are thinking. I know they are good things, I know they are. . .treasures. . .treasures, love, that you are thinking up and finding inside yourself, and I want to share in them, I want those parts of you too. Is that too greedy? To want the best in you as well as what you’re willing to share?”
“It’s not too greedy.” Hei sighed, seeing that she wanted to talk more than cuddle and resigning himself to it. Can’t be helped. His fault that she was always curious, because he was always secretive. How long could this double life last? Was it even a marriage while it remained based on a lie? Not on a lie, I haven’t lied. . .but based on a. . .based on. . .a secrecy that allowed for misinterpretations on her part and actually hoped for such a misinterpretation which was very close to a lie. It was too late to be thinking this hard. “It is because I love you that I can’t tell you. Here, now, suppose I was a thief in the past, and didn’t want to tell you how horrible I was and how I killed a dozen people during my days and betrayed ten others to escape the law, shall I tell you all about it? If I told you, would you love me for it? So isn’t it better to leave it be?”
“You weren’t a thief in the past. You can’t be you, and in the past be someone I couldn’t love, because you are the direct descendant of your past. If I love you now, it’s because everyone you ever were until now was also worth loving, because it made you who you are today. Which is what confuses me so much. You have nothing to hide. You’re good at everything, everyone loves you, you have supreme confidence in yourself and carry yourself with a sense of. . .well. . .of uprightness. . .that you will brook no ill word from anyone else because you have deserved none. . .and shall I believe you a thief, looking at you now? But suppose you were a thief, and you didn’t tell me. Don’t I have the right to know, so that I can choose for myself, whether you deserve my love or not? What am I worth to you, as your wife, if you know my feelings for you are baseless, groundless, that the moment I knew the truth they would cease to be? Is that the love you hope for? Surely you’d feel better in your heart to have it out, once and for all, whether I truly love you or not. Shall even a thief wish to steal his way into another’s heart and, gaining the outward show of love, never earn her inner approbation?”
With that she took his hand and held it to her breast. “Is this what you are here for, do you seek nothing more? Shall a thief be content with this breast and disdain the heart inside which would cringe from your hand if it knew the truth?”
“. . .you would love me if you knew the truth.” Hei faltered, feeling himself weakening, his mind melting with the touch and all the trust in her eyes it signified. Shall I tell her then? How long can I not tell her? And shall some imagined danger be more than the constant worry and strain and pain not telling her already causes? What use in preserving a marriage if it’s preserved only to be wrecked by the very preservative? This is hopeless. I love her too much and she feels too good and I’m so tired of hurting her and I will tell her.
“Then tell me the truth, and let me love you truthfully.” She pressed, knowing she was finally getting close, seeing his hesitation.
And suddenly a pounding on the door. A brief panic: a fire? Thieves?
“Hei Ming Jong! Hei Ming Jong! For God’s sake open the door if you’re there.”
It was a voice from another lifetime. Hei thought about it in bewilderment, not knowing where to place it. He rolled out of bed and grabbed a kitchen knife as the best thing he could snatch.
“Who is it?” He asked, coming near the door.
“Hei Ming Jong, is that you? For God’s sake open the door.”
The desperation was enough that Hei did not think it was a ploy. He opened the door, fearing his master had died or something equally disastrous. He was not in the least prepared for what he saw.
Lu Huang, filthy with mud and old blood still covering his clothes, stood at his doorstep, his horse behind along with ten, maybe twenty other men, looking equally worn down and bloodied. “Thank God it’s really you.” Lu Huang breathed, his eyes racing back and forth over his friend’s face to confirm it to his doubting mind. “Hei, you must come back. Our army is scattered, your father is dead. Your brother is dead. You are the Emperor now, but only if you can save our Empire. And God only knows how you can do that, Hei, but we all know you and believe in you. But you must come back. Where have you been? We needed you, why didn’t you come. .? Why didn’t you come when you heard. . .? Why did you leave us. . .when we needed you. . .” Lu gave up, staggered against the door, and fell to the floor, too tired to even remain standing.
“Lu!” Hei started, jumping down and searching him for wounds. He couldn’t find any, but the clothes were bloody. It was impossible to tell in this cursed darkness. “Lu! Tell me what happened. Oh God, my father is dead? We haven’t even heard of a battle yet here. My brother is dead? What happened? By God what happened Lu? How could this have happened?”
“Sire, let him rest.” One soldier bit grudgingly. So the prince had run off to be a pampered scribe and hide out the war, some leader this would make. But Lu had led them here and told them it was their only chance of restoring the army, and because Lu had led them to safety from that hellish swamp where so many others had died they were willing to follow him, or whoever he chose to follow. “He’s barely slept finding you out. First we had to retrace your entire route on the last tour you were in the military, to find any villager who had seen you go, then we had to ask who had seen you leave the one village they’d heard of you, and then once we got here we had to go through the entire city asking if anyone had seen you, and there you have it, he hasn’t slept a week searching for you.”
Hei stood up, leaving Lu alone for the nonce, looking the man in the eye. “How many men do we have? Where are they? And how many men do they have and where are they?” The questions had been burning in his mind for weeks. It felt incredibly good to finally ask them.
“On our side? Maybe two thousand.” The sergeant spat in disgust. “And on theirs, well, who knows. Enough. Three kingdom’s worth, the cowards.”
“Three?” Hei asked, stunned. “Has someone else declared war on us?”
“None of them declared war on us, the snakes. But all three sure as hell are here. Ch’i, Tang, and Pi. Soon enough they’ll have split the country up like a pie for the eating, we’ve barely anything to stop them with anymore. What will you do, sire, sit out on the beach some more?” The man’s tone became caustic.
“If I am to be your emperor, you will treat me like one.” Hei spoke slowly and coldly.
“Yes, sire.” The man admitted grudgingly. “I’m sorry, sire. It’s been a hard few weeks, sire.”
“I understand, and God knows I thank you for staying the course this long. But if you serve me long enough these few weeks will start looking like a holiday.” Hei promised.
The man grinned, standing up straight. “I’m prepared to do anything you do and go anywhere you go, sire, and I’ll be damned if I won’t keep up.”
Then Hei felt a chill behind him and saw his wife staring at him with the frailest look in her face he’d ever seen. Like she’d just been shattered into a million pieces. He had completely forgotten her. Oh God, and I was going to tell her in just one more second. . .
“No, don’t worry about me.” She whispered. “Go on and. . .and save your empire. . .you must do what you must do. . .after all. . .it’s karma, right? It can’t be helped, right? So go on. . .I can wait. . .”
God forgive me if what I did was wrong. Hei prayed. What was there to say? Anything he said now would be completely hollow. She said she can wait, just leave it at that. That’s good enough. Hei closed the door and walked to a horse that had been left ready for him. He checked over his gear, his horse, seeing she was strong and solid. Mounted in one swift, practiced motion. And told the sergeant to lead the way to headquarters, wherever they were, so they could start making a plan. And what can two thousand men do against three kingdoms? Hei asked himself in a sort of daze.
God forgive me if what I did was wrong.

Chapter 7.

What was I to him? Da Zhou asked herself. Was I ever anything to him? A peasant girl he had seen fetching water, was I ever anything to him? The Emperor of Liu-Yang? Surely it was some joke, some bet, some game he entered into with his friends. Or maybe he was just so infatuated with my face that he was ready to do anything, even pretend we were married, to get at me as much as he wished, and by and by he would tell me one day, “oh, by the way, I’m the Emperor’s son, and I can’t possibly be married to dirt like you, so I’m leaving now to retake my place in court.” Or maybe, maybe he was already engaged to some princess, and he thought to gain some experience on how to be with women, before he married the princess, so that she’d be the better pleased. . .
A muffled scream came from her throat. Of confusion, betrayal, pain, shame, loathing. Who am I to be the wife of the emperor, the anointed of God with the mandate of heaven? Shall his children be half imperial, half filthy, back-bended rice grower? Is there any way his love could have been true, knowing what he was and what I am? Oh what a fool I was, letting this happen, letting him lie and lie and letting myself be caught up in this fantasy that I deserved a better life, that I could marry up into a gentle life, with a gentleman, that I could give my children an education and that they would be scribes and could watch the stars instead of pick rice for a living. A fantasy. Am I not a peasant? Wasn’t that my karma? Then why should I be anything else? Why should my children be anything more? And this is karma, is it not, for my ambition? Hasn’t the Dao mocked me by granting my very wish, and shown me how ridiculous I am, how foolish to try and go against my own karma? Isn’t this a divine joke, these four months? Are they anything more than a joke, on my behalf, to teach me my place? But even then, is it not too cruel? Isn’t this too much? I was wrong to be so ambitious, to try and escape my karma, let it be then, but is this not too much? For that, shall I have the Emperor for a husband and watch him leave, for the first time knowing my husband was the Emperor, leave me forever to live out his real life? Isn’t that too cruel?
And has he left me forever? Of course he has. Did he say anything when he looked at me? How now, did he say anything to you the moment his other life appeared before him? Did he even notice you after that? And when he looked back, did he say anything, like, “don’t worry, this will only take a while, then I can return.” Did he for a moment say to them, “Oh, I might once have been the emperor’s son, but you’ll have to look elsewhere, I’ve a wife to look after now—“ Did he protest at all? Did he even think about staying with me? Then why should he return? Was there one last look of love to reassure me, even one word before he left that should keep me hoping? That should leave me waiting for the impossible, that the emperor would suffer me for his wife? No, no, give it up you stupid woman. He’s gone, and he’ll never come back. Whether it was a joke, or some lust-ridden adventure, or some dare he met from his comrades, or whatever it was, it was not this, this impossible thing, the true love of a true husband, who would return by and by, and would only think of her while he was away. That was for princesses and queens. That love of his was waiting for some bejeweled hand and white-faced, perfumed recluse, full of maidenly blushes and innocent doe-eyes, ringed in kohl, that would make them wider than they really were. . .
And if he knew I was pregnant? What then? Why did you hide it, because these things weren’t assured? Why did you hide the baby’s clothes you were spinning, waiting for a better time? Children are not sure things, it may have miscarried, and why disappoint your husband after raising such hopes in him? Better to wait until you knew the child was healthy. What, how many children died before or after they were born, three in ten? And could I promise him a child when three in ten were destined to die? I could only promise him 2/3’s of a child, if I said anything, and what use is that to him? But if he knew, what then? Might he have loved me then, knowing his blood lay in my womb, that he had mixed his own aerie substance with this dirt of mine? Might he have hesitated then? Would he come back to me if he knew he was also coming back to himself? And suppose the child lives, what shall I tell it? “You were the joke of karma and a pitiless man, who, for the jollies of it, shamed me with a sham of love.” Shall I tell her she is a princess? That he is a prince? The legal heir to all of Liu-Yang? And from my ambition, will I poison my child with yet further ambition? No, no, better it never knows, whoever it is, better it never believes in a better life, which will poison what joy it can have in the karma apportioned to it. An emperor’s offspring, but sprung from a peasant. Who shall believe the first, seeing only the second? None. None will believe me even if I told them. By the sheer absurdity of the match the marriage is annulled, it never even was a marriage, it’s too ridiculous to have been one. And my child, the legal heir, by the absurdity of it is reduced to a bastard before it’s born. But shall I not wait? Can’t he still come back? Was he not here only a day ago, and did I not believe he loved me in everything he did? Did I ever for a moment think he didn’t love me, this entire time, and how well can anyone pretend to such a feeling, that I should be so deceived?
And didn’t he deceive you already? So why not deceive you the more? By God, on the very first day, I asked, if his parents were arrogant, naming him after the emperor’s son, and he said, it is the name my father gave me. Did he not? Isn’t that what he said, and hid in plain sight? Did he ever lie to me, didn’t he tell me his real name, and let me conclude what I will? So I was deceived, did he deceive me? Or did I deceive myself? And if he did not deceive me in that, did he deceive me in this, that he loved me? Or am I deceiving myself again, that he didn’t? If only he had given some sign, some word, when he looked at me that last time, what remained true and what was gone forever—o for one word that could tell me what was false and what was true about him, whether he was really my husband or not. . .But what shall I do? I have no work, I am pregnant, and dishonored. Who will feed me, feed us now? Shall I go back to my father’s, penitent, and hope he doesn’t beat me to death? I can’t go back to him, the shame is too much. I’d rather starve than show what has become of me now. Then where can I go? Who can I go to? Nobody will take pity on me, why should they? It was my own ambition, my own greed, that has put me here, where I knew I never belonged. Then I must go to the church, and resign myself to the end of this life’s cares. . .I must go to the church, and never love again, that is the price. . .that no husband can follow after this one. . .no child after this one. . .and for that price, they will feed me and clothe me and shelter me. And shall I have another husband anyway? Do I wish for anyone else? And if I did, would any have me, spoiled as I am, full of haughty thoughts and haughty bearing? Will any peasant listen to me as Hei did, with respect and thoughtful responses, never dismissing me with some reflex, but always giving his real heart’s answer? And will any of them bear listening to my karma this and karma that, when they believe in that jungle of false gods and idols? Will they let me teach my children of karma and the Dao, which is symmetry and harmony, instead of the bestial tales of human sacrifice, of cheating gods, of wars in heaven? And shall not one good child, raised among the learned and the mannered. . .shall not that child surpass a gaggle of peasants? So the church won’t give me a husband or children, so what? They can’t steal from me what I’ve already had. I had a husband, I have a child, they can’t take that away. And in return I can live a contemplative life, like I wished, and raise my child. . .perhaps even now my child could be a scribe. . .why not? And why not? Shall I stop just because Hei is gone? Wasn’t it my hope all along, not his? Then shall I not gain it myself? Therefore heart, be strong, you must to the Church, and die evermore, so that your mind might live. It will suffice, because it must suffice.

“Bloody hell.” Hei Ming Jong said to himself, his eyes staring at the map so hard they lost focus, but it still showed the same thing: the enemy was heading for the capital, and if he fought for it, his army would be trapped in it, and ultimately destroyed. And then the last hope, the last organized resistance, would be gone. And with it Liu-Yang. But if he abandoned the capital without a fight, would the people follow him? Would even the army follow him, if they thought he was a coward? They already think I’m a coward for not fighting until now, and if I refuse to fight for even the capital? What am I willing to fight for then? For this army. The only thing I care about now is preserving this army. Without it I can’t fight for anything else later. But will they understand that? And suppose I leave Liu-Yang like I’m thinking, leave the entire country, just surrender it all to the enemy, will the people want me back? Will they greet an emperor back who didn’t fight for them? They will greet me back when I do fight for them. It doesn’t matter what they think now, because there’s no way I can be their emperor now anyway, I can’t defend my people and they will be conquered. So forget what they think about me, they’ll change their minds when I rescue them, and that’s the only time their minds will count. But will the army follow me? Will the army leave behind the nation, the wives, the homes, they joined me to protect? Why should they? To follow some young, untested boy on some ridiculously roundabout plan? Because I’m right they’ll follow me. Because they have to, if they want any chance at success, they’ll follow me. Will they understand it as well as I that the battle is lost, that there is no hope of defending Liu-Yang now? If they do, they’ll consider our other options, and they are this: we surrender and go home, or we leave them our country and hope they choke on it with discord amongst themselves, and attack Tang while their army is gone, and make them choose between controlling our nation and protecting their own. The king of Tang will pursue, of course he’ll choose to run back and protect his own country, but will the others? Why should they? They have what they wanted already, what is it to them if Tang is in trouble? Most likely the moment Tang leaves they’ll seize the part of Liu-Yang Tang was meant to have and be all the happier in the new division. That’s what I must rely upon. If I can divide them back up, fight them one by one, I at least have a chance. But what kind of chance? Two thousand men? That’s just not enough. Liu-Yang has millions of people in it. The enemy has millions to call upon as well, even supposing that most of those people must stay home to support the army with their surplus labor. . .two thousand was not an army. It was little better than a warlord’s outfit. A raiding party of northern barbarians had more than two thousand men, and they didn’t even consider that warfare. I must have more men and I must have them before I fight Tang, even supposing Tang is on its own, they’ll easily have fifty thousand men to face me with. Supposing Tang left half of his forces behind to protect the borders against the southern barbarians or civil insurrection or what have you, when I fight the king of Tang, he’ll have twenty five thousand men attacking me. Because of course I’ll march on Tang, and he’ll come rushing back, and I will choose some place between him and the capital, and he’ll have to attack me, he’ll just have to. Supposing with the right land I can defend against three times as many men, I’ll need eight thousand men. Supposing that Tang, due to fatigue, disease, and the previous fighting with my father, has lost half of their men from the combat effective list—then I’ll need four thousand men at minimum for this battle. Which means I need two thousand more men before I leave Liu-Yang, because I’m not likely to find any in Tang. Hei laughed mirthlessly. Could I hire southern barbarians to join me while I attack Tang? Perhaps I could, but I don’t want them for allies. If I ally myself with the barbarians, then every atrocity they commit will be on my hands, and then it will be a war of extermination against me, and I will lose that war. Tang has plenty enough resources to destroy me, even on its own. My only chance is to win one battle, and with that have leverage to negotiate something with them. After all, war is just negotiating through other means. What I need, then, is a stronger hand to negotiate with. Not barbarians that will put an end to all thought of diplomacy. Where will I get the men, then? Rebels? Some pretender to Tang’s throne? Again, no good, because then the King would be fighting for his survival, and again there will be no thought of diplomacy. Then I must get my men from Liu-Yang, and they must fight honorably and courteously, or it’s hopeless. So I can’t promise plunder and enter Tang like some bandit chief. And what patriot will come to the defense of his nation by running away from it, as I intend to do? Two thousand men! How can I not find two thousand men when Liu-Yang has millions? I could enter a single village and find two thousand men!
“Sire, you haven’t slept since you got here, don’t you think it’s best to come back to this with a clear head?” A staff sergeant came up with a cup of hot tea. God bless him. Hei leaned back in his chair and grabbed the tea greedily. He drank as much as his tongue could stand in one go. Anything to clear his head.
“What’s your name, if I may ask?” Hei asked. He had to know his men, so that he could trust them, and they could trust him. He had to do this quickly, before they fought. Yet another thing to do.
“Pang Lei, sire. I keep track of the wagons.”
“I’m glad someone does, as we can do nothing without them. I must tell you, I am considering a very long march, and I must ask you, is there enough to forage off, can we live off the land, for a very long time?”
“I suppose we could, sire, seeing as how few we are. Yes, we could probably take from villagers whatever food they have and stay well enough fed. But there’s more to supplies than that. We need clothes, food for the horses, if we hope to have the horses marching most of the day, wheels, axles, and such for the wagons, blankets, medical supplies, shoes, cooking equipment. . .and for all of that we need money. . .and it’s hard to get those things ‘off the land.’”
“You say it’s hard, I’m asking you if it’s possible.” Hei responded.
“Yes. . .if it must be done. . .well then, that’s karma.” Pang shrugged. “And if that’s karma, then karma will find a way, sire. But even then, I would stress that the morale of the troops depends on a reliable line of supply, and their ability to fight, why, even to march, depends on their morale. Going without a line of supply is. . .well. . .always a dangerous thing, sire.”
“Are you saying the troops will mutiny?” Great, not only were they a scant two thousand strong, but unreliable to boot.
“Who can say about these things?” Pang shrugged it off. “But you can’t ask the impossible from them. They have to eat, they have to be warm, they have to be dry, or they’ll whittle away, from disease or desertion, which does it matter? It’s the natural result, it follows from lack of supplies just as babies follow kisses.”
“Well, here is how it stands, Pang Lei, we are leaving Liu-Yang and with it our line of supply. It is up to you to supply us anyway. I don’t suggest how to do it, I don’t know how to do it. I just know it must be done.”
“Leaving Liu-Yang. . .? But where will we go? Why would we leave Liu Yang?” the staff sergeant asked in bewilderment.
“Because Liu-Yang is lost.” Hei made an exhausted gesture at the map. “it was lost the moment three kingdoms decided to attack it together, but it was even more lost at the swamp, and there’s nothing left we can do.”
“But. . .if that’s true, sire. . .then why are we here? If Liu-Yang is lost, then why march anywhere else?”
“Because just maybe we can get it back.” Hei stressed. It was now or never, he had to win over his officers, to win over his men, to win over the two thousand men he would have to find somewhere, and it started with this man. “Look, right now, three kingdoms have split us up in perfect harmony, we have to disrupt this harmony, that’s their weak point. So long as they have an organized force resisting them, they’ll work together to destroy it. Remove the resistance, and they will have no further reason to stay in harmony. Hopefully then they’ll start fighting over the spoils. And, like the rabbit, we’ll leave while the lion and wolf fight each other.”
“But even so, even if they do turn on each other, what does it matter if we’ve already lost Liu-Yang? Shall we be happy that only one kingdom in the end will swallow Liu-Yang instead of three?” Pang looked at his emperor angrily.
“And then when three kingdoms fall out of allegiance, we will get one of them to ally with us. And then, with two against two, we’ll have a chance.” That was the plan, at least. Except at best it wouldn’t be two against two, at best they would fight each other so much that it would be two against one against one. But he could not plan for the best.
“Ally with the people who killed your brother, your father, and have overrun your kingdom?”
“They have treated our people honorably, they are not barbarians.” Hei just had to win this argument. He wished Pang would understand. “If we ally with one, we can expect fair terms. If we then defeat another king, if we can divide them up, then we can expect fair terms with that king, and so on. We are fighting enlightened kingdoms, Pang. Civilized people. We can deal with these men. What we can’t win in battle we will win in speeches. The only thing that matters now is keeping an army intact so that we have something to bargain with. Right now we are fighting for survival. Until that is assured, Liu-Yang will just have to wait. And it won’t wait under the lash, or under cannibals, or under mutilators, or horseblood drinkers. It’ll wait under scholars and craftsmen and farmers like us, and Liu-Yang will hardly know the difference. When the Emperor leaves the castle, doesn’t the castellan take care of the capital until he returns? That is all I’m doing, I’m leaving the key to the castellan, until I feel like returning. If the castellan happens to be a foreign invader, well then, that is karma, but he will take care of it well enough.”
“I beg pardon sire, but a coward could reason in the same manner.”
“Perhaps. But you won’t know me a coward until my plan fails, now will you? If I fail, then call me whatever you want, until then, it’s our only chance to win this war, and if you don’t intend to help me win this war, then go ahead and leave.” Hei closed his eyes, tired to the bone. And it was only his first day.
Pang hesitated, finally cleared his throat. “It’s as you say, they must have one hundred thousand men and we only have two thousand. . .I suppose what you say is true, it can’t be helped, we can’t win the war as it stands now. . .I just don’t want to admit that, but it can’t be helped. My apologies then, sire, for doing what you have to do. I know you hate it as much as I do. So forgive me for my anger. It’s not for you, but for our situation.”
“You’re forgiven, and gladly.” Hei drank down the rest of his tea. One convinced. Three thousand, nine hundred, and ninety-nine left.

Chapter 8

The three kings entered the capital in the midst of their parading armies. Drums, trumpets, and flags preceded and followed the row upon row upon row of marching men, each in their own country’s colors. The number of men marching down the main road was enormous, but it wasn’t a tenth the population of the city itself. How strange that so few men can control so many. Karma, the King of Tang supposed. If they weren’t so docile the world would be in endless flux and chaos. With just a few powerful wills there’s already constant war in the world, just imagine if everyone went their own way. He shook his head. It was still humiliating for an empire of this size, with so many millions to call upon—how now, they must have twenty million in the nation, the capital alone included over a million heads--And to surrender it without a fight, it was humiliating. These people didn’t deserve their own country, if they weren’t willing to fight for it. Even now the mobs could easily, with rocks and sticks, destroy their entire army, and yet they sat and watched like dazed cows. Was life so dear? Was nothing worth fighting for? And yet, what could they do? Could one man who felt like charging make any difference? Unless they all acted together, the few who did act would just be killed, and so none of them dare to act, because they aren’t assured of their neighbor’s will. That was why armies existed. It wasn’t their training, or their weapons. Most of all it was the mutual assurance that everyone would act in concert. That was the army’s strength, that comrades would not abandon their comrades, or let some charge while they milled around behind, instead they would all march together to the front. Coordination was what made all things strong. The eagle, stooping for a fish in the river, had to coordinate its dive perfectly if it hoped to clutch the fish in the talons while still flying in the air. How much more difficult than that epitome of grace, the coordination of thousands in a single enterprise? That was why dancing was beautiful when people danced together, because the coordination must be perfect, and people admire it because they know how hard it is. That was why an orchestra was the most dazzling work of art of all, because so many instruments had to be coordinated together to make a single song, and it brought everyone who heard it to an awed silence. If it took the work of a lifetime to coordinate ten dancers, or fifty musicians, then who could comprehend the power of one hundred thousand warriors acting in unison? Was not the army the most amazing display of coordination under the sun? So who can wonder that all twenty million people of Liu-Yang have to sit by and despair in the face of it? Still, he wished some act of defiance, at least some woman refusing to bow to them, or something to mark his achievement. As it stood he just couldn’t know whether they had won or not. How can you beat water into conformity? Hit it as much as you like, it would always give, but to what avail? This was a hollow victory over people who apparently didn’t even care that they were here. It was disquieting. He had worried over their last victory and been wrong then, though. Perhaps it really was this easy and his only enemy was his own paranoia. But he still wished he had an enemy he could see and know. Surely foreign conquerors created enemies. If they weren’t here, they were somewhere else, somewhere he hadn’t planned for and would be ambushed from. He wished they had fought him here.
“How now! Why the long face?” The King of Pi clapped him on the shoulder. “Isn’t this what we came here for? There stands the palace, open to any who wish to take it! And at practically no cost, and in practically no time. Why, if this makes you frown, then heaven bring you a happy day before you die.”
“It’s too easy.” Tang shook his head. “It doesn’t work like this.”
“As much as people think every war is an endless siege of attrition, if you know anything you know those are the worst led wars of all. A good king doesn’t go to war unless it’s too easy, and this was as easy as it gets. We knew we would win before we went to war, didn’t we? Both the king and the crown prince are dead, what more can these peasants do? Of course they won’t contest us, what would they fight us with? It’s over, we won, now eat, drink, and be merry.”
“Perhaps farmers don’t learn how to worry, but I assure you that’s all craftsmen do. Is someone else selling for cheaper? Making a higher quality item? Do the people still like my product, or has the fad changed? Will my products arrive on time, or will the ships sink and beggar me? Will taxes go up? Or will the government subsidize the competition and make it hopeless? This, that, the other, there’s always something to worry about. And in the end it’s no use and we all go bankrupt and usually sink our sons into debt before we die anyway.”
Pi laughed. “Farmers only worry about one thing, the weather, but that somehow suffices for all the rest. I would give half my kingdom to the sorcerer, after all his chanting and all his charms, that could predict tomorrow’s weather. How is it our sages can predict comets that come every hundred years to the day but they can’t predict the rain?”
“It’s a mystery.” Tang allowed himself to smile. Perhaps it was as he said. Everyone always had a reason to worry, every single day something would happen, and yet life moved on and it all worked out eventually and most everyone lived happily enough or else they would prefer death but clearly quite a few people were still alive for some reason and if they were okay with the situation then perhaps the king in the midst of the greatest conquest since the collapse of the dynasty should be content as well.
“I guess I should be happy. After all, when it’s all said and done, I get to keep the palace.” Tang smiled toothily.
“You can keep it. This far south, it’s too hot to live. Let me have a river that doesn’t boil our rice just by tossing it in, thank you very much.”
Tang laughed. “We may own the land, but God help us find the men who will garrison it. We may be as far south as Liu-Yang, but we’re a few thousand feet closer to heaven than this swamp. I’d think it fits your country far better.”
“This heat doesn’t fit anyone. This is just ridiculous. And these people don’t even seem to notice.” He gestured to the sullen but respectful crowd pressed together to let the army by.
“All the better if we intend to live off a tenth of their produce.”
“A tenth? You’re too generous. Why should they be taxed the same as Pi? How will that help our farmers if even after we conquer them we let them out compete us? They’ll be taxed twenty, thirty percent. Whatever it takes to cripple them, that’s what they’ll pay. The thieves.”
“Farmers won’t make much rice if they don’t get to use it.” Tang warned.
“All the better. All the more rice we’ll make instead. The rats. I hope they starve to death they make so little rice. Then we’ll feed the Middle Kingdom like we were supposed to all along.”
“Well, it’s your river.” Tang shrugged. You fool, with the Yang river valley under my control, I can produce more than enough rice for my own kingdom and I won’t have to buy a ko from you, not one peck, so drive the prices up as much as you like, all you’ll do is let me start exporting my surplus and you’ll be exactly where you were before. If the Liu river basin doesn’t rebel before then.
“How now? Conspiring together without me? We haven’t even reached the palace and you’re planning how to take my slice of the spoils?” Ch’i clapped them on the shoulders merrily.
“Actually we were just discussing the weather.” Tang countered.
“Hotter than hell and wetter than a whore, but ours all the same, so I’ll take it.” Pi seconded.
Ch’i laughed encouragingly. He wished he knew what they’d really been talking about, but oh well. He couldn’t expect them to tell him. That was why he paid his spies, after all. Only a matter of time before one or the other turned on him, but so long as he knew when they would, he could always get the other to side on the side of ‘right and justice.’ But it would be troubling if both were striking a deal already. Surely they wouldn’t be that friendly when they’d never dealt with each other before? Well, there was risk in everything, but even if they did league together, it would only be over Liu-Yang, and so long as Liu-Yang was dismembered, the objective was accomplished. But what’s this? Chi’s king blinked in amused disbelief, arriving at the foot of the palace entrance. The royal family hasn’t fled?
“Is that the Empress?” Pi asked. “And her princess, what’s her name?”
“Yue Fang Jong, I believe.” Ch’i supplied thoughtfully.
“Ho! What do you want from us? Will you stand in the way of our entrance? Do you think women can stop us when your men cannot?”
The empress and the princess stood proudly in their most formal dress at the steps of the palace. For a moment neither of them answered Pi’s challenge, but then the Empress stood forward. “You murderers are proud today, but the Dao is patient, and if not in this life, in your next life, do you think you will not answer for this? What has Liu-Yang done to you, Min Kei Rok? Or you, Pe Su Huang? Or you, Han Shao? What has Liu-Yang done to anyone? Before God I challenge anyone to justify this butchery, this outright theft, this brazen defiance of the Dao, whose spirit is harmony. You say you are godless? Do not think yourselves safe, then, for God is God even of the godless, and though you know him not, God knows you, and will make cockroaches of you three kings tomorrow who so smugly stand before us today.”
“Our quarrel is not with you, woman. Your husband is dead, let it end. You speak much of God, so by all means leave this silly defiance and go to a temple and speak of him all you want. There is no place for you here any longer.”
“O that those who need the Dao most are the last to seek it!” The empress exclaimed. “And shall you not answer for this? And shall you not answer for this, you murderers of my husband and my son? Do you think there is no balance in this world? Murderers, if you want in, then murder me too. Murder my beautiful girl. Doesn’t that fit best? Isn’t that how you should ascend the throne, rather than all this fanfare? Bloody swords got you here, let them consecrate this day, put your flags and drums aside and reveal what you really are, a horde of bloody barbarians!”
“This is a farce.” Tang exclaimed, fed up. “Seize them! Take them away!” The empress glared with stately reserve, but the worst was having to watch the child steel her face and try not to cry and be as brave as her mother. What would become of that royal blood? There was no point in marrying her, a legitimate successor was no use to a country that no longer existed. In fact it would only be a danger, someone the people would rally behind for re-unification. She would have to be put in a temple vowed to chastity and watched for the rest of her life. Such a brave and beautiful girl to waste. Like shattering a gem precisely because it was priceless. A terrible waste. But it can’t be helped. Karma that the highest up fall the furthest. God’s will, not his, so let God answer for it.
“Make sure they are treated well, and consign them to some monastery for life.” Tang directed to a captain of his guard. “Does that sit well enough with you?” He turned to ask his fellow kings after the fact.
“Well enough. Better that than they should become martyrs for some resistance movement in the future. Or produce another son to plague us with.” Ch’i concurred.
“Which reminds me, didn’t Sun Jong have two sons? Whatever happened to the second?” Pi asked.
“He fell out of grace earlier this year and was banished.” Ch’i shrugged. “Even if he’s alive somewhere nobody will follow him.”
“A stroke of luck, that. How nice of them to smooth out all the bumps before we got here.” Pi smiled smugly.
“Let’s hope all Liu-Yang has left is widows and children to chide us with.” Tang prayed. The moment had disquieted him more than he would have liked. A weakness to be hidden in front of these men. Who knew but the two of them would try to take the river he’d fought for if they thought they could. Not a time to pity little girls, this. He wished he had born harder, it would make being a king so much easier.

“That’s how it stands then. When you came to me, you were the plaintiffs, and I bowed to your need. Now I am your plaintiff, I beseech you my men, my subjects, to follow me. Where my authority does not command let my pleading melt in each of you, that if you hope to see your wives, your homes, and your nation free again, you must consign it to chains and follow me. You must follow me into enemy territory, and take the war to them, you must live off what comes to hand, and be surrounded by those that hate you, you will always be outnumbered and you will always be under-supplied. And after all this I can promise only a chance of success, but I can promise you this, that wherever we go, whatever we eat, however little we sleep, I shall be no different from you. And when we fight, where we die, I die. That’s all I can offer, a chance at success, and the pledge of my life in the endeavor. Will you pledge yours? Will you follow me, your lawful emperor?” Hei Ming Jong stopped to look over his entire army assembled to hear him speak. So few men that he could address them all personally was hardly a blessing, but if this was all he had, he had to have them. He had to be sure of them. He needed them for a foundation for whatever army would come, the loyal corps that would always go where they were told and fight where it was hottest. If he could earn the trust of these two thousand veterans, he didn’t care how many men the enemy had, he would always be ready to meet them with just these two thousand.
The camp was silent, the staff sergeants and artillery sergeants and all the other officers biting their lips, waiting to see which way their men turned. He had briefed them all before, and brought them over one by one. If the men followed, he could finally begin to move. Without them there was nothing for it but to surrender to karma and watch Liu-Yang be torn apart.
Minutes passed. Hei stood silently as the soldiers conferred among themselves. Finally one of the men stood up. “Your grace, what you ask is hard. We joined the army to protect Liu-Yang, our homes, our loved ones. You tell us to abandon them to fortune and fate, to the mercy of the foreign soldiers. Suppose we do return a year, two years from now, what will be waiting for us? What assurance do we have that there will be anything left to rescue, once we’re finally ready to rescue them?”
“There is no assurance.” Hei Ming Jong replied, putting everything on the line. “But know this, I left behind a wife and a home when I came here. I have heard nothing from her since, and I haven’t had any time to write her or even think of her. I love my wife as much as you love yours, so let this deed mark my words, that I marched away from her, surrendered her to the enemy, just as you are being asked to today, and that when I return in a year, or two, I have no assurance that she will be safe or well or still in love with me. If what I ask is hard, then know I ask nothing more from you than I have already required of myself. There is no assurance that when we leave, we’ll have anything to return to, or ever return at all. What is assured is that if we do nothing, Liu-Yang will be destroyed, its people made second-citizens to three different kings, with three different agendas, none of them ours. There is no good choice here, if we leave, we leave to an uncertain future. If we stay, we stay for a certain future. If we act, we may be our own undoing. If we don’t act, we are undone. Three kings have come to fight against us, is no one willing to fight for us? Will we all bow our heads and meekly watch Liu-Yang die when there is even the slightest chance that we may yet act and save it?”
Hei was just saying whatever came into his head, sentence to sentence, not knowing what was enough or what would tip the scales. “If it is not enough that all our people be ruled by foreigners, that our misfortune will be considered their good fortune, and that the people who rule us shall always consider us a ‘them,’ to be exploited to their own advantage—consider this! Will not the sun rise on a day when these nations, Tang, Ch’i, and Pi, fall to blows with one another? And on that day, the people of Liu-Yang, here fighting for Tang, there for Pi, shall meet on the field—O bloody field, that would set father against child, brother against brother, conquered vassals alike fighting for tyrannous lords, wearing different colors! Shall we thus be turned one against another, and all of us for someone else, so that there will not be one hope, one goal, one dream, alive amongst us that shall not be squelched down, torn up, sacrificed to some proud mob to our north or west? Will we be a nation of people, without a voice, scattered across the nations, the minority in all of them, acknowledged by none of them--to be oppressed, abused, dishonored, and enslaved? Without Liu-Yang shall only God hear Liu-Yang’s cries for justice? Shall we all have to wait until we die for a soul that will count us as deserving as the next man, living as beasts, beaten, jeered at, and burdened for the sake of others all our lives long? Shall we pray at night that in our next life, we shall be reborn a babe of Tang, or Pi, counting the babes of Liu-Yang the worst punishment for sin karma has to offer?”
“NO!” The army shouted, all at once, with fury in their voices.
“And shall your women repine when they bear new life into the world—‘here is such a one that must have been a murderer or a thief in his past life, for now he is a Liuyan?’”
“NO!” The army shouted in unison, shouting their defiance to the sky.
“And shall the cockroaches seek to live virtuously, so that they may remain cockroaches and not descend to be Liuyans?” Hei asked them a third time, finally finding a theme that struck at their hearts and driving it home.
And they were won.

Chapter 9

  Yue Fang Jong watched the darkness with pupils as widened as they could stretch, trying to see the motion that would begin her life as an adult. Away with dolls now, away with tears, away with stories and make-believe. Away with rice cakes and dresses. She was the last heir to the throne, and so it fell to her to save it. Karma that she was only thirteen—though only a month from now fourteen so it was hardly fair to call her thirteen—so let karma prove thirteen old enough to do what was required of her. Somewhere out there her brother who had abandoned them was still alive, some peasant tilling his paddy, instead of a prince defending his country. And it was up to her to bring him back. To convince him to save the country he turned his back on and avenge the father that banished him. Because he loves me he will do it. She thought firmly to herself. And because he loves Liu-Yang, as I do, as father does, as we all do. That binds us together no matter what drove us apart. And it was up to her to give him the army he needed, so that finally he would be emperor in both name and fact. He was already emperor, even if he didn’t know it. But without an army that meant nothing. The army was the empire. Whoever the army supported was the emperor. Without an army her brother could do nothing. But without her brother the army could do nothing. Without a leader they had nothing to rally behind, unless it was her and the hope of her unborn children. Too thin a thread to tie an army together. Too weak to uphold the courage of ten thousand men. And too stupid to lead them well, whereas Hei was the most brilliant strategist of his day. Someone who could be 8-dan if he applied himself. The yellow lightning of offense and the skittering waterbug of defense. Her brother could do anything with an army, but she could at least do this, she could bring one to him. Her blood was royal enough to lead that far, even if it flowed through a woman’s form.
  “Still, mother, isn’t it better that you go?” Yue asked worriedly, watching the night. “I’m so very young.”
  “It is better this way, child. A woman’s strength is based on first her parents, then her husband, and lastly her children, and for me all of these are gone, and I am left just a shadow of my former self. If the wind blew hard enough I would likely fly away, so little is left of substance in me. But you are still bright, still shining—may more fortune follow you than I! In the future there still remain husbands and children that can buoy you up. All that’s left to me is to visit graves and await my next life--may it be happier than this one!”
  “I’m still your child, aren’t I mother? Isn’t Hei still your child?” Yue demanded.
  “Of course you are. Of course. But let it be. You are too young, I am too old. Which will the army follow, a grief-stricken hag or a sprightly princess? As beautiful as the rising sun or a budding rose or the tiny stream that promises to become a great river. Which will they love? Which defend, even when all hope is lost? A face bathed in tears or rose water? Lined with wrinkles or kohl? Let be, let be. I’m no use to anyone anymore. You must be strong for both of us. Strong, and brave, and happy, and beautiful, and good for both of us. All that’s left in me I bequeath to you, all my strength, all my wisdom, let it lodge in your heart and guide you now, o my little one, my last child that I must lastly see away!” She started to choke back new tears, not knowing how more could still be coming.
  “Don’t cry mother. Hei will come back. I know he will. Hei can do anything. Isn’t it karma, mother, that he went away? So that he wouldn’t die in the swamp with father? Isn’t it karma that’s preserved him until now, that he can save us now? Didn’t God save him so he could save us all? How, then, could God let Hei die now? Will the Dao preserve him this long, and yet not long enough to be the gainer by it? Is that symmetry? Then let us believe! If we believe in anything, we must believe in Hei now. He lives for a reason, surely! Surely for a reason! O, mother, how happy you will be when Hei and I come marching back at the head of our victorious army to this very palace and pronounce our country free! If you believe in anything, you must believe in that day! Happy day! God will not abandon us, God does not punish the virtuous and reward the wicked! So surely that day must come!” Yue’s voice ached with held-back tears of her own, trying to console her mother before she left.
  After father had left with what men could be marshaled at a moment’s notice, more and more men had come streaming in to take the field themselves. Men from districts further and further out from the capital kept arriving just today, equipped and ready for a war they were too late to fight in. The queen had kept them together, stopped them from leaving back home after news of the defeat. The queen had promised them a chance to fight, when fighting was possible once again. Once the enemy had relaxed its guard and no longer sought for foes. She promised that the sun would yet rise on a free people, if they only gave her their trust and their hands. Unarmed, out of uniform, the army had watched the enemy march to the palace gates and declare themselves conquerors. Let them drink themselves to death in celebration, Yue thought hatefully. We are not so easy meat, to be gobbled up in a single day. So long as there remains one drop of royal blood anywhere in the world, we will always fight for our people, and our people will always fight for us. You invaders will never understand that blood is still blood even when it enters my veins. Even a young girl can defeat you if she’s the daughter of Sun Jong, whose pinkie was better and higher than all three of your kingship’s put together. And when she’s the brother of Hei Ming Jong, the best brother in all the world, even if he left me, still the best brother in the world and let Tang and Ch’i and Pi choke on him. Let that stupid Tang wipe that stupid look of pity off his face like I was some lost cat, and let Pi wipe off that stupid giant smile that would never stop, and let Ch’i be flayed by the whips of a thousand devils for his forked tongue and his vertically-slit looks and his calculating hisses! If there were ever three kings assembled before who didn’t embody the most hypocritical, vacuous, and twisted souls that ever did walk the earth, it must have been ten thousand lives ago and the very same cycle as this one. She would hate them forever for what they did to father and her brother, but even more for what they did to her mother, leaving her to die of grief for the rest of her life. She would never forgive them for her mother’s tears.
  “Hark! Did you hear something?” The guard outside asked, suddenly alarmed.
  “Nothing, what was it?” The second guard asked.
  “A hissing. . .like a bolt that flies past the ear. Surely there was a sound.”
  “Mayhap it was an owl in flight, or a raven, or some other bird.”
  “Mayhap.” The other agreed grudgingly. “Only better that it were a nightingale. This is no night for birds of ill-omen.”
  “How many times must I tell you there’s no such thing as omens? Things happen because they do, and that’s that!”
  “If there is fate, there are omens. I don’t know how you don’t agree with me, when you admit there’s fate. If the future is set, then it can be descried, now can’t it? And if it can be done, then the gods can do it, now can’t they? And if the gods care for the world—and surely they do!—then why wouldn’t they warn us with omens? What else would you do if you knew the future, for those you loved, but tell it to them? It’s as clear as day the gods fill the world with signs and omens, or else we could blame them for filling it only with pits and snares and tripwires to catch us in!”
  “Look, there is a fate, but that’s your karma. It has nothing to do with gods, or how they feel, or what they can do, or what we would blame them for. That’s a bunch of nonsense. Gods fearing our judgment! Gods warning us of dangers they can’t prevent! Some gods! Fah! A peck for all your gods, and there’s that, I wouldn’t trust your gods to do me a good turn as far as I could throw them, since they’re either too weak or too proud or too jealous or too something-or-other to ever do what you ask of them.”
  “You say karma as though it meant something, and substitute your ignorance for just a sound. Any dog can bark and call it wisdom. Until you have more of an explanation than an empty, meaningless sound, my gods, with whatever faults you want to lay on them, make far more sense than yours.”
  “It’s not an empty sound. Everyone knows what karma means. Karma is your fate, and your fate is karma.
  “Any dog can bark and call it a woof.”
  “Hsst! I think I heard it again! Raise the battle cry! We are betrayed”
  Yue struggled to see anything. To hear anything more from her guards, that suddenly went silent. That they might say a word, even if it was “I die!,” to put her out of this miserable anticipation. The night had lasted twenty hours instead of two, she’d waited so long.
  Suddenly the door burst open, a man all in black lowering his veil. “Princess, it is time. Come quickly.”
  “I am in your hands, lead and I follow.” She forced through a suddenly constricted throat. Suddenly she was directly responsible for fifteen thousand men, more men than even her father had led, and with them the only hope of twenty million others. O blood, be true! Though it only beats through me, let me suffice!

  The day’s marching had ended and camp for the night was already set up. As far as he knew nobody else even knew this army existed, much less where it was. But he kept sentries all the same. And dug a trench around his forces every night before they slept. If nothing else it was good practice. Good discipline, which preserved unity, which was the lifeblood of an army. It’s like I’m playing a go game, where, after a strong match of semai, or two snakes eating each other, I realize my stones are doomed to failure and that all further moves in that fight will only precipitate the reactions from my opponent which will annihilate my army altogether. Instead I must move in another theatre, and the opponent, not willing to risk giving me the four or five move head start which finishing my stones off would take, abandons the snake to longer life, knowing it must die sooner or later so leaving it for later. But if I play well enough, if I play well enough, the horde of stones both I and my opponent abandoned to fight in other regions will come back to life, and suddenly, moves that started off far away will strike home to my doomed forces and bring them salvation, completely unforeseen by a too-confident enemy, who still reading the situation with eyes on the past, sees Liu-Yang as aji and not semai once more. The tactic was practiced by all, leaving a fight unfinished which was doomed to failure, but only the very best ever saved those doomed men. Masters earned their fame through moves like that. Hei wondered whatever happened to his shikijo. Maybe Lu Huang would know. He wished he could hear Shikijo lecturing him on what he was doing wrong now. No doubt he had managed to mess up fifty times just keeping his men marching towards the border. Go was a perfect mirror to life, Hei knew this in his heart. Because both dictated your moves by necessity, but both were too complex to ever guess what that necessity was, and so knowing God’s will, still we always strike to the left or the right of it, and only a few moments in our life do we ever place the stone where it ought to go, or say the word that should be said, or do the deed that must be done. As absolute, as completely decided, as it all was, still ignorance managed to veil it over with choices, with possibilities, with conjectures, and make us think all day that we were guessing right from wrong, though right and wrong was set in stone since the beginning of time, still we guessed whether it were here or there on the board, or this word or that in life, and in our folly we claim the future is not set but open, that good and evil are not absolute but interchanging, that cycles don’t repeat but birth continuously new forms, or that moving two spaces away was just as likely to work as moving three spaces away from the last stone. Every move in Go, there was only one right move. And every moment in life, there was only one right will, the will of God, and just as nobody would willingly move in the wrong place, so nobody willingly went against the will of God, but unwillingly people lost or damned themselves, cursing Fortune that never was save in their fevered imaginations, or inclinations that never once strayed from God, however far they did, or blaming temptation which was no more theirs than anyone else’s, save in this, that they were weaker. And why the Dao’s will was in all things but not its power, was a question that only proved their ignorance, not any fault in the Dao. Perhaps in heaven they would learn. Heaven being the place your soul went when the world was no longer enough for it, and hell being the place your soul went when the world was too much for it, and nothing at all was preferred, so that karma, which was symmetry, would be preserved and there might be a place for all things, and a this for all thats. Until someone played the perfect Go game, what right did anyone have to know why God’s will was in all things but not God’s power? If we can’t figure something so simple as a square out, how on earth can we comprehend the will or design of God? Perhaps Go was destined by God to teach us humility, to teach us just how stupid we really were, and from humility teach us faith, which was believing in something more than yourself, because it was more than yourself, and not based on your own limits, whose only conclusion would be despair. Not that God could care less whether we believe or not, God was God, the Dao already had its way in everything, seeing as how everything was a necessary result of God’s will, which had determined everything through an eternity of cycle and re-cycles, and was as simple as this single word, symmetry. Faith, temples, prayers, all of this was done by us, for us, from us, to us, voiced towards God so that we would hear. That God would hear and thus change, swaying to and fro depending on how we swayed back and forth, would be the greatest blasphemy ever imagined. And from the Daos high throne of perfection which made it the Dao, bring it down to our level, and thus just as worthless as we are. No, God cared less whatever we said to it or did for it or thought of it. God was, and that was the end of it as far as God was concerned. But for that parcel of the Dao which was in us, our souls, that still retained God’s will, which flowed through its every portion and ruled all things, and was karma, we must worship and pray and follow God as best we can—for the karma of a rock is to be a rock, and the karma of a tree is to be a tree, and the karma of a man is to be a man, which is a seeing soul, and as it is our karma to see, we must either tear our eyes out and defy our nature, or see, and in seeing, believe. For the nature of truth is the necessity of its admittance by the seeing soul. And the nature of beauty is the necessity of its admiration by the seeing soul. And the nature of love is the necessity of its adoption by the seeing soul. And the nature of good is the necessity of its sovereignty over the seeing soul. And so the nature of God alone, and no act or conscious thought or petty wish or praise-loving pandering, demanded the worship of its conscious parts, and its conscious parts, with no wish for blessings, or thought of help, or hope of changing their karma, can not help but worship. Just as it was the nature of a flower to smell sweetly and bloom colorfully, and the nature of the bee to seek it out, so it was the nature of God and man to be worshipped and worshipper, beyond the choice or thought of either, to the greater dignity of both.
  But how pious am I, really, who only a moment before I left Da, swore to let the world burn before that could happen? I had forgotten that until just now. How strange, to be forsworn in the opening and closing of a breath. How short my promise extends into the future. But it can’t be helped. What else? What else could I do? Lu lay at my feet, bloody from a battle I had not joined, asking me why I had not come when he needed me. Was I not forsworn by that image alone from what I should have done? And in correcting one oath broken, what was I to do but break another? I had no choice. I must keep breaking my word until I give the right word, and don’t have to break it anymore. But what will she think of me, forsworn in just moments before her eyes? Will she ever believe me again? Does Da believe me even now? Does she love me anymore, I who betrayed her? But for a good reason. . .but how good a reason to her? There are always good reasons to betray, hardly any to be betrayed. . .but for such a reason as this, to save a million million people from slavery. . .surely no wife can begrudge her husband that. Surely she understands. She has to. No choice like that ever faces most men, I defy any man to make a better choice than I did, given the choices I had. Everyone would be an oathbreaker if they had to live my life. There’s no shame in failing the impossible, an equal duty to two opposing things. She will understand. And she will forgive me. Just as Lu did when I returned to him, to the army, to the fight. When I return to her she will forgive me. If she loves me she will, and what can I be more sure of than that? If that isn’t known, then let me die, for there is nothing but flux and chaos left in the world.
  “It will be an early morning, sire. I set down the route we traversed today on the map, and how many miles we went, and how many men joined us along the way. Is there anything else?” Pu Shi asked, crisply but tiredly. He was the course setter and the map keeper, who was the second to hear from the cavalry’s pathfinding and scouting reports, right after the general himself.
  “Any deserters yet?” Hei asked, his mind brought back to the present.
  “None, sire. Not one in two thousand.”
  “Well, they’ll come by and by. But good to know all the same.”
  “Who would leave you now after what you’ve said to them, may he be cursed for a coward and a traitor for his next thousand lives.”
  “Oh, one life will be enough. I was just thinking I would like to desert myself. Go home and see my wife again. And my family. I just realized I can’t be banished anymore now that my father’s dead. I could see little Yue again. How I’ve longed to see her. My last memory of her was her crying and telling me she’d never yell at me again and would do anything I said if I just didn’t leave her. Can you imagine that? It tears at me like it was happening again even now. How can you ever forget that?”
  “Belike you will see them both again, in better times than these.” Pu commiserated. “I couldn’t stop my daughters from crying no matter what I said, they kept assuring me I would die and they would never see me again. And in the swamp, I ran and ran, and all I could think of was that my daughters knew I would die and never see them again, and I left them anyway, to die in a stupid swamp where I’d never be buried but just sink to the bottom of the earth and rot.”
  “What women these women make of us.” Hei noted wryly, brushing away a tear. “I’ll forgive any man who loves their wife more than his emperor. Only God knows who deserves his love more.”
  “Not for you, sire. They owe their love to the man to their left, and the man to their right, for forgoing their wives and children for him. That is the love they must requite, or be damned.”
  “True, true, I hadn’t thought of that. How strange that all day I can think of nothing but war and armies and terrain, and the moment I am alone with myself, I am suddenly haunted with feelings I’d completely left behind, as though entirely sprung anew. And then the night is not long enough to chase these demons from me and leave me free to campaign again. Is the sun’s being up or down that important, that one me sets and another rises along with it?”
  The man shrugged. “Karma, my lord.”
  “Yes, it’s always karma. Always karma.” Hei’s voice trailed off and he regathered it for one last effort. “Well then, good night, staff sergeant. It is an early morrow.”
  That it is, sire.” The man allowed himself a yawn and turned to leave the tent. “And sire.” The man turned back around. “May I say that I think it is karma you are my general?”
  “Gladly. And I thank you for it.”
  “Goodnight then, my lord.”
  “Goodnight, Pu Shi.” The man left and a draft went through the tent. Hei shivered. They were going higher up each day. And it was already past the harvest. Winter was coming, and they were so unprepared for it. A worry for another day. He was desperately tired. Hei yawned and put out his lamp between his fingers. They would have to find blankets and cloaks before they entered Tang. He would talk to Pang Lei about it tomorrow. At least winter campaigns carried fewer plagues amongst the men. But then, with so few men as he had, plagues were probably his best ally, as halving his army would lose him a thousand, and halving Tang’s would lose them ten thousand. But it was too cruel to wish a plague upon his own men, so let it be. Too cruel to wish the invaders had acted like barbarians and given him the support of the people. Too cruel to wish a plague on invaders, people, and his own army alike just because it would kill more of them. God in its mercy doesn’t think like I do, God be thanked. I would deliver us all to the devil just to have my way. But I wish I could see Yue again before I die, unburied in another land. That’s really who I wish I could see most, just once more. I did her such wrong before, I wish I could make it up to her before I die. Well, I will make it up to her in the next life, if not this one. With such unfinished threads of life karma wove its web. But I still wish it were in this one. I would desert myself if not for those men to my left and right. How well he said it. But why not? We are all a part of God, each soul twined to all the others to form the Dao, the oversoul. Why can’t other people say good, true things as often as I? Good is the nature and basis of all beings, because all the universe is God and God is Good. Of course that divinity will shine through all of us, at one point or another. Isn’t that why we sought each other out? Why we valued each other in the first place? Tired, tired, tired. . .perhaps I can see Yue in a dream and that will suffice.

Chapter 10

  “What do you mean, she’s gone?” Tang demanded. “Didn’t I tell you to guard her?”
  “Forgive us, my lord. The guards were killed.”
  “Why would she run now when she had plenty of time to run before?” Tang complained.
  “Perhaps she didn’t like our hospitality.” Pi laughed.
  “And why did the queen stay? Couldn’t we torture all we need to know out of her and find out about the princess wherever she goes? What kind of plan is this?”
  Ch’i shook his head. “You’re right, it makes no sense if it’s some conspiracy. Most likely some locals just wanted to be heroes and saved the princess against her will.”
  “Well she’s a danger to us however long she’s unaccounted for. If she produces a male heir the people will never be tamed.” Tang said.
  “Have you questioned the queen on this yet?” Ch’i asked.
  “No sire, we didn’t know what your orders would be.”
  “What a bother. I don’t want to hear another harangue from that termagant.” Pi laughed.
  “It can’t be helped. She won’t tell us if she knows, and she won’t know anyway, if it was planned for her to stay behind. Torturing the queen will hardly win the love of the people, which we’ll need if we want to turn a profit from all this. I say just let it go. Let spies seek the princess, if she has any sort of force with her, we’ll find her, and drag her back. In fact it would probably be best to pretend nothing happened at all and the princess is still in her monastery. No sense stirring up the people.” Ch’i counseled.
  “I don’t like it.” Tang said. “Why did she stay to get captured only to run away the next night? That’s stupid. Everything our enemy does is stupid. It worries me.”
  “Would it please you if everything they did was brilliant?” Pi countered.
  “What if they wanted us to take the capital?” Tang suggested. “Maybe they thought we would start trying to govern and stop trying to fight, and now they’re going to fight?”
  “What, with a thirteen year old girl and no standing army? What will they do, throw dolls at us?” Pi challenged.
  “I don’t know. I just don’t like it.” Tang said.
  “Then you handle it. Chase the princess up and down the country. Meanwhile we have districts to carve up and administer. And as this palace falls in your district, I think it’s time we take our pleasant leave of you, and with our armies, march back the way we came. The land isn’t really ours until we can collect taxes from the people, regardless of where our armies can march. And to have enough order that our tax collectors go unmolested, we need our men on the ground.” Ch’i said.
  “The sooner this land is secured the sooner I can leave this cursed swamp and go back home and take care of my own country. People get all sorts of ideas the longer their kings are away.” Pi agreed.
  “Fortune favor you, then.” Tang gave up. The problem with alliances is you had to convince people to do what you wanted, instead of just command them. He had to admit, he couldn’t have done it without them. But it was just as well he didn’t have to see them anymore. Pi was a complete idiot, while Ch’i thought himself God’s gift to the world. One couldn’t even conceive of a trick, the other couldn’t conceive of being tricked, and so in the end it was up to him just as though he had gone alone. Oh well. Maybe they’re right and I’m wrong. It can always be hoped.

  How do I find my brother while not being found myself? That was the question. Yue chewed on her lip and looked at maps which approximated the zones of control of the enemy forces. They weren’t everywhere, most of the empire was still being run by Liuyan officials, scribes, and bureaucrats. Liuyan police still kept order, Liuyan judges still provided justice. Liuyan paper was still traded in the markets. Her brother could have disappeared anywhere. He could live in a port city and no one know the difference for the rest of his days. But she had to believe he would come if she asked him. Surely she still meant that much to him.
  She had the entire Imperial spy network to work with. You’d think they could find their own Emperor. Unless he was hiding. Or no longer in the country. But why on earth would he be anywhere else but here? What does my brother know about me that the invaders don’t? All I have to do is fill a message with references that won’t mean anything to anyone but Hei. But where does the message go? Where does Hei go, wherever he is? To temples. He never stops with it, “karma karma karma.” Yue laughed to herself, imagining him natter on like he always did. Or get that especially solemn look on his face where he stopped talking to anyone and thought about God. Hei was absolutely enamored with religion. Even if he was hiding, he would go listen to priests talk about God and call it the best music in the world. It was the Emperor’s duty as the viceroy of God, anointed by the Mandate of Heaven, to lead the faithful. Though most of the peasants kept to their gods and idols and ancestors and rituals, the Emperor subsidized all the priests who kept care of the true belief, which of course included the fact that the Emperor was the chosen of God to rule. And though father had always taken care to lead ceremonies and attend sermons regularly, Hei was absolutely fervent about these things. And she being the princess, the priests would be sure to say whatever she told them to say. So now all she had to do was think of a clever enough message that it could be said in the churches all across the country and nobody think it was about anything but the Dao. Good good. I’m brilliant, it’s that simple. She took out her goose quill and chewed on it. She wasn’t the most beautiful calligrapher, but oh well. She could write, and that was more than most people could say. So her tutors could just stop complaining.
  “Believers, gathered here today, let us still believe that the Dao is, and the Dao is symmetry and harmony.” She paused. That was a good start. No priest could complain that their sermon was being ruined by that. “If the enemy has many men seeking to harm Liu-Yang, then surely Liu-Yang has many men seeking to help it. If the enemy has strong men out to hurt us, then surely Liu-Yang has strong men out to protect us. That is symmetry.” There, at least a hint that she commanded an army. “But the Dao delivers our capital to the enemy because they have a greater spirit of harmony than we do. Are we not to blame for this? That our millions of men cannot gather in harmony and come together to protect their land? Isn’t that why God favors our enemies? Oh, if only all the men who wish to protect us could gather in harmony in one place! How strong would we be then? But for now, all goes the way of our enemy, because we go against the will of God, and scatter ourselves here and there, unknown to one another, unheard of from one another. Mothers and children, even brothers and sisters, scatter themselves about and do not live harmoniously one with the other. Fathers and sons grow cross with one another, and push each other away, when they should come together most. Brothers and sisters, who need each other most, are strangers one to another. How can our nation hope to bring its men together when it cannot even bring its families together? O, when you go home tonight, mother, go to your children. Brothers, go to your sisters. Fathers, go to your sons, and live as one, as God wills, in harmony. Then God will favor us, who hides from us now, because we wander away, lost and ignorant of each other’s place. Brothers, think to the special places and the special times you have spent with your sister, and go back to those places again, to invoke that spirit of harmony which is so lacking in these trying days! And if you shared oranges before, then share oranges again, and repledge yourselves to each other, for we will never be free until we are united. Thus shall harmony be restored through symmetry, by offsetting the past with the future, and through harmony and symmetry the Dao in its mercy will grant us victory.” Yue chewed on her pen again. Perhaps too militant. She didn’t want any priests to get in trouble for being incendiaries. She thought for a moment longer. “Until that day, though, let us be meek and humble and accept God’s judgment that the enemy is more blessed than we are, and that their virtue has exceeded our own. For good is returned for good, and that things go well with them, can only speak of how well they go. So let us concentrate on our faults and consider our own vices, and not blame anyone else for what happens now. Before we can hope for victory, we must deserve it, even if that takes a hundred years of reforming. We must wait for that day, and not complain about this one, which we have deserved through our quarrels and fractures which have despoiled our harmony.”
  There. She dared not be more specific. Surely he would remember the village where they had stopped by a river and eaten oranges. Surely he would see himself in that talk of sons quarreling with fathers and disunited with their sisters. He couldn’t be so oblivious that he didn’t find any special meaning in it. But what if he did somehow manage to not understand? Then she would have to write another sermon for the next week, and dare far more than she had this time. It couldn’t be helped. She hated mentioning ‘brother and sister’ as often as she did already, it just screamed of the royal family to her ears. The three kings surely wanted to find out the remaining children of the Emperor, and they could count as well as she could, there was one brother and one sister left. Well, everyone was a brother or a sister, she couldn’t get vaguer than that. Oh well. Stop worrying about it, whatever happened, that was karma. Let karma sort it out then. She’d done her part. If her brother decided to be incredibly stupid, that was his problem. She certainly wasn’t to blame. And if those wretched kings suddenly became incredibly insightful, that wasn’t her fault either. Sometimes you just had to roll the dice.

  “An odd sermon, reverend.” Hei commented after the rest had filed out of the temple. His mind was in turmoil, but hopefully the priest could clarify it. “What brought you to think of it?”
  “I had no part in it,” The priest explained, quick to excuse himself. “It was handed down to me from on high.”
  “How high?” Hei asked.
  “As high as it goes. The archbishop is said to have given it to every church in Liu-Yang. Perhaps he felt the need to stiffen up resistance now that the Emperor is dead. But he must be getting old, to write something as inchoate as this. I wish these men would retire when they felt their mind slipping. If the head is slipping, the body will too. It’s said the head controls a person’s balance. If that’s true of the body, how much truer of the soul! Let the mind dull and it will fall in any direction at any moment, subject to the tiniest suggestions, compliments, or complaints. People in power need to understand that even with the best intentions, they can do more harm than good when they’re too old to write anything but nonsense like this.”
  “I’m sure the archbishop will thank you for your appraisal of his sermon.” Hei smiled, amused. He didn’t want to know what people said about the Emperor, if it all ran in this vein. The whole populace would have to be executed for treason, if he just listened long enough to them.
  “Oh, forget it then.” The priest looked annoyed. Hadn’t he called it odd to begin with? What was he, some sort of spy? “I have work to do, if you please.”
  “Of course, of course. My apologies, reverend, for my curiosity.” Hei bowed and turned sharply, a smile spreading over his face. He’d met the archbishop, many times. The archbishop didn’t talk like that at all. It wasn’t from the archbishop. It must be from yet higher. And the only person left who could command the archbishop was his mother, or his sister. And nine to ten it was his sister, as the entire point of the letter was arranging a meeting with her. Now the problem was, he couldn’t possibly abandon his men at the very time they were entering Tang. Or maybe he could. So long as Tang didn’t know about them, there was little chance of a fight. And if he went too far into enemy territory, Tang might not even pursue, seeing it was hopeless to catch up in time. Besides, this was the army’s last chance to be fully supplied for the coming winter. Living off the land was a little hard when it was covered in snow. They would have to gather in all the nearby crops and load it onto the wagons for the rest of the campaign. And the men were completely unprepared for the cold. None of them had dealt with the altitude, either. On the other hand, if he didn’t get through these mountains before a blizzard made them impassable, then the whole season was lost. But then, if he got through and Tang couldn’t follow, then the plan was ruined anyway. Blasted snow. He just hadn’t thought about it in time. So be it, then, the weather would just have to hold. The best laid plans still needed plain luck every now and then. Hei rode back to his camp in distraction, itching to get back to a map which would show him the various passes from Liu-Yang into Tang. Supposing it did snow early, hopefully there was a lower path that would still be clear. The mountains weren’t all that high compared to further west. Mae-Dong would call these mountains foothills or just bumps. Ch’in probably wouldn’t have much to say about them either. They only looked high to him because a tree was the tallest thing in Liu-Yang.
  Could the army wait for him to go running about Liu-Yang and back while winter approached? It would do well to wait until everyone had winter clothing before they moved an inch. He would not waste his men on the weather before they ever got a chance to fight. But only a map could tell him whether a pass was navigable in the dead of winter. What a wonderful defensive position that would be. If we win this war maybe it’s time for Liu-Yang to extend its boundaries to that pass, presuming there was one. We’re so naked without mountains and it’s time to do something about that. If we wish to exist at all. Thank God Tang had no idea it was being invaded. Stack a few hundred crossbowmen and pikes in that pass and it could hold forever. A shame he would have to go right through it and aim for the capital if he wanted to attract Tang’s attention. Well, if he tried to hold that pass, he would just be squished between Tang’s home forces and Tang’s expeditionary forces. So it was just as well he would have to keep driving. The only way to pin down the forces left to protect the capital would be to head for the capital, which would force them to stay there and protect it. He had to fight Tang’s invasion force without any help from the kingdom he left behind. He was outnumbered enough as it was. Insanely, ridiculously outnumbered, he thought to himself. But that just might change now. The only reason he would possibly think of waiting so long was that sermon. If Yue meant anything by that letter, she had an army. Which would change the entire face of the situation, if it could only get to where it was useful. That was the new gamble now. Whether Yue’s men could reach him before Tang’s men did. If only they could start marching now. A shame they didn’t know which way to go. But could he really afford to go personally? Why not? Nobody was after him. He had completely disappeared those months ago. Nobody would recognize him. And the army didn’t need his leadership if all they were doing was gathering supplies. So long as they were a secret, it was doubtful they would get into any trouble while he was gone. He could see Yue again. How many men could she have, though? And was she safe? It would be harder for her to escape notice, the last known heir to the throne. Well, if she wasn’t safe, that was karma. Nothing he could do about it. But how many men? If it was just some hodgepodge of underground resistance. . .Hei shook his head. If she had a real army though, his chances would become real. If four thousand was the bare minimum, and that was counting on a plague which hadn’t happened. . .then his chances as they stood were pretty much nil. That meant he had to treat this sermon as though it promised an army. Because if it didn’t, oh well. She had to have an army, the weather had to hold, Tang would have to take the bait, then he would have to win a total victory, and then convince Tang to change sides, and then his chances would be even. If any of those things didn’t happen, it was over. Sigh. . .Nobody said it was going to be easy. And so much of it totally out of my hands. Well, let God decide whether we deserve to win or not. Whether we merited this attack or this result. If we merit enslavement, it will snow. If not, it will not snow. That simple. Better if there was a pass that couldn’t be snowed in, though. No sense in relying on a miracle when you didn’t have to.
  Hei finally made it back to camp, his men clumping around fires to boil their rice and keep warm. “Pu Shi!” Hei called. “Attend me, if you please!” It would be nice to pull up to a fire himself. And it wasn’t even winter yet. He let a man take his horse away and walked into his tent.
  “Sire?” Pu entered the tent.
  “I have a question. Get out the maps. Is there a pass that doesn’t get snowed in from here to Tang? An all-weather pass?”
  “Well. . .” Pu Shi thought about it for a moment. Then they both turned to the box full of maps and started pulling them out. “To confess, sire, I hadn’t even thought of being snowed in. It doesn’t even snow where I live.”
  “Precisely why I forgot.” Hei agreed, rolling a map out. “We need a wide, low valley. Not the pass we have now. The first snow will be the end of it.”
  Pu’s eyes traced down the map carefully, going from one mountain to the next, looking for gaps. “Well, there is one valley that won’t snow in.” Pu said after a moment, looking up.
  “Which?” Hei asked, not finding any himself.
  “The Yang river basin.”
  Hei was struck dumb by the obvious. That river was so old and so wide it had carved miles out of the mountains on either side. He had just been so intent on marching he had never thought of floating. Why, that river went straight to the capital of Tang—Manching, the former capital of the whole world, which lived by the commerce that went up and down that river. Though a thousand miles from the ocean, still rightfully a port. If they could sail up that river they’d strike terror in the entire kingdom. And he even knew where to get his fleet. The fleet that sailed to the spice lands west of Mae-Dong could sail up a river too. Oh, not all of it. Only the smaller ships would do, but the river was deep enough for it. The river was practically an ocean itself. You could barely see the other side of it if you stood on one bank. And the coast was still unpatrolled. It was the furthest away from all the other kingdoms. It would mean turning around and going back the way he came. But it would also mean having enough storage space to supply his men for as long as they wished. And it would mean a way to get Yue’s men to him quickly. If they could seize those ships, they could be up the river in just a few weeks, and practically no time lost on his original plan. It would work. Of course it would work. Tang had no idea it was being attacked, they wouldn’t have anything guarding the river. By God, they could even seize all the merchant ships that went down the river for more supplies as they went up it. It was brilliant.
  “Change of plans, Pu Shi. Order all the staff sergeants together. We march for the Yang river. Lu Huang will be acting commander until I return.”
  “Where are you going?” the man asked, concerned.
  “I’m off to visit my sister. She has an army and a navy waiting for me.”
  “The princess? Has an army?”
  “Or so the archbishop says.” Hei laughed. Everything was falling into place.

Chapter 11

  “Where have you been?” Yue glared, hands on her hips. “Do you have any idea what I’ve been going through while you were gone? Any inkling of an idea?”
  Hei Ming Jong smiled widely, dismounting from his horse and handing the reins over to a groom. All the tiredness of his trip washed off him now that it was done. “Hello, little Yue.”
  “I’m fourteen in a week.” Yue protested at the name, pouting. Then she smiled with all her heart and ran into her brother’s hug. She bubbled over with laughter as he squeezed her tight. “I missed you so much.”
  “I missed you too. I’m so sorry about father, about Rin.”
  “I know.” She kept hugging him, reassuring herself and him that it would still be okay. “And mother is so terribly sad. I couldn’t stand seeing her. All she does is cry.”
  “Will she be alright? A prisoner in a monastery?”
  “There’s nowhere safer for her. She’s too old to have come with me. And maybe the nuns there can console her. I know I couldn’t.”
  “I’m so sorry. I had no idea it would come to this. I thought I was just carving out a little piece of happiness for my life, and somehow it ended up like this instead. I should have stayed. I should never have left you.” Hei believed it with all his heart, now that he was holding her again, thinking of all the pain she’d had to bear on her own.
  “It’s okay. You’re back. That’s all I ask. I will always love you, you know that? I’ll always love you, Hei.”
  “I love you too.” Hei tried to keep his throat from knotting up. “It’s up to us now. How many men do you have? I had hoped for more than what I saw riding in.”
  She backed out of his hug to look him in the eyes and smiled triumphantly. “Fifteen thousand men, fully armed, fed, and supplied, at your service.”
  “Fifteen thousand. . .?” Hei stood, transfixed. Fifteen thousand men. Impossible. “That’s impossible. Where on earth did they come from?”
  “Oh, around.” Yue couldn’t stop smiling. “Where did you come from? It’s been three weeks since I asked you to come here. I was ready to give up on you and go win the war myself.”
  “Oh, is that so?” Hei laughed. “Well I’m glad you waited long enough for me to have some of the fun.”
  “Completely charity on my part.” Yue agreed, smiling like a minx.
  “It’s a long story, but I was recruited months ago by what was left from father’s men. We thought we were all there was, and, well, we’re a damn few to win a war with. Right now they should be marching along the border towards the Yang. We’re going to pick them up on our way to Manching.”
  “Manching! But that’s the capital of Tang! Why are we going to Manching?”
  “We aren’t going to Manching, not really. We just have to go towards Manching to put the fear of God into Pe Su Huang, that viper.”
  “Is that his name? Oh well. He’s a real creep, you know that? He wouldn’t stop looking at me at the palace.”
  Hei’s brow furrowed. “Nothing happened to you, did it?” The words promised a storm.
  “No. . .I don’t think it was like that. . .more like he felt sorry for me. . .but there he was the one hurting me in the first place. So it was just such crap.”
  “Okay. Good.” If he had to kill the King of Tang it would make the rest of the war much harder. He paused a little to calm down. “Okay then. Well, maybe it’s a good thing. Maybe he still has some humanity left in him, if it was just that. That would be for the best. But still, there aren’t fifteen thousand men here. Maybe one thousand. Where are the rest?”
  “We’re spread as thin as we can so that we don’t attract attention. They’re living in the villages, out of uniform, just going through the motions. They insisted on having a lot of men to protect me, or else I wouldn’t have even this many. They refused to understand when I explained about inconspicuity. . .” She shook her head. “I bet your men just do as they’re told, because you’re a boy.”
  “Well, I’m also seven years older than you.” Hei laughed. “But even with all that half the time I’m worrying about whether my men will do as they’re told. I don’t think even Emperors have much control. People are born free, they all want to go their own way and help themselves, commanding and obeying is only put up with because we both know it’s necessary. Usually I have to appeal to their common sense before I dare to give them an order, even if it’s just to dig a ditch around camp before they go to sleep.”
  The rest of the camp all watched them, sizing up the man who had come to lead them. All of them pretended to be sharpening their weapons or feeding their horses or darning their socks, but all of them managed to be somewhere nearby watching the two anyway. The obvious love between them, that they weren’t embarrassed showing in front of everyone, made them all feel better too. Making them remember about the people they’d left behind, and realizing their commanders were human too, with feelings and emotions. Perhaps not in all of them, but in many of them, that counted a lot towards their loyalty to them. Many of them who had watched the princess until now, how pensive and worried she looked from sunrise to sunset, and how bright and confidant she was now—felt it was their personal responsibility to keep her happy instead of sad. If they had anything to say about it. Others, hearing that their Emperor hadn’t been hiding like a coward but had been preparing an invasion of the enemy with his own men, for the first time became optimistic of their chances and willing to see what Hei planned to do. The whole camp’s tempo went up, people talking to each other, testing their weapons, or gathering over rice and fish and beef. Cooks, seeing the Emperor arrive, had already gone to work making a feast for everyone as a suitable celebration. After months of waiting, watching their land be torn apart while they could do nothing about it, it was finally their chance to take the war to the enemy. To do what they’d come to do, what they’d left their families for, to repay the invaders for what they’d done.
  Hei turned to the army and introduced himself, seeing the time was ripe. “You must all be thinking, where have I been? What have I been doing? Well, I’ve been with two thousand men, marching for the border, for the one and only chance I saw left to us. That chance was to attack where the enemy wasn’t, to change the terms of the fight, to divide the enemy and fight him piecemeal, on ground of my choosing. That’s why you haven’t seen me, or heard of me leading some noble resistance. Because however noble resisting the alliance that’s come against us would be, it would also be a pointless, hopeless waste of life. They are too many for any army to defeat on the open field of battle. You must know that, because you haven’t been led to any suicidal battle yourselves. You can thank my sister for that, who is wise beyond her years. Because you are alive now, there is still a chance to save our homeland. That chance isn’t in Liu-Yang, where three kings and a hundred thousand men have gathered to stamp it out. That chance is in their lands. Where a hundred thousand men are not, and not three kings but only one king’s territory is at stake. We must take the battle to them, where they can feel the sting of their own actions. Why should only Liu-Yang bleed, why should only Liu-Yang’s goods be seized, their food plundered, as months of campaigning on both sides eat up the harvest our peasants have worked so hard for? Liu-Yang’s banks of rice are now her deadliest enemy. With our own reserves of food their army will stay strong and whole, marching wherever we go and fighting us wherever we spring up. Leaving is the greatest blessing we can give to our people, because the war will no longer be fought in our back yard, with our food, with our horses, our cattle, our money. Instead, let’s eat Tang’s crops, Tang’s cows, and force Tang’s army to return to Tang, and live off the only land they have a right to live off, their own. And when we humble that king, when we scatter that army, let’s hold Tang ransom for our own country to be returned to us. I know it’s a long and distant road I ask of you. But I know we can do it, and I don’t know of any other way it can be done. Ask yourselves, is one year, or two years, of your life, worth spending for the rest of your years, and your children’s years, and their children’s years—to be free? You must know the answer to that question already, or why are you here? Why are you here if you aren’t willing to fight? To march? Isn’t it an insult on my part, to believe you aren’t willing to do anything, go anywhere, give everything for victory? Is this army so half-souled, that it’s willing to free Liu-Yang, but only if it can be done easily and shortly? All such soldiers are welcomed, invited to leave right now. With all the disgrace and jeers you deserve. There is no place in our army for you. I will not have my men depend on you to protect their flanks and their rear. So go! Go already. We don’t want you here anyway.” Hei paused, watching the soldiers stand taller and grip their weapons as though refusing to give them up. “No one? No one wants to go? Are you sure? Well, maybe tonight, when fewer people will see you leave with a tail between your legs.” The men laughed. “For the rest of you, God bless you. There is no finer day to be Emperor than this, because there is no finer group of men I could ever hope to lead, to live with, and to win with, than you. As God wills, we will lead this country to better days and happier times. Liu-Yang will remember each and every one of you forever. Starting today we are the heroes who rose to the challenge against the strongest foe Liu-Yang has ever faced. We are the legend of good triumphing over evil no matter what the odds. We are the proof that so long as men want to be free, they will be free.” Hei drew his sword in one smooth motion and held it against the sky.
  An enormous roar filled the camp, everyone lifting their own weapons in response. There was no need for words. The shout was simpler than that. A roar of pure strength, a challenge to the world. Yue watched her men in awe, having never seen morale so high. Even if she had made the exact same speech, she knew she could never have had the same effect. Hei just projected such strength that it drew everyone in, made everyone believe. His will had been so strong not even father could conquer it. Didn’t that make him even more an Emperor than father was? Wasn’t Hei born for this, even though he was the second son? Didn’t the Dao see he would be needed and made him an emperor at heart all the same? And I get to be his sister. And he loves me most. She smiled, lifting her own fist into the air.

  “The navy’s been confiscated, the sailors have been impressed, and it’s completely under guard. But so far the king hasn’t had time to deal with them, so the ships have just sat there in the harbor. I don’t think he cares much about the ocean. I don’t think he’s even seen it before.” The seaman complained, informing the group of men in his cabin. Odds were he was about to make a fortune from them. After he’d thought his career ruined with the Emperor’s death, even though he’d been the first sailor ever to circumnavigate the peninsula and back, it looked like he had a chance to make it even bigger than that. As one of the top officers of the new Emperor, he’d not only have wealth, but a rank in the nobility as well. And that promised wealth forever instead of just wealth now.
  “Do you think the sailors will stay on?” Hei asked. What a stroke of luck that they’d been forced to stay at their post. It would’ve been difficult to gather together a skilled enough crew to pilot them up the river. “I know they’re used to trading, not fighting.”
  “Depends. How much pay will they get and how little danger? That’s how journeymen think. So long as the balance is right, they’ll risk anything.”
  “Well I can promise them any amount of money they want. I won’t have much use for money if I fail.”
  “That’s the spirit. They’ll like that. And you say you only need them to sail up the river? Why, they’ve done that hundreds of times. No problem. Now just get rid of these guards and a free passage up the river, and you’ll have yourselves your ships.”
  “Done. There’s more than enough of us to handle anything short of the King himself. Are there enough ships for fifteen thousand men though?”
  “Fifteen thousand? Ha. If they expect to ride on us, they’ll have to wait for a few return trips. But we’ve big holds, lad. They may have to march, but their backs will be light enough. And unlike wagons, we won’t fall behind. They won’t have to wait until tomorrow to eat their evening meals.”
  “Well, I could wish for them to be carried outright. But I suppose that is a lot of men.” Hei sighed. That would slow them down yet further weeks. He wished he knew how Lu Huang’s men were doing and where they were. When it came time to pass through the mountains they would just make a few return trips. But he supposed marching would keep them in better shape anyway. By the time they posed a threat to Manching it would be the dead of winter. Tang couldn’t be that cold. They were just as far south as Liu-Yang, weren’t they? Winter campaigns were the norm in Liu-Yang, there was less disease and less mud to worry about. But they pretty much didn’t happen in the rest of the middle kingdom. Hopefully not for any good reason. Hopefully Tang would still march in winter if his capital was at stake. He can’t be so in love with Liu-Yang that he’s willing to trade. Hei smiled to himself. It took a Liuyan to appreciate Liu-Yang, it was that simple. We were made for this land, and the land was made for us. Foreigners would never be able to settle down here, however long they marched across it. Their women would just burn up or melt or something, as tender as they were.
  “Well, men, do your work.” Hei turned to the Imperial Spy sergeants. So far Tang hadn’t stirred from the palace. The army was just spreading out and enforcing the law and collecting ‘taxes’, or whatever food and goods they needed to keep supplied. Well, he was no different. His army was the scourge of every town and village it went through. But that was karma. Peasants were there to feed the armies, whichever armies, it had been that way since the beginning of time.
  “Sire, they’re as good as dead.” Fu Shi Ren bowed. And they really were. Hei felt a little sorry for them. They would die so pointlessly. He doubted the garrison would even manage to kill one of his men, he had such overwhelming numbers and surprise. Asking them to surrender would give them too much time to send out messages though. Better to keep Tang guessing as long as possible. As far as he knew they still knew nothing about him. Of course he wanted them to know eventually, but not until his men were safely out of Liu-Yang. Well, as God pleased. That was out of his hands. It was amazing how much stronger his position had become. With this navy, his worries in the beginning of the campaign were eliminated. And with this amount of men, he was confident he could win any fight. Of course he was still outnumbered three to one by Tang’s forces alone. But Tang would be stretched out, fatigued, after a forced march, and fighting on ground of his choosing. Under those conditions, the number of men he faced became academic. The real question was what would Tang do after he lost. If he determined to fight on, it would be hard. Stuck in enemy territory, with a recruiting pool of millions the King could draw upon, his army would just be ground down until it was no longer a threat to anyone. He had to make sure that first battle was a complete victory. Letting Tang get away would be traumatic.
  “Karma.” Hei shrugged, refusing to worry about it. When he got back to camp he could listen to some music and play some Go. There were many experienced players among the officers. It was a joy to be playing again. After a while not even the judge would play him, because he would lose so badly. And the cooks surely had something hot ready for him. He was beginning to feel like an Emperor they fed him so well. It didn’t get much better. Oh, concubines were offered, but there was none of that. He had managed to save himself for his wife for twenty years before he ever met her, so he could manage to save himself for his wife another twenty years now that he had met her. She was all he wanted from a woman. And honestly, a good Go game was more exciting than a dozen whores. And prettier too. Hell, the stones even felt better. There were just more important things in life than sex. Like, everything else. Hei laughed. He did miss falling asleep with her though. There was just such amazing trust about that. So comforting to have that bond reaffirmed every night. So long without a word between them, would Da Zhou forget that bond? Would it slacken? How much upkeep was required, how much maintenance? A good sword had to keep oiled and sharpened continuously, or it would rust. How long could a good woman go without, before her heart rusted away? He didn’t know. He’d never experimented before. I guess I’ll know when I do get back. If she still loves me, then clearly it can wait that long, and if she doesn’t love me, then clearly it can’t wait that long. I guess all the men here are wondering that. It can’t be that bad. If every man who ever joined the army knew he would lose his wife in the meantime, than there just wouldn’t be war in the world. The odds had to be somewhat favorable. And if the average love was enough, then surely Da’s love was enough. Surely we were more in love than the average couple. We both gave up our families and our homes for each other, and lived just for each other. Surely that’s more than average. Even though I kept so much from her, that shouldn’t change anything. She knew what mattered about me. She knew how I felt, whatever my rank. And what woman would resent a man for being Emperor? It shouldn’t be a problem. She might be a little mad I kept it secret, but it shouldn’t be a problem. She’ll wait for me, and I’ll wait for her, and it will all work out in the end. Meanwhile, there’s a Go game to play and a cow to eat. Until the spies get back and tell me how the mission fared. But that’s sure to work too. So really there’s just a Go game to play. Bi Liu Baio was really good, he’d see if he had some free time.

Chapter 12

  Hei Ming Jong tossed her an orange as they sat together under an enormous willow tree overlooking the stream. Like almost all the water in Liu-Yang, it fed into one of the two rivers. The Yang, in this case, because the capital sat on the Yang and even though they had rid a long way from the capital they could hardly cross half the country and end up in the Liu river basin. It was the first time she’d gotten out of the capital. She’d barely even been out of the palace. Going this far all alone, without parents scolding her or attendants watching her or making sure her dress was proper or her makeup was done right or tutors demanding she recite some stupid old poem or copy down some sutra or another about the Dao—it was heaven.
  “It’s your birthday, so I thought I’d give you something special. Now that you’re all grown up and all, how would you like to take a ride with me?” Hei had asked. She had screamed with glee and hugged him with all her strength. She had rid in front of him on the saddle with his arms to either side making sure she was safe the whole way. He had even brought the horse to a gallop for a while, her hair flying backwards and she screaming with excitement the whole time. She knew there had been no danger, Hei had perfect horsemanship. She’d just never gone so fast before.
  “I go here sometimes when I want to be alone. It’s pretty, isn’t it?” Hei remarked, his head resting against the trunk of the enormous tree, legs crossed and stretched out, working on his own orange, a bundle of which he had brought for the occasion. Even the horse got one.
  “It’s perfect.” Yue Fang Jong echoed, sure that everything in the world was perfect.
  “Funny, isn’t it?” Hei said. “I go here to be alone. But when I’m here, I kept wishing I could show it to you. Like what I really meant was ‘alone with you.’ Or like you’re so much a part of me that even when you’re here I’m alone. But I couldn’t get it out of my head that you’d really like this tree. That you deserved to share this place with me.”
  “But I won’t be able to come back.” Yue complained, thinking of all the nervous attendants who would have a fit seeing what a tangle her hair had become.
  “Sure you will. I’m the emperor’s son. Anytime you want, anytime I’m not with the army or busy or whatever, just ask me and I’ll take you here. It’s no good being so cooped up, always being stared at and always having to perform for the crowd. You deserve some time alone, with only yourself to please.”
  “Father will be angry.”
  “So long as father never tells you you can’t visit this willow tree, then we’re not breaking any rules, are we? Besides, he’ll be angry with me if he does find out, not you. You were just kidnapped.”
  “Over and over again?”
  “I’m a serial kidnapper.” Hei smiled brashly.
  “You’re so terrible.” Yue smiled too. “A blot on the family name.”
  “I know, I know, it burns my heart every night to think of the shame.”
  “I love you, Hei.” Yue said, serious again. “This is the best birthday present I’ve ever had.”
  “Well you’ve only had seven birthdays, and you can only remember three. So I wouldn’t attach much to that.” Hei teased.
  “Oh foo.” Yue threw a reed at him from the riverbank. “You act like you’re so old and you’re just fourteen.”
  “That’s twice as old as you are.”
  “I can count you know. You don’t need to tell me that.”
  “Well it sure sounded like you forgot.”
  “Oh be quiet! Do you love me or not? Are you just going to leave me hanging?”
  “I love you, little Yue. You don’t have to worry about that.”
  “But do you love me best of all?” She pressed.
  “Yes, best of all. But then, that’s only because you scare away all the girls with all those dagger glares you throw at them like you intend to see their head on a platter if they say one more word to me.”
  “Ha! Now it’s my fault you’re so ugly nobody will look at you twice for fear of turning to stone?”
  “Mother says I’m way prettier than you’ll ever be.” Hei teased.
  “No way!” Yue tossed her hair. “I’m the peach of the entire Middle Kingdom, I’ll have you know. Just wait until I’m fourteen and then say that. Every prince in the world will already be begging for me.”
  “Then I’ll just have to kill every single one of them. Married at fourteen! Should I marry then?”
  “It’s different for a girl. And if you kill every single prince in the world, I shall be very cross with you. What, should I marry some stupid duke or baron?”
  “Rin’s marrying a ‘stupid duchess.’ And he’s the heir.”
  “That’s different. We have to marry into the Fu. They were the dynasty before us. People still think we’re usurpers until we marry in.”
  “We aren’t usurpers. It isn’t lineal descent but the Dao which anoints us. The Mandate of Heaven was with our great-grandfather. The Fu were too corrupt and couldn’t defend us from invaders like our great-grandfather did.”
  “But after our great-grandfather defended us from invaders he used the army to march on the capital and killed thousands of people until the rest gave in. That doesn’t sound like the Mandate of Heaven to me.”
  “They were all corrupt bureaucrats and mercenaries.” Hei waved his hand as if to dispel the image. “They shouldn’t have sanctioned such a terrible ruler as the Fu Emperor was. Besides, the Fu Emperor had gotten jealous and marshaled a huge army to take our great-grandfather prisoner and execute him just for protecting Liu-Yang.”
  “Or so great-grandfather said.” Yue stressed.
  “The army was real. The battle was real. Great-grandfather was outnumbered three to one and he still won. How is that not the Mandate of Heaven?”
  “Yes but that army could have been marshaled to protect Liu-Yang in case our great-grandfather lost. How can we know it was really meant to take great-grandfather prisoner?”
  “Because great-grandfather won, that’s why.” Hei looked miffed that she would still challenge him this long into the argument. “God doesn’t reward the wicked or punish the innocent. If great-grandfather was really a usurper then he wouldn’t have won against all the odds. That clearly shows God favored him.”
  “But God favored the Fu emperors up until then. Isn’t that rewarding the wicked? I mean, did God reward the wicked up until that very hour, then change its mind and punish the Fu emperor for being corrupt?”
  “God doesn’t work on the same timeline as we do.” Hei sighed.
  “Why not? Aren’t we God too? How can we be on different timelines?”
  “It’s too complicated. You’ll understand when you’re older.” Hei said.
  “Ha, I doubt it, since you’re twice as old as me and obviously don’t know yourself.”
  “Think what you like.” Hei said, not taking the bait, leaning back against his tree. “But if you’re right, you don’t deserve to marry a prince, or even a ‘stupid duke’. More like some sweaty soldier who managed to bag three ears to show to his captain who demands you for booty.”
  “Eww, ick. Promise me you won’t chop off anyone’s ears. That’s only fit for barbarians.” Yue twisted up her face imagining.
  “If I’m physically in the fight the battle is going so badly I doubt I’ll have time to chop off anything. A general is supposed to win with his army, not his arm.”
  “Some prince. Too afraid to fight even though he has a sword and everyone else only gets spears.”
  “They also get crossbows.” Hei laughed. “And pikes are incredibly strong if they support each other. Swords are mainly just to show my rank. They’re no better than what the peasants wield.”
  “I’m just kidding you know. I don’t want anything to happen to you out there. I want you to come back to me every time.” Yue put on her serious face again.
  “That’s up to karma. But I don’t exactly want to die either, when it comes to that.” Hei assured her.
  “How come whenever I tell you to do something, you won’t say you’ll do it, but just give some halfway answer?” Yue complained.
  “Because you keep asking me to promise impossible things. I can’t control the battlefield. What happens, happens. Promises are just traps that people end up breaking in the end.”
  “But you said I didn’t have to worry about your love, how can I be sure of that promise then?” Yue pointed out.
  “Because I control that. Because I’m sure of that. Nothing that could ever happen can change that. It’s the one promise that matters in this life. It’s the most important thing you’ll ever say. The most important choice we have, who we affirm and who we don’t. Really the only choice. We can’t control anything that is, or was, or will be, but we always control this one thing, whether we approve of it or not. That’s what makes love so special.”
  Yue chewed on her lip, thinking about it. “But if everything is God, and God is Good, shouldn’t we approve of everything then?”
  “Heh. I don’t know. There are so many terrible things in this world. I think it would be wrong to approve of some things. A lot of things. It would be wrong to affirm a lot of things, even if they’re destined, even if they’re all a part of a cycle, a part of God. I don’t know. If God is good then why is there evil in the world? Nobody knows why. It’s a mystery.”
  “Don’t you know, Hei? You’ve studied the sutras ever so long.”
  “They give lots of answers, but they all sound like they don’t even believe it themselves. I certainly don’t believe them. In my opinion there’s no excuse, no justification, no possible end result which could make me approve of evil. There just isn’t. Evil is evil. It isn’t good. It’s evil. No good can come from evil. It’s evil. Not good. There’s no good in evil. Or else it wouldn’t be evil but good. And if evil is good and good is evil, then nothing is good or evil and this is all pointless.”
  “But then. . .but then why do you love God so much? If God creates evil as well as good?”
  “I don’t know. Maybe there isn’t any evil, really. Maybe evil isn’t actually bad but just neutral, not a presence but just an absence. Then God is still good. Or maybe the only evil that happens to people is punishment for the evil they’ve done, in this life or another, and so really it’s justice. Or maybe evil is some sort of balance or symmetry to the Dao, maybe the Dao wants symmetry so much it even has to balance out itself. I don’t know. Nobody has given me a good answer, and I’ve never come up with a really good one myself. I don’t think anyone knows. But when I read the sutras, about karma, about the Dao, about the universe, I can feel it’s true and right and good. And I know that God is Good and I love it with all my heart. When I pray to God I feel better than whenever else. When I read things like how God is, and that is why we are, and that we’re all good and special and valuable because we’re a part of God—just think what the alternatives are. The peasants and their thousands of idols, gods of mud and marsh and muck and all manner of things, no better than us, even worse than us most of the time. And worshipping everyone who dies like suddenly they’re special and powerful—isn’t that just worshipping death, preferring death to life? Why not worship babies for being born? Isn’t that more praiseworthy than old worn out senile men finally giving up their last breath? And if it isn’t a million gods, and if it isn’t one God, the Dao, then the only other choice is no god at all, and if there is no god, then what are we? What happens when we die? And how could we all be wrong in thinking there is a God? And how could everything remain so perfectly harmonious, the sun setting and rising every day at the same time, the same stars moving in the same cycles every year, the same seasons, the same children emerging from the same parents—if there is no Dao, no will that preserves all that harmony, all that order—then how is it preserved? The universe must have a will to stay so perfect. To last so long. Without a will everything would go its own way and we’d be walking along and just suddenly explode or something.”
  Yue laughed at the thought.
  “I’ve thought about it a long time, what the alternatives are. And I don’t see, really, how any of them work. But I know the Dao makes the most sense. It is the best possible choice among the three. I want to believe in the Dao and I don’t want to believe in the others. And I must want to believe most in the Dao precisely because the Dao has set it up for me to believe in the Dao most, so it even affirms itself.”
  “You’re really smart, you know that? My tutors never explain it like that. Whenever I ask them questions they just get mad and tell me not to blaspheme.”
  “I don’t think blaspheme is a word.”
  “Shows what you know. Apparently that’s all I do, since that’s all they ever answer with. ‘Read the sutras. Don’t blaspheme.’ If I understood the sutras I wouldn’t be asking them about them. I really hate my tutors.”
  “They’re worried that you’ll ask something like that in public. If you did, they would probably be executed. Father is the commander of the faithful, you would shame him, his own daughter, by not believing. He would lose so much face that someone would have to die for it.”
  “Father wouldn’t!” Yue’s eyes widened.
  “Father is a very. . .strong person.” Hei hedged. “Father is very stubborn about stuff like that. If you have any questions just save them for me. When we go out here I promise I’ll explain as best I can.”
  “That’s so terrible. I might have killed someone and not even known.” Yue could feel tears welling up.
  “Here now, nothing bad happened.” Hei patted her on the back. “You know better now, right? So no problem. It looks like it might rain, I guess it’s time to go back, don’t you think?”
  “Oh I wish I could just stay out here forever.” Yue wiped her face.
  “Don’t worry. I’ll bring you back soon enough. Now let’s get going. Storms don’t even wait for princesses.”
  “Well they should.” Yue flounced. But as they rode back with Hei holding her safe, she was glowing in her heart. The one most important promise of all. I’ll show you Hei, I’ll keep my promise too. I’ll be as good as you are. I’ll always love you no matter what. And forever. And for my next life, and my next life, and for all my lives I’ll always love you and never, ever break my promise.

  “What’s up, little Yue?” Hei asked, riding up beside her as she watched the men march by, rank after rank after rank stretching back for miles and hours.
  “I’m fourteen today. I was just thinking, about how I said that all the princes would be chasing after me. And I was right, wasn’t I? Except instead it’s three kings, and they want to kill me instead of marry me. It’s sort of funny.”
  “You still remember that?” Hei asked, surprised.
  “Every word.” Yue looked back at him. “Why do you think I used it for my sermon?”
  “You know the bishop I talked to thought your sermon was the worst ever.” Hei laughed.
  “Well then after we win this war maybe he can stay a part of Tang.” She flounced.
  “Maybe. I’m going to need to give him some concessions after all.” Hei mused thoughtfully.
  “No way. By the time we’re done with him he’ll be begging us just for his own cloak.” Yue boasted.
  “How come you get to boast and I have to win all our battles?”
  “Because I gave you the army to win our battles with. That’s why.”
  “Technically, they were answering father’s summons.” Hei rejoined. But then they both went silent. Father was dead. It kept sneaking up on them.
  “Well, happy birthday, little Yue.” Hei broke the silence in a more subdued tone, tossing her an orange.
  “You remembered!” She smiled and caught it. Holding the reins in one hand and turning the orange over and over in the palm of her other. Oranges were hard to come by this late in the season, but she had always loved them, and her birthday trumped seasonal considerations as far as the palace was concerned.
  “Of course. Who forgets their favorite little sister’s birthday?”
  “That’s cheating. I’m your only little sister.”
  “Well then, their favorite sister of all’s birthday.”
  “I’m your only sister too!” She tried to punch him, but he was too far away.
  “You know what? Nothing ever pleases you. That’s your problem. You’re just never satisfied no matter what I do.”
  “Maybe if you ever did something right I would be pleased.”
  “What? I do everything right. I’m perfect.”
  Yue giggled. She agreed, but she’d never admit to it. So she turned to eating her orange instead.

  Pe Su Huang dismounted from his horse almost before it stopped. Scroll in hand, he took the steps two by two and crashed through the door. Guards who looked to get in the way were warned away with a glare and his crown did the rest. Within the minute he had found Chi’s antechamber and shoved the current guest out of the way. Some mayor negotiating the new property tax for his city. Complete rubbish. Pe went to the very throne and slammed the scroll down on the arm.
  “A fully equipped army has floated up the river and invaded my kingdom. The princess has been found leading them. And with her the prince who was supposedly disowned and nobody cared about anymore. You were wrong, Ch’i. You were wrong about everything. I told you and I told you, and you wouldn’t listen. But that’s done. I call upon our alliance and request we set out for Tang immediately.”
  Ch’i paused and looked at him for a moment, collecting his thoughts. He took up the scroll and read it over, which gave some more details but essentially the same message. “Why Tang, you know I’d love to help you, but our alliance was about the mutual conquest of Liu-Yang. I have nothing to do with defending your kingdom from whoever attacks.”
  “They’re the Prince and Princess of Liu-Yang! It’s the army of Liu-Yang! Of course you’re bound to fight them!” Pe shouted in fury.
  “Where in the treaty does it say we were allied to destroy the army, the prince, or the princess of Liu-Yang? No, I’m sorry, but we agreed to conquer Liu-Yang, not any person or group of people. If they had attacked Ch’i, would you have come to help me?”
  “Of course I would! How can you distinguish between an alliance just because the enemy went a little further up the river?”
  “Oh, you say that now, but that’s only because they’re attacking you. I have full confidence that in the same situation, if it were reversed, you would grant my point of view. My duty is to my kingdom, not yours. You are the King of Tang. You were born to protect it. The Dao meant for you to preserve it, not me. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do. Now if they were still in Liu-Yang, that would be different. But they aren’t anymore, as you say, they’re up the river, and that’s your province.”
  “You rat bastard!” Pe Su Huang shouted, clutching for a dagger he didn’t have. He hadn’t thought to come in armed. This was too ridiculous. “Seventeen thousand men! The army of Liu-Yang! You’re the one who got me into this war, and now they’re attacking me, not you!”
  “But that’s karma, my friend. It can’t be helped. Come, come, calm down. I’ll pour you a glass of wine. Surely the entire army of Tang can beat this little whelp. What’s seventeen thousand men? You have three times that in Liu-Yang, and twice that again in Tang proper. Come, come. Have a glass of wine and you’ll see things differently.”
  “God Damn you Ch’i. Do you think I won’t remember this? Do you think the Dao won’t remember this? We had a treaty.”
  “Ch’i always upholds its treaties. I’m sorry you’re so angry with us. I do hope you make no further threats, or I’ll be forced to detain you for my own protection.”
  “Oh, you’d just love that, wouldn’t you. You’re just forced to do everything, aren’t you? It just can’t be helped, can it? You were just born a snake. Well, don’t make me force you to do anything you’d regret. So sorry to disrupt your meeting with your new mayor. I’ll just go and win this war for you, sorry to bother you about it.”
  “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Ch’i looked aggrieved. Where on earth had the prince of Liu-Yang come from? And where on earth had he found a navy? And seventeen thousand men? He had the best spies in the world and he hadn’t heard of any of them? Heads would roll for this. He should never be surprised, not even by one of these things, much less all three. His network had become incredibly incompetent to fail this utterly. There was no excuse for this. What a terrible position those stupid spies had put him in just now. For a moment he was afraid Tang intended to choke him to death.
  Pe Su Huang didn’t bother to reply, he walked out as quickly as he’d walked in. Pi had already been informed by messenger and had complained of Weh pirates attacking the coast and hints of the northern barbarians—the northern barbarians! What, were they going to march all the way through Ch’in and attack Pi, a river delta which only grew rice and only enough to feed itself each year? Pi was so sorry, but seeing as how the army had attacked Tang and not Liu-Yang, well, it wasn’t his problem any longer, and all of his men were tied up. He’d like to help but he just couldn’t without jeopardizing his own people and blah blah blah. Infuriating. This was an alliance? He had had a sense of foreboding ever since the beginning of this campaign. Any number of signs had been trying to tell him not to do it, and he just didn’t listen. Now he was hundreds of miles behind the invaders who were on a course straight for Manching. What in bloody hell use was Liu-Yang if he lost Tang in the process? How could he have been so stupid? How could everything have happened and nobody even noticed a whiff of it until now? How did so many men just appear and with a navy to boot? Where had the prince come from? How had the princess escaped? How giant was this conspiracy? Could Ch’i have even designed it this way from the start? Could he have some secret alliance with Liu-Yang and intended to destroy Tang from the very beginning? Was he jealous of our former dynasty which ruled the whole world? Did he ever really give a good reason for going to war with Liu-Yang? Surely he had been the target since the very beginning. . .perhaps these weren’t even Liuyans but just more Ch’i soldiers dressed in a new uniform. That man was capable of anything, wasn’t he? At least he had gotten out of the audience alive and free. There was that. By God once I’m done with this prince I’m coming back to kill that snake. Because of him I might lose my crown, my people, even my family. Before I get there they might even storm Manching and burn it to the ground and chop off my mother’s head just for the fun of it. I left my brother in charge of the home guard in case of barbarian raids but he’s not possibly ready to fight against a real army. He’s never even seen battle before. I’m only twenty five but he’s just seventeen. How is he supposed to protect anyone? When my men hear that their own homeland is at risk they’ll march like the wind. That’s what will happen. We’ll catch up, somehow, before they reach the capital. The enemy doesn’t know we know what they’re doing, they won’t be moving with the same urgency as us. We can still catch up to them in time. God willing, he could still be king of Tang at the end of this. They were just seventeen thousand men. But with such a lead on him. And the capital almost undefended. Even if he did kill them all, the damage would already be done. No, he just had to get there quickly. If Manching was lost Tang would be nothing more than jungle and mountains. We’d be nothing more than the barbarians to our south. We would be finished. That’s the richest city in the world. The capital of the world. If Manching burns then Tang is finished. Dead. No longer an empire, no longer a kingdom, nothing. Just a barbarian wilderness. That city is our pulse. Only seventeen thousand men. It isn’t over yet.


  “I’m glad you found the time to come visit me.” Min Kei Rok, the king of Ch’i, said with a smile. “As you know Tang has left with the greater portion of his army to deal with some Liuyan renegades. In the meantime, a large political and security vacuum will remain in the territory Tang is supposed to oversee. It is our duty to step in to this territory and make sure the transition period is swift and calm. If a third of the country remains under the control of Liuyans, there’s no telling but it will require another war to reconquer them. Though we understand why Tang has evacuated with his troops, it is still a very regrettable chaos in the south without them. Until Tang is ready to return, are you willing to split the south with me and keep the peace of Liu-Yang?”
  “Which part of the south?” Pi asked cautiously.
  “Oh, whichever you prefer. I have no interest in any of the land, but it wouldn’t be right to just leave it in anarchy.”
  “That’s true.” Pi agreed. “I tell you what, if you don’t mind, I would be willing to patrol the entire south until Tang returns. After all, it’s all a part of the same river basin, ships can get me from one side to the other in a week. As large as the area seems it’s actually quite traversable.”
  “Oh, no, I couldn’t ask you to handle such an enormous responsibility on your own. Combined with the Liu river basin, that would have you overseeing the majority of all 20 million Liuyans with only fifty thousand men.” Min Kei Rok protested.
  “Yes, yes, but when you consider that all their fighting men have already left, and that I would be patrolling two rivers which mean I can concentrate my forces almost instantly wherever a threat emerges, then the danger is quite low. Besides, after such hard fighting you had in the swamp, it’s my duty to repay you by taking this on our troops, which have seen so little combat.”
  “Oh, not at all. Your men were vital to our victory in the swamp. I am very glad that your casualties were light, there should be no such thing as a need to balance suffering.”
  “Even so, I feel it is a matter of honor that we do our part.” Pi insisted. With both river valleys under his control, he would control all the rice production in the world. And with that monopoly, his kingdom would become the richest in the world. And once his kingdom was the richest in the world, soon enough it would become the most powerful in the world, the most numerous in the world, and eventually the new Dynasty of the world. Tang’s leaving was the greatest windfall that karma had ever blown his way. It would be a crime to pass it up.
  “Well, if it is a matter of honor, it would be discourteous to protest any longer. Just remember that it is only until Tang returns. I’m sure he will thank you as well for the good custody you keep of the land. And if there should be any problem, don’t hesitate to call upon me for aid.” Min folded his hands contentedly. It was always so easy. When Tang returned he would go to war with Pi and the two of them would destroy each other. Whoever won, Ch’i would sign a treaty and divide the country in two instead of three. That would make sure nobody gained more from Liu-Yang than he did. Even better, it would make sure the two other kings couldn’t ally against him and drive him out. The sooner they fought each other the better. What a favor Yue Fang Jong had done him to create this conflict. Karma. Everything bent your way so long as you kept your head about it. People, like objects, followed the law. In the end all things were God and God was law. The Dao did not brook anything to fall out of its purvey. If you understood those laws, you controlled them. Knowledge, not rice, not rivers, not lots of people, not anything these fools were fighting for, was power. The entire universe, living and non-living but all ensouled, marched to the same tune. Learn that song and you are as powerful as God. The Dao promotes one thing, the nature of Nature, all the rest is left free for us to discover or use as we see fit. So let God be content with having its way in that, I will have my way in everything else—how the power those laws grant will be used in the world—and we can salute each other as amicable equals. While these people scrabbled for food his capital, Daoyan, or the city of God, housed the best scholars, the largest libraries, and the greatest rhetoricians in the world. Let a sword be infinitely sharp, the wielder, not the sword, was the gainer by it. Learn to wield human nature, learn to wield nature itself, and all the kingdoms on earth are yours to command. And yet again it worked. Though it was hardly a marvel, Pi was just so stupid. But nobody else had done it, so maybe it wasn’t as easy for other people as it was for him. Oh well. It worked, that’s all that mattered. Either Pi or Tang was gone. Hopefully Tang. He was more dangerous than Pi. Either way though. He couldn’t have asked for more. Ch’i was the new power in the southeast of the Middle Kingdom. With Ch’in distracted by the northern barbarians—and after all most of Ch’in was mountains and deserts, Weh just a bunch of thieving pirates, and Mae-Dong so far away, it was only a matter of time until the whole world was unified under Ch’i. Maybe not in his lifetime. It was best to proceed slowly and cautiously about these things. But that’s what sons were for, after all.
  “Of course, of course.” Pi agreed happily. “Of course only until Tang returns.” Hopefully Tang would die and the rebels would deal with him before he did. Then he could attack Ch’i with the full force of his army and become the only power in the southeast. Sooner or later that would make him Emperor of the entire Middle Kingdom. The southeast had the most people, the best land, and the most commerce. With those resources the rest was inevitable. The Ch’in had been the first dynasty, and God bless them, because they brought civilization to us all. But the next two had come from the southeast. It was clear where history leaned. He who controlled the rivers controlled the world. Pi had one, shared with Ch’i. Liu-Yang had two, shared with Ch’i and Tang. And so one of these four were destined to become the new Empire. The war hadn’t honestly started with this invasion, it was always ongoing. Whenever the land was divided it was at war until it could be unified again. Peace was just a chance to gain an advantage for the next war. The Dao loved harmony, and that meant the seven kingdoms were destined to become one kingdom once more. The only question left was who would emerge its ruler. And when. History had thrust this chance upon him, he would be a fool not to take it. Even though it was a risk, few people would ever have so good a chance as this. Only a coward wouldn’t take it. Ch’i was a fool to give him control of the land on either side of him. He didn’t see the coming war, he was just too used to diplomacy to think it would go wrong. With the amount of resources he would control, and Tang out of the picture, and his armies surrounding Chi’s, there would be no stopping him. And if Chi’s army was totally destroyed, he may even be able to conquer Ch’i itself along with Liu-Yang. Then whatever chaos was left from Tang, which surely the southern barbarians would take advantage of and keep that land out of Pi’s affairs for at least long enough to defeat Ch’i, would be easy pickings for yet another conquest and the unification of all three great rivers, the Liu, the Yang, and the Pi, into one invincible empire which through sheer size, wealth, and power, would absorb the last three kingdoms. Of course something could go wrong. But it was the best chance he had ever seen. Only a fool wouldn’t risk it. Perhaps Ch’i hadn’t realized, but with Liu-Yang gone, the balance of power was gone, and any one kingdom was capable of taking the rest. This war had unleashed a monster. Now only war could create a new symmetry to replace the old. War leading to more war. Heh. Symmetry, he supposed. That’s how the world worked. All he had to do now was win it.

  Yue Fang Jong watched the river for the supply boats that hadn’t come when they said they would. It wasn’t her responsibility, the captain who had sailed around the peninsula was also commander of the navy now. Nor were supplies her responsibility, a staff sergeant took care of that. In fact nothing was her responsibility. The moment Hei Ming Jong had arrived, all choices had been taken from her and delivered to him. Of course that had been the plan. But now she missed it a little. Having the chance to really control the world around her. All her life she had grown up an object of attention, not a subject making others respond to her. Of course attention wasn’t so bad. It was nice being pretty, everyone ready at a moment to satisfy her every whim, without having to work. Being a princess wasn’t the worst fate possible. But still, her brothers had it so much better. Rin was always visiting foreign powers, getting cheered by the people, watching his father at court. Hei was always adventuring with the army, training with his friends, leading his devoted followers, going where he pleased when he pleased. She alone had to stay at home and always be attended by servants so that no hint of immodesty could leak out, she alone wasn’t allowed to make friends because nobody else was a princess, and so on and so on. And now, for the first time when she had a say in her own life, when she was deciding things, it was just back to being a pretty girl to look at and hopefully inspire the troops, and Hei was calling all the shots. This was what he knew best, and he was the emperor now, as strange as that still sounded in her mind, so of course he should be in control. But it still griped her. Oh well. She didn’t even know what she wanted, or how she would have it. Maybe Hei was right. Just nothing satisfied her no matter how good things were. But at least if she waited here and watched for the ships to arrive she could tell Hei that they were safe and sound and he would feel better for it. At least nobody was looking after her and she was free to ride where she pleased now. But it didn’t help much when everyone else was a man and way below her rank and there was no way she could interact with them without disgracing herself. Now that they were in enemy territory it would be foolhardy to stray any distance from the main camp. So she was stuck here just like she was stuck in the palace. Sigh. At least she was stuck with her brother. But he wasn’t here to entertain her. He was always talking to officers, receiving reports from scouts and spies, even riding out on his own to inspect the camp. She was welcome to join him, but honestly it was pretty boring stuff. Everyone knew the enemy was behind them, not in front of them. They only scouted ahead because it was second nature to scout ahead. So it was up to her to keep herself occupied. Most of the day she could just ride forward and watch the landscape as it went by. But that still left the evening, like now, when the marching had stopped and dinner was served and fortifications were raised and tents were pitched and the wagons rolled in and the ships should be going to anchor. The funny thing about the wagons is Hei insisted on keeping them even though the ships held all their supplies because he didn’t want to be tied to the river for his maneuvering. So in the end they went no faster with the ships than they would’ve gone, and winter was deep upon them. Despite all they’d done to get warm clothing for the troops, many of them had thrown it away complaining about the heat and the weight as they marched through Liu-Yang. And now that they were marching through snow and discovering to their amazement that the wind never stopped on top of mountains, it was going hard for them. They should be put safely away on the ships, Yue thought. She could ask Hei about it. Of course she didn’t want to reward their stupidity with a free ride, but she didn’t want them to die either. Wouldn’t it be enough to publicly shame them by announcing that anyone who was too cold because they had thrown away their gear after having been told multiple times about how cold it would be was free to ride on the ships while the rest of us carried out our duty? Anyone who accepted better treatment would be ostracized, and that was punishment enough. It was better than seeing their feet fall off and knowing we chose that to happen. But they could only ride the ships if the ships were here. What was the captain thinking? Maybe that’s what she could do. Maybe she could be a sort of emissary from the troops to their commander, someone who was willing to take their side and convince the Emperor to show mercy or compassion to them without him having to lose face. It was one thing to grant a concession to an angry mob, another to grant it to a darling little princess. One projected weakness, the other a superfluity of strength. And if she was an intercessor, then it would be okay to talk to them. Because then she was doing it as a service to them, which was what she was born for. To help her people. Maybe that’s why Hei was inspecting the camps all the time, not really to make sure they were secure, but just to be seen by the people and be available to them. But surely that still left room for her. They’d be less afraid to talk to her than they would be to talk to him. And they were quite a lot of people. She could always be where he wasn’t. She had to help in some way. It wasn’t like she could aid in the fight, so she should help the morale instead. Finally. The sail of a ship could be seen on the horizon. Alright then, I’ll go see Hei and tell him about the frostbite and the ships and take things from there. He’ll agree with me because I’m right.

  “Hei, I thought you should know the ships have arrived.” Yue walked in, looking as happy as ever. He didn’t know how she did it. He was always cold and tired and hungry and worried and missing Da and there she was smiling like nothing had happened and she was on some adventure. Well, all the better. At least somebody is happy.
  “I know. The captain just came in and told me they had a brief skirmish and had captured the merchant ships and their escorts which were heading downriver to supply Tang’s forces.”
  “Oh that’s wonderful!” Yue clapped her hands together, fingers splayed apart. “But surely Tang can just take what he needs from Liu-Yang?”
  “He can, but then, Tang has a lot of advanced equipment that Liu-Yang doesn’t have, in fact, it’s a lot of stuff we buy from Tang in peace. He would be hard set to find compasses or eyeglasses just sitting around in Liu-Yang. I’m certainly glad to have them. It will make our scouting that much more accurate. Our maps of Tang are just piss poor, when you get right down to it. Oh, forget I said that.” Hei blushed a little. He was used to talking like a soldier while on campaign, like the men around him talked. It was just more honest and direct that way. But she wasn’t a soldier and probably hadn’t even heard men talk like that around her. No reason to corrupt her now.
  “What? Why should I care? Say whatever you like, it’s not like I’m mother or something. You’re the Emperor after all.”
  “If you say so.” Hei shrugged. “So, anything else you came for? I’ve got tea if you’re cold. The men say you were standing out there in the wind for an awful long time. I don’t know how you do it, whenever I’m outside I just keep thinking about how warm this tent is.”
  “Really? I never notice it. I guess I just have enough heat to spare or something. I wanted to tell you, though, a lot of the men are feeling the cold. If winter keeps on getting colder and we keep on going higher, I don’t know if, well, if they’ll survive it.”
  “I told them to take blankets and coats. What more can I do?” Hei complained.
  “Let them ride with the ships. When it comes time for them to fight, then they can keep plenty warm fighting. But it’s senseless wasting them now, before they ever get a chance to help us.”
  “If we let them ride on the ships, then everyone will want to ride on the ships.” Hei sighed.
  “I already thought of that.” Yue smiled. “What if you were to line up all the men before they started marching and invited them to publicly fall out of line and ride the ships if they had thrown away their equipment like a sluggard? Nobody would thank you for a favor like that.”
  Hei laughed. “No doubt. They would be the mockery of the camp for the next month. That’s brilliant, little Yue. I’ll do it tomorrow.”
  “Thank you.” Yue glowed.
  “Here, have you ever played Go before? So long as you’re going to be in the military, you should know our game. This is our training. A general’s sword, as it were. The best generals have always been the best Go players. This board contains everything. How to concentrate your forces, how to spread them out, how to divide the enemy’s forces, how to launch attacks in other theatres to divert manpower from the front you care about—anything, everything, it’s all in this game. And every officer in this camp judges every other officer first by this game, and only second by their performance, it’s that ingrained into us.”
  “But you’ve played so long. I’ll never catch up.” Yue complained, folding her legs beneath her and sitting across from him as he got out the jars.
  “I know, I know. Tell you what, I’ll give you a twenty stone handicap.”
  “Twenty stones! A mushroom could win with a twenty stone head start.”
  “You think so?” Hei smiled. “The rules are simple, it’s a 19 by 19 grid, every crossing point you can place a stone, if you surround my stone on all four sides, my stone dies, but if I put another stone next to my stone, you have to surround them both before they die, and so on with each new stone I add. I have an eye if a space is surrounded on all four sides by my own stones, but if by moving in that eye you effectively surround one of my stones, you are allowed to take my stone before mine would take yours, as it were. However, if my stones ever have two different eyes you’d have to put a stone in both of them at the same time to effectively surround them on all sides, so they’re safe. That’s mei. But you don’t just want mei, you want as much territory fenced off as possible. Each square of empty space cordoned off by your stones is a point, make a strong formation and protect your empty space so if I invade you can stomp my pieces out before they make mei and steal your territory. But you also have to stop me from cordoning off my own territory, so you have to choose between attacking and defending, and just how much territory you think you can hold safely, and from there it just gets more and more complex. Luckily if you start with 20 stones you don’t have to worry about all that, just try and keep your stones alive and fence off territory, and you’ll win no matter what I do. Okay?”
Yue nodded with intense concentration. “Okay. Just watch me.”
Hei smiled. Yue was great, and Go was great, so it would be the best possible combination if he could get her interested in the game. Besides, she would be lonely, surrounded by so many men. It wouldn’t hurt to have something to do with her, something to talk about and drink tea over. “Did father ever say anything about me after I left?” Hei asked, placing her stones on all 4 corners, all 4 sides, the center, all 4 midpoints between the corners and center, and all 8 midpoints between the corners and sides. A 21 stone handicap. It would be interesting.
  Yue shook her head. “I’m sorry Hei. But it’s like you ceased to exist. Nobody in court dared to mention you. Father was really angry that he had to let you get your way.”
  “It’s odd, isn’t it?” Hei placed his first stone. So it really was a 20 stone handicap, seeing as how he cancelled out the last. “How I never would’ve seen you again, except that this happened. It makes me wonder.”
  “Wonder what?” Yue looked up from the board, rubbing two stones against each other in her fingers for good luck. All she had to do was fence off more than half the territory and she’d win. So she should abandon one side of the board and just reinforce the other. The last thing she could do was be goaded into a fight over any territory. Wherever Hei attacked, she would just grant him. Some way or another he would beat her in a fight, so it was better not to try.
  “If I did the right thing. If maybe. . .if I hadn’t left, none of this would’ve happened.”
  “It wasn’t your fault. It was karma. Do you really think the king of Ch’i was thinking, ‘hmmm, Hei Ming Jong has run away, that leaves Liu-Yang wide open for the taking, hohoho.’ And that’s why he invaded? I saw his face, Hei. He’s a reptile. I have no idea what he’s thinking, but it’s nothing a human being would understand.”
  “I know that. . .I know I didn’t cause the war. But. . .I wish father hadn’t died hating me. I should have been there for him, and instead he died hating me. My own father.”
  “I don’t think he hated you.” Yue protested, seeing the pain in his eye. “How could anyone hate you?”
  Hei shook his head. “Sometimes I’m sure everybody hates me. First I abandoned the army and my family, then I abandoned the girl I abandoned everyone else for, and so I stand a traitor to the whole world and every promise I’ve ever made. I think they all hate me, Lu, mother, Da, because I’m never where I should be. And Da, what must she be thinking, I never talked to her about any of this, I kept everything a secret, she must hate me for that too.”
  “You did what you thought was right. You wanted to be happy. I don’t hate you for that, and if you hurt anyone, you hurt me most of all. I couldn’t eat for like, a month.”
  “Apparently you ate something while I was gone, you’re as plump as a peach.”
  “Nonsense! I’m a stick I’ve been campaigning so long. And my butt is as hard as leather I’ve been riding so long.”
  “Fine, fine, it’s your body. And thank you. For not hating me.”
  “Of course I wouldn’t. And if anyone else loves you, they won’t hate you either. You’re just too sensitive. Rin always said it, that it was crazy to bring you up in the military because you’d never hurt a fly. Have you ever wanted to hurt anyone?”
  “No, not really. I just never saw the point.”
  “Then how can anyone blame you for being hurt? You know what, when you left, and I sneaked out of the palace and begged you to stay, and then wanted you to at least take my jewels so you wouldn’t starve—it tore me apart. I couldn’t stop crying. But that’s because I loved you, and there’s no way I’d ever give up that love so that I’d stop hurting. The love was worth so much more than any pain it could cause. And if you didn’t exist, then I wouldn’t have that love. That’s something, isn’t it? How can anyone hate you because you left them when they wouldn’t care except that they love you?”
  “Because I betray their love. One after another. They trust me and I don’t fulfill that trust. Rin was nothing but good to me. All my life he was good to me. And how did I repay him? He had to lead the army instead of me, and he died for it instead of me.”
  “Nobody could have foreseen what would happen.”
  “But father did. He warned me. Rin told me that Ch’i was searching for a pretext for war. I just didn’t listen.”
  The Go game lay forgotten between them. Yue realized she was playing for higher stakes now. “Hei, if you honestly believe you killed your father and your brother, you’re going to be miserable for the rest of your life. Stop blaming yourself, blame Ch’i, for starting this war. Take it out on him. Get angry for once in your life. Why are you only willing to hurt yourself?”
  “You’re wrong. I’m constantly hurting everyone else to get my way. I’m the only person I care about.”
  “No you’re wrong. You would never have left your home and your wife and with just two thousand men tried to save Liu-Yang against one hundred thousand—“
  “There’s more than one hundred thousand. That estimate came from before we knew Pi was on their side. That’s just Tang’s and Chi’s contingents.” Hei sighed.
  “Whatever, Hei, listen to me! Tell me you were doing that for yourself. Just try it. Is it your idea of fun to abandon your wife to your sure death? Is that what boys get their kicks out of?”
  “No, of course not. But I was the Emperor then. It was my duty to try.”
  “That’s right.” Yue nodded. “That’s exactly what I thought. The situation was terrible, but I was willing to do anything I could because the people need me and I am their princess. And the last thing I was thinking about was myself.”
  “But even then, I was doing it for myself. Because I wanted the best for Liu-Yang, I couldn’t be happy to just watch it die like some bystander.”
  “That’s how it works. That’s what love is for. When you care about other people and other things, they’re a part of you, and we aren’t neutral anymore when it comes to them.”
  “Maybe you’re right.” Hei shrugged.
  “Hei, please. I don’t want you to feel guilty like this. Father was always angry. That’s just how he was. And Rin never blamed you. Rin thought you were stupid and stubborn and wrong, but I promise you, he wished the best for you. Mother was just sad to see you gone, and your wife, if she loves you, will understand that sometimes things aren’t always perfect and sometimes we just have to push through. Nobody’s blaming you. The whole army believes in you. Do you think they’d be following you, away from their homeland, marching mile after mile in the middle of winter—if they thought you were a coward who deserted, that you betrayed your family to its death, that you were a liar who couldn’t be trusted? Every single man here is trusting you with his life. I’m trusting you with my life. If you want to feel guilty, wait until you lose this war and we all die because you’re too busy worrying about the past to plan for the future.”
  “I only think about these things at night.” Hei was quick to defend himself. “It doesn’t get in the way of my army. And, well, I couldn’t say any of this to Da. And I couldn’t say any of it to the men, because to them I have to project strength no matter what. Honestly I’m only saying it now because it’s better to get it out of my system. Don’t worry about it.”
  “Well okay.” Yue said, mollified. “Just remember, whatever happened, that was karma. It’s karma that you’re Emperor now. Karma that you’re our last best hope. Even God believes in you, to put you in this position. There has to be a reason for what has happened.”
  “Sure.” Hei said, putting it to rest by agreeing to anything she said. If God killed Rin so that I’d be emperor then why didn’t God just have me be the first son and let Rin live? Or why not just prevent the war and let us all live? I don’t understand God anymore. Everyone keeps insisting that God is good, that God wants harmony, that God wants balance. . .and yet somehow there’s always evil, war, and imbalance. Floods in some places and droughts in others. How is that balanced? Some people rich and some people poor. People starving to death and others as fat as whales. Is that balanced? Is it balanced that only the Middle Kingdom has any sort of decent life and everyone else is a barbarian, doomed to a life of blood and darkness? Maybe God fell asleep or something. Or maybe God gave up and doesn’t care anymore. But in all my life I’ve tried to see God in everything but is God really anywhere when it’s all just chaos and carnage wherever I look? Can this war really be what God wants? Not just once, but over and over again in an endless cycle? Trapped in a world that never improves but just goes round and round and we’re stuck with the same suffering forever and ever? Why do I even bother when I know that whatever I do, my father and my brother will die not just this time, but infinite times, and that no matter how many lives I’ll eventually be back at this life and get to do it all over again and I can’t change it because by then I’ll have forgotten this life and why the hell do we have extra lives when we can’t remember our past lives and don’t learn anything from them? What the hell is the point?
  Something touched his chin and he had to break off his thoughts. Yue watched him with concern. “I guess we’ll have to save this game for later. I’m ready for bed and you need to be up early like always. You’ll feel better when you wake up, that’s how it always is. And you know what? I have no idea how anyone could feel bad when they have a sister like me taking care of them. Honestly, if I’m not good enough, then there’s just no hope for mankind, because I’m as good as it gets.”
  Hei laughed. “You’re right. There is no hope for mankind if you’re the best we’ve got.”
  Yue stuck out her tongue, delighted she finally got a reaction. “Well it’s the best you’re getting so you’d better not push your luck and see what it’s like without me.”
  “I already know what that’s like. It happened to be rather nice.”
  “Ha! Just wait until I get married and you’ll be begging me to come visit and I’ll tell you it can’t be helped, I’m just too happy where I am, and you should have valued me when you had the chance.”
  “More likely I’ll thank my lucky stars that someone was ludicrously stupid enough to deal with you day in and day out so that I don’t have to anymore.”
  “Naturally, with me gone, you’ll be driven to such distraction that you’ll start believing in astrology. I’d expect nothing less from you.”
  “Peace! It’s just a figure of speech. I may have married a peasant, but I didn’t become one. You’re right about one thing though, it’s time to go to sleep. So get out of here already.”
  “Your dutiful servant as always.” Yue bowed and turned to leave.
  “And thanks. You’re right, you know, you’re as good as it gets.”
  “I know.” Yue turned back and smiled. Then she was gone. Maybe she was good enough to make up for the rest. Maybe that’s how these things worked. You just took the good with the bad and the good made up for the bad and that’s why we lived and loved and pulled through from day to day. And maybe we forget because then we can enjoy these things all over again and they never get boring or stale and we always value them as much as we do the very first time and that way I’ll always be surprised by just how great Yue really is and never get tired of loving her. And if father and Rin die over and over, well, they also live over and over, and that means I’ll always get to live with them before I have to live without them, and that’s something. Add it together and that means I have as much time as I want with them, just spaced out a little further. That isn’t such a bad fate. Life isn’t so bad, really. Or else we’d all prefer to be rocks and trees, and nobody would be alive. Tough to complain when we all implicitly praise God by staying alive and agreeing with its choice to create us the way we are. I don’t know. It’s too hard to really understand why things are the way they are. But I do know it’s better than nothing. Which means it isn’t all bad. Which means I can enjoy what’s good and ignore the rest. Which means it could be all good if I just thought of it that way. If I ever started caring about internals instead of externals, like the sutras say. Well, I can always worry about that later. I wish Yue had stayed long enough to see her 20 stone lead evaporate. Hei smiled inside his head. The look on her face would’ve been beautiful.

Chapter 14

  Kikashi.” Hei whispered to himself. The threat you had to respond to. He had done it. He watched the dust rise from Tang’s army approaching him from behind. He had a strong position. Time enough to construct catapults on both flanks on heights overlooking the entire area. The middle ridge contained most of his pikes, but he was depending on the concavity to win the day. If any army tried to get into contact with his army it would first have to withstand miles of advancing under bombardment. If they tried to attack the artillery directly they would still be bombarded for miles, only the battle would begin a little earlier, and he had internal lines which meant he could reinforce the artillery before the enemy could attack it. If they tried to go around they would be bombarded for miles and have nothing to show for it, not unless they got all the way around to Hei’s rear and got between him and the capital. But of course he would have plenty of time to break camp and form a new position, still inbetween the king of Tang and his capital, and have the bonus of always being better rested than the enemy who had to march further, and always getting to bombard Tang as he tried to maneuver. If Tang chose to disengage entirely and swing around from the south, it would make Hei reposition, but again Tang would be marching twice or three times as long and be in no better a position than before. If he did those long marches three or four times, he could push Hei against a wall where he had no further lines of retreat, but that would take a great deal of patience and a great deal of confidence that Hei didn’t truly intend to attack Manching. The point of kikashi is you couldn’t ignore it. The threat was too severe. If you ignored kikashi to gain some local advantage, you would pay dearly for it in the future. It wasn’t that Tang was stupid to take the bait, he had to. Manching was too valuable to give up just so he could avoid marching into a crossfire. He couldn’t know that Hei had never planned to attack Manching, he’d barely found out Hei even existed before it was too late, much less what Hei was planning. The question now was how far Hei could press this threat to make up the difference in manpower. Supposing Tang pulled up all his men and charged his center line completely heedless of casualties, it would come down to the morale and courage of the men involved. Whoever won, it would completely ruin Hei’s plans, because he wanted to preserve both armies. He needed his own men, and he needed Tang’s men too, if he would have any army large enough to challenge Pi and Ch’i. What Hei was hoping for was based on what Yue said. If the king of Tang still had pity and compassion, then it was more likely he would mess around with feints and diversions and probes, seeing if he could win a fight with the fewest casualties possible. And every day of that would mean another day his catapults could pound the line. Of course it would also allow all of Tang’s rear elements to catch up with his advance elements, which would mean the enemy’s power would grow every day even while he attrited it. In that case both Hei and Tang would likely think they were winning and want to delay the battle as long as possible. The kikashi would turn into a semai and again the outcome would be doubtful.
  Hei did not like either of these battles. They both involved too many casualties and too much chance. Instead of just sitting on his heights and repulsing bumping maneuvers and waiting for Tang’s full army to reach the battle, he would have to act. In a way Tang couldn’t expect. He would abandon his heights and take the battle to the enemy. Instead of being happy with repulsing whatever first attack Tang made, his men would follow on the heels of the retreating adversary and roll them up on themselves. The men who weren’t ready for battle or who were distressed to see their comrades in full flight would likely crumble as well, even though it was the plan for the first assault to fail. They wouldn’t be thinking of that when they saw the panic and the rout. And considering the forced marches those men had undergone to catch up with Liu-Yang’s army, which had had a comparatively pleasant journey of it, they would have little stamina to fight or flee. Hopefully that meant the advance elements of Tang’s army could be captured before the rest ever reached the battlefield, which would resolve the conflict with the least amount of casualties and also the least danger for Hei’s men. It wouldn’t work if Tang just marched around, or if Tang just ordered a full frontal assault, but he thought he had a bead on Tang’s psychology. Tang had very few good options and the best one he could see would be to tie up Hei’s forces so they could no longer march on Manching, but also delay the outcome of the battle until all his men had reached the front and were reasonably rested. This would call for constant harassment but no decisive assaults. And this meant Hei’s counterattack would be devastating.
  “Atari,” Hei warned his opponent with a smile, putting away his eyeglass. Do something now or your stones are dead.

  Pe Su Huang surveyed the mountains with care, watching earthworks being thrown up and stakes being put into the ground. Every day he delayed the position would become that much stronger. The enemy had cut off from the river and found a ridge they clearly had been aiming for all along, it interdicted any approach to Manching, but was still so far away that nobody from the city could aid in the battle. For that matter it meant the Liuyans could retreat from the position to any number of others closer to Manching, if he even did drive them back. He hated being drawn into a battle on ground of their choosing. With absolutely overwhelming numbers facing Sun Jong, he had still put up a fierce fight because he got to choose the terrain. With good ground, a bridge or a narrow pass, there were stories enough of just a few men holding back whole armies. They couldn’t be true. A crossbow could just pick them off. Or the army could just push forward and crush them with pure weight. Ridiculous to think a single man could defeat a determined crowd. But then, the stories probably came from before there were crossbows, where armor still mattered and some champions were nearly invincible. Also if they had horses it would be a lot harder to push them around. But then horses weren’t worth much if you had to stand still guarding a bridge. Well, the culture was strange back then, regardless of the urgency of the war, people would announce themselves and challenge people to duels. It wouldn’t matter if one guy was facing a thousand, for the sake of honor, of saving face, they would challenge that one guy one by one, so that they wouldn’t be deemed cowards who overran a superior man. It didn’t matter if it lasted all day and all the best warriors had already been killed, the nobility would still challenge that guy one by one and not worry a moment about an army arriving to reinforce or an enemy marching freely through their lands. Honour was more important than victory.
  The Middle Kingdom had grown up, that’s all there was to it. Though it was all a cycle, so in the future someday, somehow, they’d be back to fighting one by one and without crossbows or chariots or anything else. But at least for now they could fight like sane men. Thank the Dao for Go. It transformed us by changing the meaning of honor. Now we gain face by outwitting our opponents, instead of outfighting them. Now we’re allowed to fight barbarians like civilized men instead of like barbarians. Which means we can finally beat them now. Maybe something Liu-Yang didn’t have to worry about, but the main thought that every Tangu had on their mind year in and year out.
  It’s impossible. Pe thought. It’s impossible to take a line with a line to either side. It takes two moves for every move he gets just to keep the situation balanced. I have two armies on either side and he has one, which means he can turn on one or the other and I can only defend one and have to abandon the other. Which will I lose? My city or my army? Impossible choice. If I lose my army I’ll lose my city next. If I lose my city my army is just a nomad horde. But I outnumber him. The city has strong fortifications. Both sides I’m stronger. I virtually have two stones for every one he has. It’s still a fair game. Why should I fight anyway? The men I left behind say Pi has moved into my territory when I left. He’s constantly saying it’s only until I return and he’s just being thoughtful, but what are the chances of that? Why have a third of the pie when you can have two thirds? We both know that river is the last remaining producer of rice outside of Pi control. I thought he didn’t realize that but apparently he has because he’s taken it now. He won’t give that up without a fight. So even if I do defeat the Liuyans why should I? To help Pi keep the land without a fight? Why should I have to fight these people? Why are they in Tang? Why aren’t they defending Liu-Yang and bothering those jackals who left my country to hang? God knows I don’t want to attack this hill. It’s a terrible attack. My men are exhausted just getting here in time. Even if I drive them back they’ll just set up another, just as strong position on the next ridge. What, then I lead another assault, and another, and chase them all over the country, losing two or three to one every exchange? Is that victory? And what if I lose? What if the position is just too damn strong? Then I’d surround the hills and try to choke them out. I could draw up reinforcements and destroy their navy because a navy without an army to protect it has to die sooner or later. They’d run out of supplies after that and they’d all surrender without a fight. How long would a siege take? Don’t fool yourself, the moment you try to get around they’ll leave and set up a new position. Surrounding them is impossible because they have the interior lines. So I can make them retreat by marching around, or by attacking them. Either way they’ll do the exact same thing. One way I lose men, the other way I lose time. Every day I let Pi consolidate his position I have less of a chance of gaining anything from this war. Every man I lose and every man I kill is a waste, because I’d rather we were both fighting for the river valley I started the war for. What a filthy war if all I win is a monopoly of rice for Pi. I was afraid of what Liu-Yang would do with that, I know what Pi will do. He told me what he planned. He was going to drive all the peasants into the ground and make rice so expensive it beggars us all and makes Pi filthy rich. He gloated about it. That river valley was my insurance. Tang’s insurance. With that valley I could care less about what Pi does, but why the hell am I fighting these people so that I can lose the valley all the more assuredly? If I’m fighting for that valley, my enemy is Pi now, not Liu-Yang.
  “Screw it.” Pe Su Huang clapped his eyeglass against his thigh. “I’d be a fool to attack that ridge. Nobody can attack that ridge and get anything out of it.”
  The staff sergeants around him put away their own glasses and looked at their king uneasily. The ridge looked strong to them too. And the men were tired. Desperately tired. And only half of them had even gotten here yet. They hardly outnumbered the enemy, if the scouts were correct. “Shall we form our own lines and wait for the rear elements to arrive?” One sergeant asked hopefully.
  “Oh, what’s the use. Even with fifty thousand men that ridge is hopeless. They’ll happily bombard us the whole way up, and then leave for the next damn ridge to do it all over again. Only a fool would attack that ridge.” Pe vented. How had it come to this?
  “We can always go south. Go back to the river and head for Manching. If we try to connect to our capital they’ll have to sally out and stop us, or their position is hopeless.” Another older sergeant suggested. He had been pressing for that route all along, but now he saw a renewed chance that Pe would listen. “Then they won’t have ground like this. We’ll beat them in a fair fight, just give our men the chance.”
  “They won’t attack.” Pe shook his head. “They’ll dig a new line a little closer to the river. And unless our men can fly they’ll always be able to reposition before we do. Unless we want to march under fire, we have to make a long arc around for every straight line down they can make.”
  “The ground’s not as good nearer the river though. They chose this position for a reason. They don’t want to reposition.” The older man stressed.
  “Perhaps. You’re probably right. It would help us a little if we could force them off that ridge without having to fight. I just don’t think that will be enough. Not so long as they always can choose the ground. They’ll always have good enough ground, so long as they get to choose it.” Pe said. Another thought was going through his mind though. Maybe he didn’t have to fight after all. He had no idea who the prince was. Or the princess for that matter. What goals they had. Why they had come to Tang. If they had wanted to burn Manching they wouldn’t have stopped to fight him. They would’ve pushed as hard as he did and probably could’ve attacked it before he had a chance to stop them. So were they here for Manching, but had just been too slow? Had it been some attempt at vengeance, you took my capital, so I’ll take yours? There was no telling. Not until he got a chance to meet them. Every day and every man lost was a victory for Pi. That was clear to him. Maybe it would be clear to the Liuyans too.
  “I say we pull up all our men and attack them with full force. If we pin them down they won’t be able to run anywhere. And once they’re pinned down we can clobber them. We can really clobber them. We have three times as many men, sire. Just give me the chance and I’ll take that hill. I can start tonight if you want.” A young sergeant suggested.
  “Perhaps.” Pe Su Huang said, half to the sergeant, a son of an old noble house looking to distinguish himself in the war. Good men, those. He wished they didn’t die so soon. A general’s sword was the Go board. Until they understood that they just kept dying. If he could just get a grasp of the enemy’s mind he would have such a better idea for how to fight, even if he couldn’t get the man to stand down. “Perhaps we could just run up there and win. But I can’t afford to risk that many men if I don’t know I’m going to win.”
  “Nothing ventured nothing gained, sire.” The man protested. “The men are willing. This is Tang now. We’re defending ourselves, who won’t die for that?” The other sergeants murmured assent.
  “The man who attacks has already lost the most important part of the battle.” Pe growled at his sergeants. “Nobody attacks unless they’re desperate and out of options. Defenders always have the advantage. I’m not going to attack until I absolutely have to, because the day I attack is the day that prince over there has me in exactly the position he wants me. Do you think they’re sitting up there for some picnic? Do you think they came all this way to go camping? They came here so I would attack them. They’re baiting me. Like dogs jumping in and out when they kill a bear. They’re begging me to come up there and give a swipe at them. If that’s what I do, then I’m not fit to be your king. Not unless I have to.”
  Some older sergeants nodded and murmured assent. Some looked chastised and others sullen. So strange, I can order them all killed with a flick of my hand, but I have to reason with them and drag them and cajole them every decision I make. I’m too soft to be king. It shows up over and over and over. Too damn soft with these men. Trying to preserve my army. I bet I could just roll up that hill and win. I’m just too soft to give an order like that, an order that would assure every single man in the first rank would die instantly from the crossbowmen just waiting for us, and then every single man in the second rank, too, because they’ll have plenty of time to reload while we try and sprint up that gully, and our men will start tripping over corpses and the first wave of the attack will fail and want to retreat while the second wave pushes on and we’ll become a giant tangle of flesh and absolute confusion and lose all our momentum while they rain down stones and bolts on us and before we’ve even killed one of their men I’ll have lost thousands. Insane to attack that hill. Insane to call that victory. No, I can’t attack that hill. I just can’t. The old man is right, we should strike for Manching and try and delay until the rest of the army arrives and we have a chance to rest. That’s the best choice, but it’s not a good choice either. It will still mean a hard fight, and all it does is give Pi the chance to win it all. I don’t know what Ch’i is getting out of it but he must know that Pi will drive them bankrupt too. They rely on the rice just like the rest of us. Maybe Ch’i doesn’t plan on leaving both rivers to Pi. There’s no telling what Ch’i plans, but it probably involves double-crossing everyone while somehow never double-crossing anyone. Either way I lose. The only good choice is not to fight.
  “Tell the men to strike south at dawn. We’ll meet up with the rest of the army in the next week and give ourselves a chance to rest. So long as we keep the enemy in sight they can’t head for Manching without us coming on their rear. So long as they aren’t sacking Manching we can deal with them on our time, not theirs.” Pe Su Huang finally decided.
  “Why can’t you tell them, sire?” A sergeant asked. Probably the one who would prefer to order a full scale assault that very night. A night attack. How great would that be. They wouldn’t even find their way up the mountain but just all fall over cliffs or into snow banks or break their shins on rocks. The army wouldn’t even reach the enemy trenches. Patience. They would learn.
  “I’m going to ask Yue Fang Jong why she’s here and what she wants.” Pe said. “She didn’t seem like such a barbarian last we met. I at least have to try.”
  “You mean. .negotiate. . .with rebels? Who we outnumber, in our own country?” They looked flabbergasted.
  “That’s exactly what I mean. Suppose they want, oh, a hundred thousand ko. Now, assuming one able bodied man can produce five ko a year, for, oh, thirty years we’ll say. That would mean one man in this army was worth 150 ko. Supposing we lose over 800 men, then, we would have done better to negotiate.”
  “But. . .the shame of it sire.”
  “The only shameful thing is a King who doesn’t care about his country.” Pe snapped. “Or am I still King? Does my command still mean anything?”
  “Of course, sire.” They were all quick to affirm. Silence clamped down every mouth. How nice it would be if they were always this obedient. Oh well. Savor the moment while it lasted. Even if they wouldn’t negotiate time was on his side. As far as the Liuyans were concerned. But not as far as Pi was concerned. Oh well. The Liuyans had to be as desperate as he was. Just rebels without a country and outnumbered three to one. Surely they could reach fair terms. Yue Fang Jong wasn’t in that great a position to extort much from him. For all he knew all she would want is assurance of some sort of asylum and the army would disband before his eyes. There was no telling the quality of the enemy forces. They’d never fought before. They could just be hastily rounded up civilians from the city for all he knew. Or they could be the well trained army he had always feared must exist within a nation so large as Liu-Yang and with so many million men. There was just no telling. Well, it had been a long march and clearly the princess wasn’t going anywhere. They were ready to dig so deep they would make a new river, clearly. So it was time to return to camp and go to sleep. God, if you still love harmony, let there be no battle between us. I don’t want to fight her. . .in the end. . .it might just come down to that. I don’t want to fight the princess who struggled not to cry when she was helpless and that was the only act of resistance left to her. I’m too soft to kill that girl. I should never have looked into her eyes, because now I know myself a villain. And everyone I fought beside was a villain. And what I did to her and her mother and her brother and her father and everyone in that country was absolutely villainous. And if I fight her now I’ll lose my soul forever and become a cockroach or rock or just an empty wretched soul that wanders through the dark abyss of hell.

Chapter 15

  “They aren’t attacking.” Hei Ming Jong lowered his eyeglass disappointedly. “Look at that, they’re hitching the wagons. They’re going to march away again.” A few other staff sergeants watched the enemy prepare breakfast and take down their tents. “Why did they march all the way here if they don’t intend to attack?” Hei complained. “Do you think this is just a feint, that they’ll pretend to march away then come back and attack later today?”
  “Too complicated.” Lu Huang, the general of the left, said. “Stuff like that just tires out the troops before they get a chance to fight and of course we’ll have plenty of advance notice. There’s only a few ways up this ridge and we have catapults overlooking all of them for miles.”
  “I don’t understand then. Maybe they saw our position and changed their minds. But then where are they going now?” Hei asked.
  “There’s only one obvious way to go. Loop south, get back to the river and try and unite with the garrison of Manching.” Shea Lu Pao, the general of the right, said.
  “But our navy controls that river. Tang has nothing comparable. They aren’t going anywhere.” Hei replied.
  “They could always build catapults and drive the navy off.” Shea replied. “It would take some time, but navies can only control water, they still need men on the ground to back them up.”
  “With that river under our control Tang is split in two. It’s only a matter of time until the Southern Barbarians realize there’s no way Tang’s army can cross that river and stop them from attacking. Navies are stronger than they look.” Hei countered. “And I don’t see how he can threaten my ships when the river is so wide there’s practically no way you can aim a catapult well enough. At a longer range than the navy’s own catapults. If anything they’re going to try and march on this side of the river. But so long as they stay on this side of the river, we can always stay in front of them. And as the river is a valley, we’ll always have high ground to defend on. I don’t see how he expects to just march by without a fight.”
  “He doesn’t have to fight us.” Lu Huang replied. “So long as we don’t pose a threat to anyone, he can delay as long as he sees fit. I say if he’s going to march south, we strike west straight for Manching. Turn the feint into a reality if he isn’t going to stop it. When you make a ko threat, it’s to win the ko fight, but if he ignores the threat and wins the ko fight, you have to turn the threat into a reality as retribution.”
  “But I don’t want to take Manching. I want to negotiate with him, not turn this into a life or death struggle.” Hei said.
  “There’s no negotiating with these people. They attacked without declaring war, without even wearing uniforms. They’re just barbarians.” Lu Huang spat. The others hadn’t been in the swamp. They just didn’t understand.
  “When the princess met with Tang, she felt he was someone we could negotiate with.” Hei said.
  “So we wage war by the advice of a little girl?” Lu asked.
  “Yes, pretty much. That and necessity. I’m not trying to conquer Tang, Lu. I’m trying to free Liu-Yang. I’m sorry I didn’t make this clear, but this entire expedition isn’t real. We don’t actually have the goals we want everyone to think we have.”
  “I know that.” Lu Huang insisted. “But at some point if you want these people to take us seriously you’re going to have to bloody them. The threat has to become real until they’re willing to address it.”
  “If I have to attack Manching I’ve already lost.” Hei sighed. “The attacker is the person who lost the battle of strategy and is trying to make up for it with force. Everyone knows that if you attack a piece by putting your own piece right next to it, you’re at the disadvantage. Then it’s his turn and he suddenly has two pieces in the region, in the formation he prefers, and you only have one. From there on you’re just playing catch-up. I’d rather be the piece already placed and waiting to be bumped, than the bumper, wouldn’t you?”
  “I suppose.” Lu Huang shrugged, seeing it was hopeless. “You’re the Emperor.” One last needle that it wasn’t Hei’s sense that had won the argument. Hei decided to just let it pass and give Lu his face-saving last word. Hard to be with friends when you outrank them. Friends are equals, but Lu was supposed to be his subordinate. Difficult to balance that well. There were more pressing things to worry about though.
  “We’ll wait an hour to make sure this isn’t a feint and then we’re marching. Tell the troops to eat quickly and make their preparations. If they want to march, then march we will. We can march all over Tang for all I care. He has to attack eventually.” Hei turned his horse around and gave up the observations. He had to look at the maps and decide which was the best route. Better if some scouts also verified exactly which way Tang was marching. “Do we have some forward scouts observing their route?”
  Staff sergeants looked at one another. “Well, sire, the cavalry is deployed, but we aren’t sure where. They left early this morning to screen for which way the strongest attack would come from. Only the cavalry commander is in a position to change those orders to following their march.”
  “Well, I suggest you find the commander of our cavalry and order him to follow their route and report back to me as quickly as possible, if he has not done so already. Suggest to him, when you find him, if he isn’t following their route, to show more initiative and remind him that his ultimate order is always to be informed of the enemy position and to always keep us informed of the enemy position, regardless of what other orders may be trying to direct that goal.”
  “Yes, sire.” Three staff sergeants rode their horses as quickly as was safe down the gully which they had hoped the enemy would attack up. The good thing about staff sergeants was they were always there and they were always responsible for what happened. No way to fight a battle without them. The barbarians had so much to learn.
  “Ho there! Make way for the Emperor’s orders!” Hei heard one of the sergeants cry. How do you like that, Lu Huang? I really am Emperor after all. You’ll have to admit that sooner or later, or it will be hard for us.
  “Strange, that ko can mean the amount of rice necessary to feed a man for a year, and also mean a desperate battle where both sides surround the enemy piece on three sides switching back and forth. What’s the etymology of that, do you think?” Hei asked the remaining generals.
  “Perhaps one space on a Go board represents enough farmland for one ko of rice.” One suggested. “And so fighting over that one space is a ko fight.”
  “Perhaps, perhaps, but then Go’s battles would hardly be as epic as we thought. A ko fight over a little village paddy?”
  The nobility laughed. They had all fought their hearts and wits out trying to win ko fights before and none of them wanted to think it was just some peasant’s lot.
  “Sire.” A messenger came speeding up on his horse. “An embassy carrying the white flag is approaching, shall we let them through?”
  “Of course of course.” Hei said. “Staff sergeants, don’t let this slow down our preparations. We march in one hour. I’ll go see what they have to say.” Hei spurred his horse forward to go meet the ambassadors. Probably they would be asking him to surrender. Very little chance of negotiating anything real until he taught Tang that he was genuinely dangerous. Outnumbered three to one, no king would shame himself to seeking terms. But it was simple courtesy to listen to what he had to say. Maybe the ambassadors would report back to the king that the enemy was a civilized and reasonable man who could be dealt with.
  “Greetings.” A well dressed man surrounded by a couple adjutants lifted his hand. “Are you the Prince of Liu-Yang? I’m sorry, but I’ve never met him before.”
  “I am. Send my greetings to the king.”
  “Easily done. I am the King of Tang, Pe Su Huang. I’m sorry, but you would be--?”
  “Hei Ming Jong.” Hei covered his surprise. The king himself come to talk? He had black hair and black eyes, like everyone else. He was a little older than Hei, and looked more comfortable with his title. He looked tired and worried. Probably exactly the same way I look. “Forgive me, but I have a friend, a Lu Huang. Are you by chance related?”
  “Not that I know of. But then, there are so many millions of us in the Middle Kingdom, and we’ve all lived here so long, it’s hard to think any of us aren’t related to some degree.”
  “Truly. What business have you come to us today with, your eminence?”
  “Forgive me, there was something about you being disowned, so I didn’t think to remember your name. And forgive me again for calling you Prince, I suppose you are the Emperor of Liu-Yang now.”
  “I still think of myself as the Prince, it is hard to believe that a second son would have to become Emperor at so young an age.” Hei said politely.
  “Very well then.” Tang composed himself. “Is the princess safe with you?”
  “Yes, no thanks to you. I hear your spies have been chasing her ever since she escaped your prison.”
  “A monastery. To keep her safe.”
  “A prison if she couldn’t leave it.”
  “A prison then.” Tang gave up. “As you mentioned, I’ve killed your father and brother and imprisoned your mother and sister. I am sorry for that, but that is war, and in war we do things we are sorry for but can’t be helped. Will you have vengeance on me? Here I am. Kill me, throw me in jail, I can’t stop you. But if you care more about your country, then whatever you think of me, you will have to deal with me, because if I die then my brother will avenge me on all of this army and all of your people.”
  “I don’t want to kill you.” Hei said, satisfied that Tang was honest and thus trustworthy. “To be frank, I want an alliance with you.”
  “An alliance?” Tang looked surprised.
  “I threaten your kingdom and you threaten mine. Does this make any sense? I think it would be better for both of us if both of us defended each other instead. It’s a fair trade, I give you back your security, and you give me back mine. Only, it’s a little more complicated for me. Even if you stop attacking Liu-Yang, it’s still under foreign conquest. If you ally with me, you will have to help me free my country.”
  “Preposterous. I’m to become your vassal, and in exchange, you promise not to attack me? That’s a treaty worthy of barbarians who ask for tribute so they won’t plunder.”
  “Tell me, why did you invade Liu-Yang?” Hei asked.
  “For the rest of our river.” Tang said, unapologetically. “Our rain and snow from our mountains creates that river delta where all your people and all your rice thrives and all your commerce can come and go. Properly that river belongs to us.”
  “The river belongs to whoever the Dao has seen fit to give it to. It is karma that the river is ours, why do you go against karma?” Hei asked.
  “If we conquer the river then it is karma that we deserved it and you didn’t. Whatever happens, that’s karma. It’s impossible to go against karma because whatever you do becomes karma.”
  “That’s a strange idea of God you hold.” Hei commented.
  “You are not my confessor.” Tang replied, smiling.
  “Very well then, let me try again. What is it about the river you want most. Our people? Our rice? Or our commerce? You listed all three.”
  “Your commerce, to be precise. It is as cheap to buy your rice now as it is to buy it when we own it. We have no complaints with your rice. And since all your people do is grow said rice, it wouldn’t help us much to own them either, since they’d still be growing the rice we’d still be buying from them.”
  “I’m glad you understand that. It appears our neighbors from the north think otherwise.”
  “Pi doesn’t think much at all.” Tang observed.
  “Back to business then. What is it about our commerce you find fault with? Does it hurt you if our ships flow up and down our river making our goods cheaper and more accessible to all?”
  “Not in the least. It hurts us that we cannot do the same.”
  “I am not aware of my father’s tariff policies, were they so very high?”
  “Oh, the tariffs were a nuisance. But the larger problem is that our ships were subject to your seizure, rules, regulations, taxes, and so on, and there was nothing we could do about it if they did become draconian. If, say, for one year that river was closed to our shipping, we would not be able to trade with you, or reach the ocean to trade with anyone else, and you must understand, as a nation of craftsmen who produce finished goods, without a market we would have a lot of furniture but no food, no clothing, and no iron and we would all die. This vulnerability is absolutely intolerable, and if you were in my position, you would feel exactly the same. A landlocked nation is at the mercy of its neighbors.”
  “Then you attacked Liu-Yang to secure your ability to trade with the outside world without interference? I suppose it would not be enough to promise you we won’t interfere?”
  “That can’t be enough. Promises can always change. That’s why I must own the region with my own men, who can guard our rights with swords and not just with pieces of paper. Even supposing you are an honorable man, Hei Ming Jong. I have no such assurance from your son, or a usurper who supplants you, or anything else of the sort. Sooner or later Tang would be in exactly the same situation, and it would be folly for me to not guard against that future while I have the army ready to do so. Though you don’t seem to understand, you are in a terrible situation. Not only do I outnumber you alone, but Pi and Ch’i do so as well. I expect to get what I need out of Liu-Yang because I know you can’t stop me. I didn’t come here to become your vassal, I came here to suggest you leave Tang while your army is still alive, and go fight for your own country instead of plaguing mine.”
  “You want your own men guarding the river with swords instead of paper? Very well then, at every city, every village if you like, you are free to deploy as many men alongside our own as you please to protect your ships which go down our river. And furthermore, whatever restrictions or tariffs my father placed on your shipping, I revoke, and promise the river will be as much yours as ours. Will that suffice?” Hei acted as though he hadn’t heard Tang’s last part.
  “How do I know you won’t betray and murder any men I send?” Pe asked warily.
  “Because that would throw me back into a war I desperately can’t afford.” Hei said. “But if you’re worried about the future, when supposedly Liu-Yang will be strong enough to betray you and win such a war, then there’s only one more thing I can offer. You are getting old and still aren’t married, isn’t it time you think of that? Marry my sister, and your nation and mine will always be bound as strongly as it is possible to bind. If you question the love I have for my sister, or my unwillingness to ever see her harmed, then you question my honor, so I do hope you won’t. And if you question my son to be so vicious that he can betray his own cousin, then you assume I am capable of breeding such viciousness, and again I hope you would not think such a thing of me. And if two generations of peace and healthy interactions is not enough to instill a habit of good will between us, then I ask you what possibly can—the only way we could establish a longer peace would be to annihilate one of us or the other. Would you prefer that?”
  Tang paused. He had never thought he would be talking about this. He had always assumed the matter would come down to whether Hei’s threats were more threatening than his own, and whoever had the more convincing threat would get the better terms. Suddenly now he was planning his wedding?
  “She is too young. . .” Pe protested weakly.
  “That is no problem. By the time we drive Pi and Ch’i out of Liu-Yang, and we are ready to think of better things, she will be ready.”
  “But she hates me.” Pe protested again.
  “She is a princess. Princesses understand their duty to their country.”
  “But this is ridiculous. You brought your army to the gates of Manching so you could propose a marriage between us?”
  “You’re the one who didn’t think a promise was enough.” Hei pointed out.
  “I know, but. . .I did not think it would come to this.”
  “I am not your enemy, I never was. The imagined harm you have brooded on nobody ever did to you or your land. I don’t see why we have to fight. I prefer marriages to wars, personally, but that may just be me.”
  “And I suppose in return for her hand I have to help free your country?” Pe finally asked.
  “Be reasonable. As soon as you dealt with me you were going back to fight Pi for the river anyway. Is it any different that instead of having to fight me, you get my men to help you win your war for your rights? Do you suppose Pi is willing to offer better terms than me? Or that he will give up all his rice that he’s fought so diligently for upon your return?” Hei finally played his trump card. The Imperial Spy network had kept a close eye on the politics at home. “It was never a question of ‘having’ to fight for the river or not, the only question is whether you will weaken yourself or strengthen yourself before you fight for our river.”
  Pe opened his hands in surrender. “When you put it that way.”
  “Yes, that’s the way I would put it.” Hei pushed. Just a little more and he could have all he wanted with nobody dying and it would be the most amazing miracle he had ever seen.
  “If that’s the way it is, Hei Ming Jong, I’d be happy to fight by the likes of you against the likes of Pi and Ch’i. If I may say so, after spending an hour with you and half a year with them, I’m quite glad to finally be on the right side.”
  “Me too.” Hei smiled, for the first time genuinely. Now all he had to do was convince Yue to do what he’d promised she would. He cringed to think how much harder that would be than this had been. Well, at least that could wait. It had taken two months marching upriver. It would take more than two months marching back down, with all of Tang’s army adding to the logistical nightmare. Then however much longer to win two more wars. And then he could tell Yue. Maybe by then they would like each other. Stranger things had happened.


  “Heavens, bless this day which gives us harmony in place of discord. Bless your children, who are lost and cannot find their own way back to peace and hope. Bless our Emperor, who you have anointed our ruler, and give him victory. Bless our allies, that they might fight with your spirit and on your side. Believers, bow your heads and pray with me, that some day soon our country will be free again, and the map will once again have to show Liu-Yang beside the rest of the Middle Kingdom!”
  “I know we have all thought, if God means us to be free, why has God allowed all of this to happen? If God does not mean for us to suffer, why can’t God prevent our suffering? If it is karma for peace to be made between us and Tang, why was it karma that first there was war made between us and Tang? Does the Dao change its mind? Can God will one way, and then will the other, like a whimsical child which no toy can content? Everyone must wonder in these troubling times, when under the name of taxes, all of our goods are stolen from us, foreign soldiers take up living in our houses, giving no respect to our women, and we are forced to work for foreigners who oversee what we make and how much, and then require on top of all our taxes, yet more ‘rents’ to these foreigners who did nothing to help us create our wealth. Who can not wonder where God is in times like these?”
  “But let us remember, to God, who is eternal, all of this is dust in the wind. To God, who is changeless, how can these things concern it? The Dao is, and that is enough for the Dao. The nature of the Dao is balance, wherever there is imbalance, the Dao corrects it, because the Dao’s will is the spirit of all things, and all things must bow to it. When a knife is taken from the forge and quenched in the water—is that not the Dao? Doesn’t the water become hotter and the knife cooler, until they are balanced? And when we chop at a tree, don’t our arms feel the strength of the collision as much as the tree does? Even the iron, which is much harder than the tree, doesn’t it become blunt from striking? Isn’t that balance? And when we rub felt, and create sparks—why, touch another person, touch another thing, doesn’t the spark fly between you, so that there is an equal jolt to both? Isn’t that balance? When the tide comes in, and then goes out, isn’t that balance? Or when the sun sets and the moon rises? Isn’t that balance? But imagine, suppose you had never seen the moon rise, or the sparks fly, or the iron quenched, or the ax dulled, suppose you had just arrived on this earth, and, seeing the sun, wouldn’t you believe there was no balance, but only the sun? Or seeing the ax chop down a tree, wouldn’t you believe there was no balance, but only a sharp ax? Or seeing the sword come out of the forge, wouldn’t you believe there was no balance, but that the sword would always stay that hot? Or if you saw the tide come in, wouldn’t you believe that that the tide would stay that way forever? Until you see both sides, wouldn’t we always be thinking there is no balance in anything? If throughout all nature, everywhere we look, we see the Dao creating balance and symmetry, but creating it over time, why do we think that we, particularly, if imbalanced, will never be corrected? Or that we, particularly, deserve to be kept always the same, like some sun that never sets, or some tide that never flows, or some oven that never cools—that the Dao should take some special notice of us and go against it’s own will by creating a special, unbalanced exception for mankind? Shall the sun, the water, the wind, all things but humans have to wait for nature to balance itself out, as it always does, and humans alone not have to wait? Shall the plants complain when the sun sets because they wilt without the sun? Or do they wait patiently until the sun rises again? The Dao works in its own time, it is eternal, and because of that, for it, any temporary imbalance means nothing to it, in the face of an eternity of balance. Whatever happens in the affairs of men is nothing but dust and air to the Dao. What if we hunger? When we eat, we will no longer hunger, and there will be balance again. What if we die? When we are born again, we will be alive again, and there will be balance again. What can possibly happen to us that has not already happened to us a thousand, million, billion times—as many lives and as many cycles of lives as can fit into eternity—and a thousand, million, billion times, every single time throughout eternity, everything that has happened has balanced itself out, corrected itself, bent itself back to the will of God, whose will is Supreme throughout all things and all time. Should God worry, then, now, in the midst of eternity, that it hasn’t particularly restored us to what we are used to? Do we doubt God’s power? Surely not, when we see it ruling all the heavens and all the earth. Do we doubt God’s will? Surely not, when we see the same will towards balance, acting across all the heavens and all the earth, from the cycles of comets to the birthing of young, consistent and changeless. So why do we doubt God? The flower buds and blooms and falls as God sees fit, without complaint, and the next season it buds and blooms and falls again—and how strange we are, to insist that we should be allowed to bud and bloom but never fall! That we should complain whenever things go bad, and think it only natural when things are good. Is it natural for everything to always be good? Is it natural for everything to always be hot? Or are things equally hot and cold? Is it natural for everything to always be hard? Or are things equally hard and soft? Is it natural for everything to always be solid? Or are things equally solid and giving? Is it natural for anything to always be one way? Doesn’t even water change between water and ice and steam? And do you see water complaining because it isn’t allowed to stay water? Then why should things stay as they are for us? Things change, God does not stop things from changing, God only balances those changes, so that eventually they all return unto themselves. The change isn’t karma, when that change returns to itself, that is karma. God doesn’t create war, but God returns that war to its natural peace. God doesn’t cause suffering, but God returns that suffering to happiness again. God does not worry if iron gets particularly hot at a particular time, iron always cools off again. God does not worry if the sun goes down, the sun rises again the next day. And God does not worry if we are hungry, or if we are poor—we will be full and rich some other day. Because that is karma, that moment of balance, that moment of returning to God’s will, that moment when the circle is completed and a cycle is fulfilled. Until you understand karma, you cannot understand the Dao, and who can judge what he does not understand? But when you understand karma, you will no longer wish to blame the Dao, because your own spirit will be aligned with God’s, and affirm it with all your heart. If you cannot affirm God in your heart, search for the moments of karma that show themselves continuously before your eyes. Search for the eternal balance that is being played out before you—do not the birds sing every spring? Doesn’t the moon wax and wane every month? Search for the balance around you, until your own hearts can become balanced as well, and aligned with God, and blessed. Let us all remember that God is, and God is good. So long as we remember that, there is never a reason to fear. Without beginning and without end, a Good will watches over us all. So let us stop complaining like foolish children who expect to be treated differently from everyone else—and instead have as much faith as the starfish which waits, stranded, on the beach, knowing that high tide will eventually come and save it. Or as much faith as the reed, which, dying for lack of light, knows that the sun will rise in a few hours. Or as much faith as the tadpole, which is helplessly hunted down by all the fish—that someday it will gain limbs and become a frog which hunts down bugs for itself. Is that so much to ask? If all the rest of God’s creatures have enough faith to see that the future always balances out—shall we alone despair? Shall we alone turn our backs on God? Why, when we alone are given the chance to see God’s will, to watch with awe all the patterns, all the symmetry, all the harmony between things—how is it that we alone are the first to turn on God, who alone of all creatures have a glimpse of how great God is? Is this not shameful? Is it not shameful to put out our own eyes and refuse to see how beautiful the will of God is? To stamp out our own souls before they can love how perfect the soul of the universe is? Instead of lagging behind the faith of a tadpole, or a starfish—shouldn’t our faith be infinitely stronger, knowing God is infinitely greater than any tadpole or starfish can comprehend? I challenge all of you gathered here today, I challenge you to have more faith than a tadpole. This is my challenge. If you cannot have more faith than even a tadpole, then I do not know what else to say. And with even the faith of a tadpole, we should always be willing to endure patiently until karma takes its full course, and sets right all things wrong. What shall it be then? Will you match a tadpole, and believe in a better day to come? Will you match a tadpole, and believe in a God that has not forsaken you? Will you match a tadpole, and believe that God is, and God is good? You must answer that in your heart before we gather again. I can only bring you so far, at some point you must stop borrowing my love and love God yourselves, or it’s all for naught, no matter what I say. At some point you can’t rely on my faith, you must believe yourselves that God is great. At some point you can’t expect me to explain these things anymore, you have to be capable of explaining them yourself, of answering your own questions, and knowing your own beliefs are true and right and good and to be kept no matter what happens or who tries to change them. God is everywhere, everything, and everyone. All of you can find the Dao, the spirit of us all, if you just search out your own hearts, as I speak to you simply because I have searched out my own. It would be better if I didn’t even have to tell you these things, because they are all waiting for you to find in your own hearts, and they will be that much more precious to you, when they are no longer my ideas but yours. Find God in your own hearts, so that next time we come together, I won’t have to teach you anything, but instead we can all learn from each other.”
  Hei smiled as he left the temple. He poked Yue in the side. “You see, Yue, that’s a sermon.”
  She gave him the meanest possible frown. “Not one word, Hei! Not one word! My sermon was just fine, thank you very much. Anyone who says differently is going to have a black eye.”
  Pe Su Huang laughed. “Is it true that she sent a code through the temples? I never would have thought of it. By God I didn’t stand a chance between the two of you. I could’ve had a hundred thousand men and you’d still have found a way to win.”
  “Oh, not at all.” Hei smiled. “You could’ve won right away if you had only charged up the hill. Even if I’d driven you back, how could I have afforded that many losses? There would be no army left to win the next battle, and that would have been the end of it.”
  “But you knew I wasn’t going to attack. That’s the difference.”
  “I only guessed. If it didn’t work, there was no point anyway, so I chose to plan for the only viable future, because what’s the point of planning for an unviable future?”
  “By God, Hei. You need to hire some sergeant to just follow you around and write down everything you say. Then all the rest of us can study you and learn how to fight too.” Pe laughed.
  “That’s not me.” Hei protested. “That’s Go. At some point, when you’re trying to figure out a tricky situation, at some point, you just have to say to yourself—‘well, if it doesn’t go my way, I’ve already lost, so I might as well place the stone and hope it works.’ Any desperate player thinks the exact same thing as I do.”
  “Well, I’ll just let you two compliment each other, you seem so delighted by it.” Yue said with a twist and quickened her pace to get away from them.
  “Ouch.” Pe said. “She really hates me, doesn’t she?”
  “Give her time.” Hei said. “You earned her hate, after all.”
  “That’s really encouraging, Hei, thanks a lot. I feel better now.”
  “Hey, I call it like I see it. If you don’t like it, earn her love instead.”
  “But what if she can’t forgive me? What if it’s sunk too far into her? You don’t just forget these things.”
  “What are your intentions?” Hei asked. “Say she doesn’t forgive you, in that case, would it be pointless to deserve her forgiveness? Say she never loves you, do you intend to betray me then and go back to Ch’i?”
  “No.” Pe said.
  “Then it doesn’t matter anymore, does it? It doesn’t matter what she does or how she feels. The only thing that matters is what you can control, which is whether you choose to be someone worth loving, worth forgiving, and worth trusting. If you do that, maybe she won’t forgive you, but at least you can forgive yourself. And, for one, I’ll forgive you. And, for another, God will forgive you too. You won’t have to be a cockroach next time around.”
  Pe laughed. “Always a bonus, that. But why such a difference? Your sister and you are. . .well. . .I’ve never seen two people so close before in all my life. I killed your father just as I killed her father, your brother just as I killed her brother. And yet you say you’ll forgive me, and it looks like she never will.”
  “. . .once you’ve hurt everyone who has ever loved you as much as you possibly could. . .it’s hard to condemn others who are only willing to hurt complete strangers.” Hei said. “If there’s anyone Yue should never forgive, it’s me. I left her alone when she needed me most. Because I walked away she had to face all this pain alone. And the moment she forgives me for that, I turn around and hurt her again, and arrange her marriage without even mentioning it to her.”
  “If it’s that bad. . .maybe it would be better just to call it off.” Pe sighed.
  “You would do that?” Hei looked at him, surprised.
  “It’s not that huge a sacrifice. I can’t imagine being married to someone whose sole goal in life will be to make me as miserable as she is to be that ideal.”
  “As you say. But it’s not just about you and her. It’s about whether our two kingdoms will ever grow to trust and accept one another. It’s about stopping another war over the exact same thing that caused this one. How will that happen without this marriage? It’s the only way. As you said, promises are no better than the paper they’re written on. There has to be something real if we want a real peace.”
  “Do you think it’s worth it, loving someone who hates you?” Pe asked.
  “Yes.” Hei said. “Yes, I think it’s worth it. Love is always worth it.”

Chapter 17

  Yue watched the rain from the safety of her tent. For the first time it was raining instead of snowing. Soon the snow would melt and the rivers would swell and all of Liu-Yang would become one giant mud pit, and the rice would be planted and drink up all that water and spring would give us another year of plenty. But all of that rice will be taken from us or prevented from even growing so that Pi can control the market and enrich only his people and leave us all to starve. He actually wants us to starve, he hates how many Liuyans there are. He hates that Pi has less people and less rice and less wealth than we do and he’s going to cut us down until we’re lower than him because that’s what evil does, they don’t try to build up, they just cut everything else down. And Hei is acting like friends to that man because he needs Tang’s army if we are going to free Liu-Yang from famine and destitution and the plague that always follows and a future of who knows how many years of pain and servitude. I can’t blame him for that, he is the Emperor and he has to do whatever he can for our people, I know that. Hei is doing the right thing but I can’t stand watching it. I won’t and I will not forgive that man for his part in all this. He is just as bad as the other two. So what if he’s our ally now, that’s only because he’s always changing sides to get what’s best for Tang. If Ch’i made a better offer he’d just change sides again. Isn’t it even worse that he’s our ally now? He’s not just evil but unreliable too. Isn’t it even worse if he regrets being our enemy like he says? That he feels bad about it? That just means he’s not only evil but knew he was the whole time and still did nothing about it. At least the other people are consistently evil. At least our enemies think what they’re doing is right. Even if Hei has to be courteous to the man he shouldn’t be so friendly, like he genuinely respected him as a person. He spends all his time with that man planning the campaign and talking about who knows what. It’s almost impossible to see him alone anymore, Hei always finds ways to make me be with both of them, even though he knows I hate that man. I know I’m the princess and so it’s my duty to be courteous too, but I’m only fourteen and I don’t have to act like a princess if I don’t want to, and I will not forgive him for making my mother cry. I wish Hei would understand that I can’t be a proper princess and it would be better to just keep us apart because whenever I’m with that man I just want to hurt him as best I can and it’s hard to keep any decorum at all.
  A shadow came squishing through the mud, turning into the very brother she’d been thinking of. “It was bad enough marching through the snow, now there’s no chance at all of moving anywhere. We’re going to have to wait until the rainy season ends. Our wagons can’t do anything in this mud, our horses will just sink right to the bottom of the earth and drown in this weather.” Hei said, smiling to see her.
  “That long? Do we have supplies to feed our army while we just sit here?” Yue asked, concerned.
  “It’s no problem. With Tang’s granaries and our ships we have as much supply as we want. We’ve only got one chance at this campaign, and I’m not going to start it until the weather’s good. Tang understands as well. Besides, it’s best if we give the peasants a chance to plant their crops before we go marching across it and killing each other. Whoever wins, if we don’t plant a good crop this season, what’s the point? Even if Pi gets to keep all the rice, I want Liu-Yang to have a future.”
  Yue smiled. “You’re right. I didn’t think far enough ahead. Why did you come? I haven’t gotten a chance to see you for a while.”
  “Well, yes, I guess I didn’t come to talk about the weather.” Hei took off his coat and grabbed a cushion to sit on. Yue had a comfortable enough tent. Probably nothing like she’d ever had to deal with before, but she’d never complained. In the end, how great was living in a palace compared to being free to see the rest of the world? Yue probably was happier with this tent anyway.
  “Yue, I need to ask you something. Why do you avoid Tang so much? Why not give him a chance?” Hei looked at her determinedly.
  “I’m sorry, I know it’s wrong.” Yue blushed, sitting down as well. “I wish I could be courteous to him because I know we need him, but I just can’t. So avoiding him is the best I can do. I wish you wouldn’t try and bring us together so often.”
  “But you don’t even know him. What if you didn’t have to be courteous because you genuinely liked him?” Hei asked.
  “I know enough. I know what he did and why he did it. That’s all I need to know.” Yue said.
  “If you look at it honestly, if you were in his place, couldn’t you see the position he is in? He is the King of Tang, he’s supposed to protect his people, and how could he protect his people if at any moment we could cut them off? Isn’t that an understandable worry?” Hei asked.
  “No. If you attacked everyone who could possibly hurt you, then you would have to kill everyone in the world before you were safe, and it would always be justified. That’s ridiculous. We didn’t do anything to him and he attacked us, without declaring war or anything. Just attacked us for existing.” Yue said.
  “’We didn’t do anything’ you say,” Hei navigated. “But suppose if we did do it, it would be too late for Tang to do anything about it? Suppose we didn’t sell him any rice, or allow him to trade with Pi, or anyone else, and he couldn’t get any food or silk or anything from anywhere—wouldn’t it be too late to be angry then? Wouldn’t it be too late to retaliate? What’s the point of waiting until we do it, if, when we do it, then you’re already dead? How can you wait for something like that? Suppose it were Liu-Yang, and somebody had a magic thread, with scissors poised, and all they had to do was cut it and everyone in Liu-Yang dies. Do you do nothing, because, after all, the guy with the scissors hasn’t cut it yet, and hasn’t done anything to us? Isn’t that irresponsible?” Hei asked.
  “Then I would try to find out the character of the guy with the scissors, and if he was a good person like our father, then I would trust him not to hurt us even though he could because he wouldn’t want to.” Yue said.
  “And if the guy with the scissors isn’t going to have the scissors forever? If someone else stole the scissors from him? Or the person slated to inherit the scissors wasn’t as trustworthy? How long will you trust one person after another, betting everything on one guy’s character after another, with no second chance if you ever bet wrong? Isn’t that unfair to Liu-Yang, that you will bet all their lives so recklessly, so many times, over and over?” Hei asked.
  “You’re twisting things. Was Rin evil then? Was he going to starve Tang to death? Were you going to?” She glared. “Father wasn’t going to, we weren’t going to, why would our children do that? Do good people raise evil children? Could he trust making that gamble over and over? Yes. He could. But if he really didn’t want to take that gamble anymore, couldn’t he have decided to start growing his own crops, even if the soil is worse and it would cost more, if he was that worried couldn’t he decide to become self-sufficient instead of attacking anyone else? It’s not a choice of gambling or not, there are always many choices, many different paths you can take. If he wanted silk, does he have to trade for it? I know Ch’in makes the best, cheapest silk, but it’s not like he couldn’t make his own. Or if he wants iron, I know Mae-Dong has the most and best, but Tang has mountains too, can’t they dig out their own iron? It’s Tang that keeps choosing to trade for all its goods, instead of making their own, just so they can get more things and cheaper, overall. And fine, even if they want to trade for stuff, to get more stuff and cheaper, at the risk of not having the stuff and having to rely on others—well, do they have to trade with our river? It’s not like they couldn’t make land routes to trade over, even if they’d be a little worse. So what? So you lose a little profit. Is that really starving to death like you say? Or if they want to conquer their way to the ocean, why us? Why not the southern barbarians? Why not attack them and control the peninsula? Aren’t the barbarians constantly raiding Tang? Aren’t they despicable people who deserve nothing better? Then why attack us instead of them? There were so many choices, it’s not like you say, it wasn’t ‘us or them.’ It was any number of choices, and because he’s a hateful, cruel, vile person, because he’s greedy and selfish and just wants what’s easiest, he chose to attack us when he saw us vulnerable, and preserve all the profit possible and get away with it just by conquering anyone who got in his way. So don’t justify him, Hei. I know you don’t even believe what you’re saying, because you’re not like him, and you would never attack anyone like he did.”
  “You’re right and you’re wrong.” Hei sighed. “Maybe it’s just because you’re a girl and don’t think of these things in the way we do, but. . .you have to understand, in the Middle Kingdom, we are all playing a great game, balancing ourselves off against each other. The goal of all seven kingdoms is to gain a better position relative to the other kingdoms. That’s all we think about. All diplomacy, all trade, all war, all peace, all negotiations, everything we do. The whole business of the Empire, is to try and gain a better position relative to the others. Even if Tang could find other ways, as you say, that would put him in a worse position, because he would be the poorer for it. Trading overland, or wasting his energy on barbarians when the real fight is with the other kingdoms, or not working at what Tang excels at, and instead trying to contain its entire economy within itself--that would weaken Tang. And no King of Tang will ever do anything that would weaken Tang, there’s just no way. And attacking us, gaining control of his own trade, getting a new boost of land and people. . .this is what it’s all about, in a way, he had to do it. Anyone who passed up that opportunity would be doing a disservice to his country and his posterity. Everyone expects you to always be searching for a way to put yourself in a better position. If you don’t, that’s like treason. It’s a war out there. We’re all trying to devour each other, to become the one Empire again, the next dynasty. Nobody says it but we all know it. We’re always at war and always out to gain relative to one another. When you say stuff like, ‘we didn’t do anything to him.’ That’s thinking of it one way. But another way is, we’re always doing our best to destroy them and they’re always doing their best to destroy us, and it’s not a matter of what’s particularly going on, it’s just one continuous war forever.”
  “But how can you think that?” Yue was stunned. “How can we stand to live if it’s like that? Isn’t that too terrible? That’s just too cruel. The Dao is harmony. What happened to that? Harmony, not eternal war. Don’t we believe in the Dao? Isn’t that our goal? Not gaining relative to each other? Isn’t it to be like the Dao? Isn’t that all we really want? Whatever position we’re in. . .well, who cares? What if everyone else were stronger than us? Or richer? Or bigger? Or whatever? Who really cares about that? Isn’t that just a bunch of junk? We aren’t alive to see who can accumulate the most and be the fattest or impregnate the most women or whatever—what the hell is that? Is that all you guys want in life? Is that the great game? Is that the prize you all want to win? Does it really matter who wins, who’s in the better position? Isn’t what you really care about. . .isn’t all you really want is. . .aren’t you living for me. . .and your wife. . .and the children you’re going to have. . .and the chance to see the stars at night. . .or fields of flowers. . .or reading the sutras and thinking about God. . .I mean. . .don’t you know that all I really care about is how much I love you, and Liu-Yang, and that all I want is for everyone to be happy? Isn’t that more important? And how can some eternal war get any of that? How can you take that from anyone else? Will you understand the sutras any better if you steal them from Ch’i? Or will your wife love you if you steal enough jewels for her? Or will you steal the mountains from Mae-Dong and stick them in Liu-Yang so we can admire the view instead of them? Can you really take anything from anyone that matters in any way at all?”
  Hei looked away from her eyes, trying to come up with an answer. She was right. There was no excuse, in the end, for pretty much everything all men were trying to get from each other, or what women were trying to get from their men, or what women were trying to get from each other. There was no justification for any of these wars, these crimes, these tricks, these deceptions and games, pretty much everything everyone did for the majority of their lives, most of it was unjustifiable and utterly wrong. But it was so hard to be the one good person in a sea of evil. It was so hard to find reasons to be good when evil was prospering all around, when nobody measured things in terms of harmony and symmetry but instead everything was measured by wealth and power. How can you expect Tang to see above everything he’d grown accustomed to. . .how can you expect him to be as good as you. . .when nobody is as good as you are and nobody thinks like you at all? How can you forgive him when in the end. . .really none of us can be forgiven because we’re all this terrible and that really is all we want, to get fat and impregnate women, isn’t that what this is all over, in the end? Isn’t that our ultimate goal? Whether it’s trading rights or rice monopolies or trying to unify the country under one dynasty or whatever, doesn’t it all equate to getting fat and having a harem? Isn’t that what this is all for? Isn’t it all on the same level as that, however refined?
  “I want to be like the Dao. I don’t want to conquer the world. All I really wanted was to love my wife and be like the Dao. But somehow I’m back here again, and I have to be Emperor, and the duty of an emperor is to strengthen the Empire, not be like the Dao. I think all of us. . .all the rulers of the Middle Kingdom. . .we’re all trapped by one another. . .if just one of us stopped fighting, then we would be crushed by the others and be thought just that much more foolish. You see, there’s no way to stop the cycle, because if you try to stop it, you’re just the next victim, food for the others. We all have to fight so long as the rest of us are fighting, don’t you see? We can’t be good, we can’t do the right thing, because right now, the way things are. . .it would be suicide. Maybe. . .maybe if we fought long enough and enough of us died. . .maybe if the war became so horrible that we could all agree to prefer peace. . .maybe then we could stop. But. . .for now. . .please understand. . .what Tang had to do. . .and what I had to do.”
  “What? What did you do?” Yue was petrified with fear. If what he was saying was what it sounded like he was saying. . .Hei would never do that. Never, ever. Not in a million lives. Hei wouldn’t  
“I promised your hand to the king of Tang. If we win the war. . .you have to marry him. . .and go back with him to Manching. . .for the rest of your life.” Hei breathed.
  Yue Fang Jong stared at her brother in disbelief. “How could you do this to me? You marry me to my father’s murderer? Is this what I deserve from you, when all I’ve ever done is love you?”
  Hei shook his head, stood up and tore his eyes away from his sister’s. “You never did anything to deserve any pain ever in your entire life. No matter how much you hate me, I’ll always hate myself more, okay? Nobody can ever hate me more than I hate myself. You were the best sister anyone could have.” He grabbed his coat and retreated back into the rain.

  Han Shao, King of Pi, tried his best to keep a civil tone. “But surely you will help me stop Tang now that he has betrayed us and joined with the rebels?”
  “I am sorry, but it can’t be helped. Who can blame Tang for siding with the rebels when you refuse to return him his rightful share? I told you it was only until he returned, and now that he has returned, you won’t give him his rightful share.”
  “But he broke the treaty first! He sided with Liu-Yang against us! How can I give him back the land if he intends to return it to Liuyans?”
  “Did he really break the treaty? Was there any provision in the treaty saying, ‘once you own your land, you are not allowed to give it back to Liuyans if you so choose?’ Tell me where that is written, and I’ll agree that he broke the treaty.” Ch’i said.
  Han ground his teeth. “It’s implied when you agree to wipe out a country that you aren’t going to just recreate it the next day, or have any further dealings with it, or make alliances with it, or join with its army.”
  “Treaties are treaties, they don’t imply anything. If we had agreed to more than the treaty, then it would’ve been written in the treaty.” Ch’i said, patiently. “What I know for certain was in the treaty, was that you wouldn’t try to seize Tang’s land as well as your own. Quite clearly it was written that you would receive the Liu river basin, and Tang would receive the Yang river basin. It perplexes me that you now construe that to mean you should have both. Who wouldn’t go to war with you, being similarly treated?”
  “Then you intend to ally with Tang against me?” Han asked in fury.
  “Oh, of course not, after all, you’ve always honored the agreement as far as I was concerned. I have no wish to pick fights where I’m not involved. Neither Tang nor you have done me any wrong, and I appreciate that so much that I intend to sit quietly no matter what happens.”
  “You had this planned from the beginning.” Han growled. “You wanted Tang and me to fight each other from the very beginning, you aren’t out to get Liu-Yang, you’re out to destroy us all, aren’t you?”
  “Goodness, no. How could I have planned for you to betray Tang? Or for Tang to relinquish his claim back to Liuyans? I find all of this quite astonishing and am chagrined to find how hard it is to be honest with each other in these days.” Ch’i replied, calm as ever.
  “You always have the answers. You always have reasons. But someday you’ll choke on them. Someone is going to stop you. Karma reaches even you.” Han Shao said, helpless to do more. He couldn’t afford Ch’i as his enemy when Tang already outnumbered him. Who would have thought he wouldn’t fight the rebels but instead recruit them? How could I have foreseen that? That’s ridiculous. And now it’s all falling apart. I was in the strongest position and now I’m in the absolute worst position and all because they didn’t fight and who on earth doesn’t fight after all they’d done to each other that’s insane.
  “I am perfectly aware of the extent of karma’s reach. It seems to me it has taken more exception with you than me, but I’m always glad to be reminded of God’s sway over all that we do.” Ch’i said, smiling. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to administer my state, and you have to prepare your army, do you not? I shall be eager to see you again in happier times.”
  Han Shao didn’t even give that a response. He did have a campaign to conduct. Once the rains ceased and they could move again. It wasn’t all that much of a difference in numbers. And besides, he was on the defensive. He could choose the battlefield. That was advantage enough to make up for numbers. With the chaos of war it could easily go either way. Ch’i could be smug now, but once Tang was beaten, there was plenty of time to soak in a year or two of wealth from both river valleys, enough to arm and man a whole new army, one capable of taking out Ch’i as well. All he had to do was beat Tang here. Ch’i never acted. Ch’i would wait and wait and never attack even with the disadvantage because ultimately they were cowards who never fought their own battles. Beat Tang and Ch’i would fall like an overripe fruit, under the weight of its own corruption and effeminacy. There would be time enough for revenge then.
“I underestimated Tang. Very resourceful, making a deal with the Liuyans. A man who can swallow his pride and seek only what is advantageous, that is a dangerous enemy.” Min Kei Rok said to his advisers.
  “Shall we have him killed and pose as Pi assassins?” The spymaster asked.
  “No, no. Assassination is messy. It’s always better to turn people to your advantage than kill them. The better Tang is, the better tool he’ll make, no? Supposing Tang wins this coming campaign, he’ll be weakened enough, that he’ll have no intention on regaining anything but his rightful river valley. Given how aggressive Pi is, it would even be better if Tang won. That is a far more peaceful conclusion to all this.”
  “But what of their alliance with the rebels?”
  Ch’i waved his hand. “Will Tang really give them back the Yang river once he has his hands on it? Ridiculous. That’s all he’s wanted since the beginning. And he outnumbers the rebels three to one. Once he has control of the territory he’ll betray the Liuyans and destroy them. Only desperation keeps them from seeing that. Clever to deal with the stronger enemy, Pi, first. But make no mistake, that treaty is as illusory as the one between Pi and Tang was.”
  “But what if Tang genuinely has made a deal with the rebels? Won’t they converge on us next?”
  “If so, the worst that could happen is they drive us from Liu-Yang. This hellhole would almost be a pleasure losing. Even all winter there was no snow. Disgusting. And so long as Liu-Yang is divided between itself and Tang, the goal is achieved, Liu-Yang won’t be a power capable of challenging us for the foreseeable future.”
  “You seem to have accounted for everything then.” One adviser said, reassured.
  “Naturally.” Ch’i folded his hands contentedly. All he had to do was sit and watch to decide who he would have to deal with after all. Two to one Tang won. Pi was too stupid to win against Pe Su Huang. Too weak willed. Pe had been much angrier and more impulsive when they had met. Much more interesting.

Chapter 18

  “In the end God is indifferent to the fate of man. Whether we’re happy or sad, alive or dead, prosperous or poor, what is that to God? To eternity? God isn’t interested in the continuous flux of our world, only in the absolutes that underscore it. When man searches out those absolutes and cares about them, the things that are everywhere, forever, and changeless, then they have aligned their will with God’s, and are blessed. When man’s will is one with God’s, man is as indifferent as God concerning the fate of man, and that indifference is the panacea, the answer to all pain, all suffering, all the ‘evils’ of the world. The moment you become indifferent to pain, it no longer exists, the moment you realize no evil can truly touch you, no evil truly matters, or touches anything but the surface world of flux and illusion, that it can’t ever reach the pure, perfect absolutes that the Dao continuously upholds—then the question, “If God is good how is there evil in the world?” has an answer. Where God is good there is no evil, and where there is evil there is no God. God is the God of absolutes, of internals, of the hidden things and the deeper reality, beyond the veil of illusion and doubt. God is not the God of flux, of surfaces, of pettiness. They are unworthy of God’s notice. They are indifferent. God is the spirit of the universe. The principles of nature, of life, of existence. God isn’t the consequences, the accidents, the mere shadows, the reactions to those principles. That is unworthy of perfection. We pray so that we can align our will with God’s, and scale to the same lofty heights as God’s—for that crown of unstained air—so that we too can discover that all externals are indifferent. We do not pray so that God’s will aligns with ours. That is unworthy of God. We do not pray for God to concern itself with externals, to aid us in one effort or another, for it to be sunny or rainy, for the dice to roll your way, for a cure to some disease or the life of some friend. God is indifferent to all of these things. To even ask such a thing of God is an insult to the idea of God. To ask such a thing means you have no conception of God.
  “Symmetry and harmony are absolutes. We know this because everywhere we look, we see the symmetry of nature and the balance of forces always returning unto themselves. We know harmony is an absolute because nature is always flowing and never contradictory. Every part of the universe interacts with every other part, peacefully, lawfully, under the auspices of a consistent, eternal will. These absolutes are so basic and powerful that often the Dao itself is called symmetry and harmony. But the Dao is the creator of symmetry and harmony. And all absolutes. Time is without beginning and without end—this is known because otherwise there would not be symmetry—but symmetry is an absolute, which means it must be universal, constant, and forever. Space is without beginning and without end. Otherwise there would not be symmetry, but symmetry is an absolute. It is an ugly thought to think of something that didn’t use to be, suddenly becoming. Or something that is, suddenly ending and beyond that nothing. Those are ugly thoughts because they are not symmetrical. Our wills are naturally repulsed by them. We all know from our very hearts that something cannot come from nothing, nor something turn into nothing. Something is something is something, forever and without end. That is why the universe is always in flux, but never more or less, only changing, always changing from one state to the next, but always staying the same. That is the division between externals and internals. What changes are externals. What stays the same are internals. That is the division between body and spirit. Are symmetry and harmony the only absolutes? Who can say? It is very difficult for our minds to comprehend the fullness of God, which is infinite. But our minds do comprehend these two absolutes. The human perception of symmetry is called Beauty. Beauty is the internal that we reach when we align our will with God’s will of symmetry. The human perception of harmony is called Love. Love is the internal that we reach when we align our will with God’s will of harmony. Love is the act of affirmation, love is the binding of your spirit with another spirit, just as the spirit of the universe binds together everything in the universe. The understanding of God and its absolutes, its principles, the perfect internals that never change and rule this world, which is only a shadow, a reflection, a reaction of those principles—that is Truth. Truth is when we align our will with God’s will of Being. In all my searches I have found these three internals, these three perfect absolutes, that are the connections between Man and God. Through these absolutes, we align ourselves with the absolutes of God, and sharing the same will, are good, as God is good. Are, in fact, holy, as God is holy.
  “Evil is suffering. There is nothing more or less to it. It is not evil to lack truth, lack love, or lack beauty. That is simply non-good. Non-good is not evil. Non-good is zero. There is no true opposite to Good. Nothing is equivalent to good, or on the same level, because good is the absolute, meaning all absolutes are good. Evil is in an entirely different sphere, a lesser sphere. Evil does have an opposite, which is happiness. To the holy soul happiness and suffering are indifferent. That is the hardest part of overcoming yourself and aligning your will with God’s. Can this be done? Perhaps partially, but so long as we have bodies, our bodies will always prefer happiness to suffering. That is why we are born and reborn, so that our bodies can be refashioned to fit our spirits. A spirit that is only fit for a cockroach, is born into a cockroach. A spirit only fit for a tree, becomes a tree. A spirit fit for nothing at all is left in the abyss, until it reforms into something worthy of a body. A spirit too worthy for any body goes to heaven, and escapes the cycle of birth and rebirth. So long as we have a body, we will never have truly perfect souls, indifferent to happiness or suffering or the fate of man, caring only for absolutes and universals and internals. If we approach that holiness in our lives, however, in our next life our spirit will be free of its body, and able to align itself wholly with God. In Heaven the holy soul joins with God and becomes the creator, the upholder of the very absolutes it loves. This is karma. Whatever your spirit wills, through birth and rebirth, the spirit gains the appropriate form to undertake. This is the power of will. Karma is not a punishment, karma is always a reward—karma is getting what you wish for.
  “To what extent should we avoid suffering and seek happiness? Properly, happiness should always be preferred to suffering so long as it does not come at the expense of an absolute. Suffering is evil, it would be best if it did not exist at all, ever, in any way. There is no reason to suffer nor any purpose to it. Nothing good comes from suffering—nothing good comes from evil, evil is evil is evil. The only thing anyone can think of pain is that it should end. Anyone who wishes pain or suffering on anyone, themselves or anyone else—or sanctions such pain or suffering on anyone, themselves or anyone else—or justifies pain or suffering for anyone, themselves or anyone else—is an ugly, wretched, evil soul. Should evil people suffer? No. That is evil. Should people who cause suffering suffer? No. No one should suffer. Ever. For any reason. People who cause suffering to others should be made incapable of hurting others. The way to end evil is to stop it, not create more. For the health of the spirit, seek truth, beauty, and love. Seek God. The spirit will always be happy when it reaches such pure heights. No evil can touch those things, or take them away from a spirit that seeks them. For the health of the body, seek happiness, whatever form suits you, so long as it does not draw your eyes away from the good, from internals, from what’s important. Most of all avoid suffering, which is pointless, cruel, terrible, wretched, and ugly. Never wish suffering on anyone, neither you nor anyone else. Never do anything for the purpose of hurting another, whether in word or deed. If another is causing harm, stop him from causing harm, do not seek to harm him.”
  “With the love of God, all things become sweet and charming, with the love of God, it is easy to be happy, therefore do not seek happiness, but seek God, and you will find happiness. What happens if the body seeks happiness more than the spirit seeks God? Soon the body confuses the pleasing with the good, and feasting on the pleasant, the spirit starves and pines and shrinks for lack of the good. Those who seek happiness become fat, drunk, pregnant, drugged, diseased, addicted, brainless, worthless. Confuse the pleasant with the good, and what becomes of you? The spirit, which is used to feeding on the infinite, the universal, the absolute—must attempt to possess as much in the world of illusion and surfaces. It is pleasant to have gold, well then, I will need infinite gold to be pleased. Nothing less will do. However much gold you have, it is always better to have more. Seek gold then. However much you find, you will find it lacking. You will not be satisfied. You will be thirstier than ever, the more you drink. The more you eat, the hungrier you become. If food tastes good, then it is always better to have more food. There is no end to pleasure. The quest for the pleasant is a quest for an absolute, but in the world of flux. The spirit has been torn away from its proper pursuits, and been given the hopeless task of satisfying itself on mere mists and shadows--the frivolous, the meaningless, the finite, the changing, the limited. Anyone who seeks happiness shall never reach it. The pleasant is not an absolute, yet only absolutes are worthy of the soul. Seek God and you shall find pleasantry enough, and more importantly crave no more.”
“Suffering poisons the soul. End suffering, so that you can find God once more. Suffering distracts the spirit, weakens the spirit, seeds doubts and worries in the spirit. The suffering body is a vulnerable soul. Victims of lies are stolen away from Truth. From God. Victims of hatred are stolen away from Love. From God. Suffering is the Devil because it steals our hearts away from God. End suffering and souls will rise of their own accord to their proper sphere. Therefore, do not seek happiness, happiness will come of its own accord. Root out suffering, or it shall destroy you and those dear to you. The goal of the spirit should always be God. The goal of the body should always be to root out suffering. To crush the infamy.”
  “A strong soul can endure suffering and still live in its proper sphere of internals. A weak soul cannot endure suffering and will quickly descend to the world of externals, to wishing above all to find remedies to external pains, rather than remedies to internal fulfillment. It is not evil to be weak, but it is pitiable. Therefore, those with strong souls, become shepherds. Help the weak. Bring the weak back to God. Keep their hearts and spirits on the good, allow them to endure suffering just as you can endure suffering, or they will be destroyed. We build temples so that the strong souls can care for the weak. God is indifferent to temples. God is indifferent to priests, to monks, and all their like. But temples, priests, and monks, can bring people to God. Because of that, they are blessed—“

  “What are you reading?” Pe entered the tent, stomping the mud off his boots. “Whale oil is not free, just because I happen to be supplying it, you know.”
  “I’ll tell you what.” Hei looked up with a smile. “I’ll tally up a list of everything you’ve cost Liu-Yang in seizures, lives, and opportunity cost, and then I promise I won’t take one ko more from the supplies we’ve been receiving.”
  “Right, right, I guess I had that one coming.” Pe bit his lip. “Yue won’t leave her tent. She won’t say anything. She just stays in there and cries. Her attendants tell me she won’t eat much of anything. They say she looks terrible. What am I supposed to do? All I have to do is go to her, and tell her I won’t marry her. Then all of this will end. How can I marry her like this?”
  “I don’t understand. It’s nothing new. Princesses are always married off to whomever the marriage helps Liu-Yang most. She’s known that her whole life. That this would happen sooner or later. If father had been the one who told her she wouldn’t be resisting. She’s counting on me giving in because it’s me. Well I’m the emperor now, I have to make the hard decisions. She has to learn that when it comes to running this empire, I can be exactly as hard as father. She won’t beat me.” Hei said, scowling.
  “I can’t marry a corpse, Hei.” Tang complained. “If she’d rather die than marry, then there’s nothing we can do.”
  “We’ll just see whether she’d rather die than marry.” Hei said. “She knows as well as I that this is best for Liu-Yang. She must know that. We’ll just see if she’s selfish enough to prefer herself to all of Liu-Yang.”
  “Why shouldn’t she be selfish enough?” Pe said angrily. “You were. You know Hei, I respect a lot about you, but this is really low. You know that? This is damned low! She’s 14 and her life is over. That may be what’s best for Liu-Yang, but what do you care about more? What’s best for Liu-Yang or your own damned sister?”
  “I’m the emperor! I can’t afford to care about anything but Liu-Yang!” Hei shouted.
  “I tell you what, forget about it. I don’t want to marry her. How’s that? Take your filthy river and keep your damned sister, I want no part in it. Screw it all, why should I fight Pi? I’m going home and taking my army with me. Free your own damn country.” Pe said.
  “What is it you want from me?” Hei pleaded. “What am I supposed to do? Twenty million people are relying on me. If I don’t win this war millions of my people will starve to death and die. Millions of the people I am supposed to protect are going to die, Pe! Every one of those millions have sisters too! Why should my sister matter more than theirs? Why should she be happy and they have to die! Pi has promised to choke us out! To take our food and leave nothing left for us! If I don’t win this war by the harvest Liu-Yang is finished!”
  Pe stopped, struck silent. He put a hand to his head and rubbed his temples. “Sorry. I didn’t mean that. I agreed to free your country and I will. But I just can’t stand hurting her. You don’t understand. I hate myself for hurting her. For the past year now all I’ve ever done is hurt her. That’s been like my job or something. And I’m sick of it, Hei. I’m sick of it. Tell her we don’t have to marry.”
  “You have to marry. I need this alliance so I don’t have to fight this war ever again. Before this war, father tried to avoid all alliances, tried to just stay out of the politics and just sell rice. Well, it didn’t work. All it did was turn everyone against us, even though we didn’t do anything. It’s because we did nothing that they turned on us, because we didn’t play the game, we lost. I have to play the game too. I’m trapped into this stupid game, Liu-Yang is trapped into it. We have to play and play. With your alliance, people will be afraid to attack us. Or if they do attack us, we won’t be so hopelessly outnumbered. Without your alliance, even if I win this war, in five years I’ll just fight it again and this time lose like I’m destined to. There’s no way this flat, peaceful, farming country can stop all three of you. Isn’t this ridiculous? Twenty million people, and here I have a force of twenty thousand to show for it. Liuyans can’t protect ourselves, we’re pathetic. We can grow rice, and we can trade with our ships. But there’s no way we can protect ourselves, on our own, with people like this. We have no warriors. No warrior culture. No mountain men. No continuous border wars with barbarians to keep our edge up. No sense of urgency. The next time this happens, we’ll just lay down and die, just like we did this time. We need allies if we want to exist.”
  “I can be your ally without marrying her.” Pe said.
  “We both know you can’t.” Hei replied. “It just doesn’t work like that. . .when the day comes, and you’re married to a princess of Ch’i. . .you won’t be my ally.”
  “Then I won’t marry a princess of Ch’i. God, Hei, you act as though there’s never any choice.”
  “There isn’t. There’s never any choice. There’s only one right choice and you have to make it because it’s right.” Hei sighed. “It’s just Go. I have no choice but to play it in the right spot, or it’s over.”
  “That may be. Fine, yes, but how do you know you’re right? Neither of us want to marry! How can you know it’s right if we do!”
  “You wouldn’t be staying unless you wanted to marry her. Because you love her you care about Liu-Yang. That’s the only reason you cared when I told you how many of us were going to die. You didn’t care about any of us until you met her.” Hei said.
  Pe blinked. How on earth did he know that? “I would stay anyway. . .I made a deal. . .”
  “But that deal included you marrying her.” Hei said. “Even if you stayed this one time, you’d never help me again. You’d probably hate me for taking advantage of you. Please, I’ve thought this over so many times. It’s the only way.” Hei rubbed his eyes in emotional exhaustion.
  “You don’t trust me. In the end, that’s all you’re saying. You don’t trust me without Yue.” Pe said.
  “And why should I? Without her you’re as bad as them.” Hei said. “Without her, the moment after Pi is defeated, we’d be next, right? Isn’t that how it would work? That’s how the game is played.”
  Pe Su Huang bit his cheek. Damn him for being right. Damn him for saying it to my face, even though it’s true. Damn him for seeing right through me. “Have it your way then. What were you reading anyway? It’s just a few days before we can move again. Scouts bring anything important?”
  “Not scouts. The sutras.” Hei said. “I wanted them to have an answer. But their only answer is I shouldn’t care. If my sister hates me, oh well. If I hate myself, oh well. If millions of Liuyans die, oh well. We’re all just illusions anyway.”
  “That can’t be what they say. The sutras are written by the holy men who saw God.”
  “Yeah, well, once you see God, everything else doesn’t count for much, I guess.” Hei shrugged flippantly. “If I could rip out my heart I guess I could see God too.”
  “You’re tired. Tired and stressed. None of this matters if we don’t beat Pi. Let’s just worry about that, okay? Just sleep and eat and win this war and the rest will work itself out.” Pe said.
  “Yeah, sure.” Hei said, yawning. “Good night then.”
  Pe Su Huang walked out of the tent with a worried frown. Hei Ming Jong. You’re taking too much of this on yourself. Everything everyone does, you take responsibility for it, you atone for it. You hurt your sister because I’m not to be trusted. You make alliances because you know others want to attack you. You leave your wife and hear nothing from her since because others came to ask for your help. And you’re atoning for all of it. For your sister, your wife, your father, it’s all your fault. But it’s crushing you, Hei. It’s crushing you. Nobody can hold that much and keep going. You think you’re invincible, that you can carry all the guilt in the world, and still do what’s right. Well, maybe you are. You’re a genius and you’re the best person I know. But you’re still just human. We all break, sooner or later. And you’re breaking, Hei. I can see it. Just please don’t break until after we win this war. I need you to keep your brain until then. That’s what he must be thinking too. Just holding it off until after he wins. Exactly the same thing. When I win I can afford to lose to the pain. Well God help you stay strong enough. If I destroy both you and Yue, then I really am a villain.

Chapter 19

  Hei Ming Jong’s hands shook. His throat was too constricted to swallow, no matter how many times he cleared it. Please God, watch over us today. If you are God and not the devil, let good and not evil prosper.
  “It’s the typical formation. The open half-moon. The tiger’s jaw. If we move into the center, they move on the rear and enclose us. If we move against a side, it swings and we’re just presented with the closed half moon instead.” Shea noted, commanding the right wing of Hei’s contingent.
The armies assembled on both sides were enormous compared to Hei’s men. Hei would barely make a difference in the battle, there were so many men. Tang and Pi both thought of this as a battle for control of their territory. Hei was just there. But it was the first time he’d ever commanded a battle. The first time he had ever fought at all. And it isn’t just my life, it isn’t even the lives of my troops, if I lose here, millions of people I’ve never heard of or seen before will die, and it will all be my fault. Please God deliver us from evil. It was so stupid, he knew God didn’t listen, but he couldn’t stop himself. It was all he could do. It was too much for him to handle alone.
“And from a closed half moon, you can only strike the center, and it retreats back into an open half moon, repeat ad infinitum.” Lu Huang shook his head. “ They’ll always have the maximum number of their troops engaged with the minimum number of ours. If their center and both flanks can fight just our center or just our flanks, they’re going to win.” Lu Huang didn’t sound that worried though. Maybe he trusted Hei’s judgment. Or maybe he knew they outnumbered the enemy and expected it to be easy. It didn’t matter if you outnumbered the enemy, if you’re attacking, you’re always at the disadvantage. But what else was there? There was no driving Pi out if you weren’t willing to attack him. Pi already has all the territory, what vital spot could we defend to make him attack us? To get any vital spot at all we must take it from him. Whichever one we marched towards, he was willing to gather his own troops to offer battle. Sooner or later we would have to do this. At least the ground is pretty even. A very simple battle on an open field. Pi probably doesn’t want to fight in a swamp again because we have the advantage of experience with it. Both Tang and us. Pi attacked in the rear and doesn’t know how to fight in a swamp. So the only thing left was an open field, or a city. But you couldn’t defend a city except with a portion of your forces, because if all your army was in one city, we’d just take all the others. But if you put men in every city, we would have destroyed one garrison after another with overwhelming numbers. The only way to concentrate your full power, then, was to marshal it on the open field. It was a fair enough trade off. Even ground but having to attack. Hei would have looked for a river to defend, stay on one side of the riverbank and let the enemy army split during the crossing, then attack the advance half. Textbook. But again if you just sat behind a river then we’d just go and take everything else instead. If you have all the territory you can’t defend just one part of it and expect to be attacked. It’s not like Go players invaded invincible cloud formations, they invaded the empty space. You just couldn’t fill up all the empty space quick enough to stop it. Since ultimately we’re fighting over next fall’s harvest, it’s not good enough to give up most of the space and just defend some one place with strength. We’re fighting over the farmland, which stretches across the whole nation, there wasn’t a vital point that just had to be had by both sides. No one farm was important, it was the amalgam that counted. Pi had no choice but to defend on the open field, then, because we wouldn’t attack anywhere else. Sort of like coming to a gentleman’s agreement to settle a dispute straightforwardly, without even having to give the challenge. Kind of him.
“Hei?” Lu Huang gave him a concerned look.
“Yes? What is it?” Hei blinked.
“We asked how you want us to deploy, how we’re going to break this half moon.”
“Full frontal assault on both flanks, disrupt the formation if one retreats faster than the other, throw the cavalry into the gap and split the formation apart. Devour each of the three segments independently from there. If the flanks move at different speeds, the center won’t be able to keep in formation with both, it’ll have to choose one or the other. So we’ve loaded up all our best men on one flank and intend to just tie up the other. Equal amount of men, Pi won’t see the difference, but there’ll be a difference. That difference is us. We’re all on their right flank. We have to push hard, sirs. Push them hard. If we can push them, just that little bit, if we can separate them from their center, Tang will do the rest.” Hei squeezed his hands together to try and get them to stop shaking. At least not in front of his generals.
“What if one flank holds and the other gives? Then our pursuing flank will end up fighting, alone, both the enemy center and flank.”
“If that happens their center will no long be protected by the half moon, instead of a 3-piece v, it would be an open triangle, and in an open triangle, the center is the most forward exposed. It will be hard fighting for a bit, but if the center gets into the fight, then it will have to fight all of us, not just one flank. I don’t want you to hesitate, even if you think it’s a trap and they want you to pursue. You must pursue as hard as you can and keep pushing. You have to trust us in that case, that if it’s a trap, we’ll get you out of it. We’re relying on you to push them back, so don’t hold back if you see them retreating, push them as hard as you can.”
“Yes sire. We’ll tell the men to push hard, sire.” Shea and Lu saluted, content that the plan was good and they could do their part.
“God go with you.” Hei saluted them back. He had no speech to give to his troops. They knew what they had to do, that this was the moment all their marching had been for. Since the day the three kings had invaded, eight months had passed. Since the fall harvest to the end of the spring monsoon and the beginning of summer. Not one of them had seen their homes or their loved ones in all eight months. Many of them had already died or been rendered useless from exposure or disease. Just by keeping an army in the field, day by day it shrunk like some invisible scythe was chopping them down. That’s why there was no way to keep a standing army, it would just disappear under its own weight. Luckily for Hei’s men, they had been dispersed at first, but Tang’s men had been on the march, back and forth and back again, almost continuously. It was why armies couldn’t go past a certain size, no matter how many men you had. Eventually you couldn’t supply them, or they died so quickly from disease that you might as well have just taken a smaller force to begin with. For every man who would die on the battlefield today, three or four or five would die from infections after the battle, or during all the marching before the battle. Sort of like the Dao showing that no matter how good we get at killing each other, it will always be better. Or however much we wanted each other dead, the Dao wanted us all dead even more. Stupid to be thinking like that when you need God on your side. But then again God isn’t on my side anyway, God wasn’t on father’s side, or Rin’s side, and God’s not on my side either. God doesn’t give a damn. I have to do this on my own. God doesn’t come to us, we have to come to God. It’s our problem, not the Dao’s. All problems are ours, God doesn’t have any problems. But even then, even then, why must there be disease killing people before they ever get a chance to live? That’s not fair. Sure, let us kill each other and of course that’s our problem, but why does God have to take the lion’s share with all these plagues? If I were God there would be no disease. How is God God if I can so clearly do a better job? It makes no sense. If I were God I would just blow the enemy away with lightning or something and then go back and live with my wife because I wouldn’t need to be emperor anymore and I wouldn’t have to give up everyone important in my life for the power to protect them. Can’t be helped. God’s will, not mine, that God is God instead of me. Hei smiled to himself. It was enough to get his hands to relax around the horse’s reins. It had been too muddy for anyone to drag out catapults, so he was in no danger of the battle reaching his observation post. But he was never worried about dying. All that meant was an end to his troubles. It would be far easier if he were the one leading the charge. Instead he would have to watch men die because he told them to. And if too many died, he would have to watch his country stripped to the bone because he hadn’t been smart enough to come up with a better plan. Far easier to be leading the charge than having to watch the result.
“It’s going to be okay, Hei.” A horse had made its way to his side. Staff sergeants waited at a respectful distance for any hint of an order. “This is our homeland. They won’t give up until the enemy breaks. They’re going to win.”
Hei looked at his sister. She sat on her horse as expertly as he did, tense and upright. The two of them watched as trumpets blared and drums rolled, and at once thousands of men began marching towards the enemy entrenchments.
Yue reached over and touched his hand. “We’ll win. We’re going to win, Hei.”
Hei didn’t say a word. In a few minutes they would be within crossbow range. No time to stop to shoot back, the spears would just have to keep charging forward. Death sentence for anyone in the front rank. Amazing that they knew that and were still willing to march forward. Insane courage to know that and still want to be in the first rank. To march forward knowing you have absolutely no chance of living through the battle. That wasn’t even fair of a commander to ask of his men. He should’ve come up with a plan that gave everyone at least a chance to live through it. Everyone deserved at least a chance to reach the other side. He should’ve drawn lots or only asked for volunteers or something. It wasn’t even crossbows who killed those men, I killed them because I knew the enemy had crossbows and told my men to attack anyway.
“They’ll win because they believe in you.” Yue said. She paused, biting her lip, summoning her courage for what she had to do. “I’ve been a fool, haven’t I? Here these men are willing to die, just to make a tiny little impact on the battlefield that might be enough to do just a little good for Liu-Yang. They were even willing to die when it was just us against Tang, they were willing to die just to stand up for what they believed, even when it was hopeless, even when it was just you and two thousand men. And here I’ve just been a little kid and even though I can do so much more for Liu-Yang, I’m not even willing to give so much less. I’m sorry, Hei.”
Something unwound around his heart. Like he could finally breathe again.
“I’ll marry him. He deserves whatever he wants for being on this battlefield today. I can do my part too. Just like you were willing to do your part when it was just two thousand men. I have to do my part too. I wanted to tell you that. That I understand. It just took me a while but I understand. So please forgive me.”
Hei watched the black streaks arch across the battlefield and descend at random on the advancing wave. Half a mile so it wouldn’t be very accurate, but before they could get within range they would probably get three more shots. God grant them a new life in happier times. It would be hard to hit those spearmen with any strength since Pi had managed to dig a bunch of ditches and put up a lot of stakes. That made a cavalry charge impossible, but even for footmen it would fragment the line and make everyone fight on their own without being sure of their rear. They just had to do it anyway. There was no better option left. They just had to win on bravery alone from here.
Yue turned over his palm and put her much smaller hand in his, neither sure who was reassuring whom. They watched side by side as the battle raged below. She guessed he was too worried right now to think about it, but she knew he’d heard, that he’d forgiven her, because he wasn’t nearly as tense as before. She knew they were finally together again like they were supposed to be, that he’d been waiting for her to come to and wouldn’t hold it against her once she did. He hadn’t wanted to hurt her before, and he didn’t want to punish her now, he was just doing what he had to do. I should’ve known better, I thought such terrible things of him and he was only doing what he had to do. Well, I understand now. It wouldn’t stop her, not this, and nothing else he did, she would believe in him next time and not turn away from him when he needed her. I will always, always love you Hei. In this life, and my next life, and all my lives forever. Because I promised, and the heart’s promise is the one promise you cannot break.


  Hei Ming Jong let his horse come to a tired halt, slowing from a trot back to a walk and being led in circles to cool itself down. Staff sergeants dismounted with equal relief. None of them had slept the past two days of pursuit. Whenever anyone had to halt for any reason, whether it was to cross a river or get a drink, Hei would be looking at them with a fiery gaze and keep repeating, “Press on. Press on!” Like the words alone could speed them up.
  The horses were like to die, but that was nothing compared to the men who had been sent straight from the battlefield back into their columns, with the cavalry being rushed from the heat of the charge into the rush of pursuit, trying to reach bridges before the enemy and cut them off, no matter what not to let them escape and reorganize to present a new line to the enemy behind them. The cavalry had been sending messengers at the beginning and end of each day, telling them the general direction of Pi’s retreat, giving the massive casualty figures of captured and killed as one group of flaggers after another was overtaken, insisting that they were continuously engaged with the enemy and moving at insupportable speeds and asking for relief, some other cavalry to be supplied or for the pursuit to be abandoned. Hei hadn’t listened, he had told them to cut off the enemy retreat so that the foot could finish them off, and offered nothing more than those same orders every time a messenger talked to him.
  The men led their horses to the stream to cool off and drink. The peasant cottages made a thin strip beside the stream, all of their fields irrigated by it and sunken under water for the summer while the stalks grew. They had come here on a rumor. If it were true, the battle was finally over.
  Hei winced as he knocked on the door. His arm had been cut to the bone in a skirmish the first night. He had kept riding further and further forward, urging any men he could find to press on and follow up their victory, until he had gotten ahead of his entire army and been ambushed by Pi’s rear guard. All the men who had accompanied him had fought to give him a chance to retreat, but there had been no time, it turned into a life or death struggle for both groups. It was the first time Hei had been in a real fight before, but he had been absolutely calm. His training had taken over and atop his horse it was easy to parry the attacks that reached him, considering everyone else was trying to keep him safe, and to finish off those that did reach him, considering they had pushed ahead of the rest of their men and were only on foot. But one of them had been extremely good, it was just luck that the point of the spear glanced off his bone instead of sunk in. Just luck that his arm had been cut cleanly and wouldn’t be infected and wouldn’t have to be amputated. Luck that it hadn’t been his sword arm so in the midst of the incredible pain he had managed to turn and kill the man before he stabbed again. And not one of the men with him had escaped either death or injury as well. It had been that close. Stupid and careless. Absolutely stupid of me to get that far ahead of my own men. Only the grace of God that I didn’t end up paying anything for it.
  But maybe it had payed off. Maybe he could go to sleep after this.
  An older man opened the door, nervously looking at Hei’s dirt and blood encrusted face, and all the men behind him looking just as bad.
  “We don’t have any food. Others have already come by and taken all our food. They’ve taken it all, so just go on. We don’t have any room for your wounded either. We’re poor, simple people who only have enough room for our own children to sleep, alright? We have nothing to do with this war, so just keep going.”
  “I’m sorry sir, but I heard that this village had some visitors last night, and that they hadn’t received a good welcome. I’d like to know the truth of it.”
  “I don’t know anything about that.” The older man ran his tongue over his teeth and looked back behind his door to his waiting family. “We’re simple people and we don’t have anything to do with this war.”
  “Come come, man, no harm will come to you. We’re the army of Liu-Yang. We’re here to protect you. It’s Pi that’s on the run, not us. You don’t have to be afraid anymore.”
  “What happens when you leave, eh? Where were you this past year anyway? Just leave us alone, why can’t all of you just leave us alone? We’re simple people and all you do is take our food and how do you expect my children to eat when you keep riding through and taking our food?”
  Hei sighed. This was no use. His left arm hurt terribly and he squeezed it tentatively with his right hand to stop the blood from creating so much pressure. If only for a bit it made it hurt less. “Pang Lei? Where are you?”
  “Sorry sir, he couldn’t keep up, he said he had to go back and try and get the wagons to keep up so that the men would have a chance to eat again in the next couple days.” A junior sergeant shouted from the stream.
  “Oh, blast it. Does anyone have food for this man’s family?” Hei said, clutching his arm with frustration.
  Officers looked at each other, checking their bags. For the past two days they hadn’t had anything except what their saddlebags had carried onto the battlefield. Most of them had already eaten whatever they had left. Officers started cursing and throwing out their blankets and canteens looking for food.
  “Here sir, I was going to save this in case you wanted a bite.” A young man said, presenting some apples and cheese. “I know it’s not much, but it’s all I have.” He looked down as though disappointed with himself that he hadn’t eaten even less.
  Hei took the apples and shoved them into the man’s hands. “Here! Food! We’re giving you the only food we have! Now is it true or not that a group of men visited here last night on the run?”
  The man looked at the meal with resignation. It was enough for a grown man to fill himself for a day, practically nothing divided the seven ways it would have to be. Well, he just wouldn’t eat. That would bring it down to six. “Last night, maybe seven men came riding in, they had fancy clothes but they were all dirty by now, and the one who looked like their leader asked for some food and lodging until they could leave again in the morning. . .well, we only had a little food left because before then cavalry had already rushed through, from two different sides, demanding food so that they could go out to fight each other again. . .and, well. . .we invited them all into a house and promised them food and when they went in. . . we set it on fire and when they tried to run out. . .we pushed them back in. . .and. . .well the leader, we stabbed him with a pitchfork. Two or three times because he wouldn’t stop screaming and trying to get out. We kept stabbing him until he stopped screaming. What else could we do? It was either us or them. We couldn’t afford to feed anyone else.”
  “Can I see him? The leader? He wasn’t burned to ash or anything?”
  “No, he got out, that’s why we had to keep stabbing him.” The man closed his eyes to try and get the picture out of his head. “He’s over next to that burnt down house, we were going to bury him this morning but then you came.”
  Hei gestured to his men and walked down the river towards the crooked charred wood that was still standing. How did these people do it. How on earth did they live such thankless lives and keep going. There’s no way I could live like this all my life. What on earth makes them want to live when it’s this hard.
  The corpse was bloated and flies had already gone to work on it. Corpses in the summer stunk terribly if you didn’t bury them or burn them instantly. The green filigreed cloth was practically shredded, but the face and the hands looked white and soft like a nobleman’s. “What do you think?” Hei looked at the corpse with his sergeants. “Is that Han Shao? I never saw him before.”
  “It fits the description. Who else rides with seven adjutants? He’s fat enough. I say it’s him. If you want we can ask for Yue to come up, she saw him before.” An older sergeant offered.
  “No, that’s alright. We’re done then. When the cavalry comes back, tell them the King of Pi is dead. Tell every soldier you meet the King of Pi is dead. If any pockets are found still fighting, tell them their king is dead and to go home. It’s over.” Hei kicked the corpse to express how dead it was. “The sutras say I shouldn’t want anyone to suffer, but I’m glad he died like this. Stabbed to death by peasants because he wanted to steal their food. That’s all the bastard was here for from the beginning. Stealing our peasant’s food so we’d all starve. Bastard.” Hei kicked the corpse again and turned away. “Let’s get back to camp. The messengers won’t be able to find me out here anyway. And I’m tired and my arm hurts and we don’t have any food left.”
  The old man was rubbing his hands one from the other, watching them coming back from the corpse. “You won’t punish us for killing him? If you’re going to punish us, at least spare the children, they had nothing to do with it.”
  Hei shook his head. His arm was blazing with pain. He wanted to get back to camp and take some herbs in his tea so he could go to sleep. “No one’s going to punish you. Congratulations, you killed the king of Pi. The war’s over. We can all go back to the way it used to be.”
  “Even if you say so. . .” The man looked worried. “That’s only one king. . .the others will surely come for us. Can’t you stay? If you are going to bring all this trouble, why don’t you ever stay to protect us?”
  “We’ll deal with Ch’i soon enough.” Hei said with a determined voice. “Liu-Yang will be for Liuyans again. Trust me.”
  “Why? How can you promise something like that?” The man glared.
  “Because I’m your Emperor.” Hei walked away holding his arm. The apothecary didn’t say it would start hurting again even after it stopped and go back and forth like this. He had said it was a clean cut and there wouldn’t be any problem. God I wouldn’t have ridden so hard if I knew it was going to hurt like this.

  “Pe Su Huang, it’s good to see you again.” The King of Ch’i smiled, offering him a seat.
  “Min Kei Rok.” Pe nodded back. “I’m here to give a warning. It’s time for you to leave. Go back home where it’s cool and dry and all your wives are waiting for all your men anyway.”
  “How now, what is this about? I didn’t have anything to do with Pi’s seizure. You dealt with him and I’m glad for it, sooner or later he would’ve turned on me, there’s no dealing with traitors like that. With him gone we can come to a fair enough agreement, we can split it right down the middle, south and north.”
  “I’m not here to split anything. You’re done here. Go back home.” Pe said.
  “You can’t be serious. You intend to take all of Liu-Yang for yourself? Liu-Yang is bigger than your own country and has three times as many people. That’s like a flea claiming a whole elephant for his dinner.”
  “I’m not taking Liu-Yang. It turns out this whole war was a stupid waste and I want Liu-Yang to exist after all. I’m giving Liu-Yang back to it’s rightful emperor.”
  “Come now. With your men on the ground? With the resistance flattened? With all chances of breaking out into civil quarrels gone? Now, at the cusp of your fortune, after winning once and for all your river valley—you must be joking—now you will just give it away? What on earth can that little princeling offer you that you don’t already have, that you can’t take from him by force?”
  “My soul.” Pe said. “You should look into it sometime. Maybe even you have one.”
  “Don’t give me this nonsense. What are you, a priest? A monk? You’re the King of Tang. Do you even remember what you’re here for? You’re here to secure the future of your people. You can’t just give that away.”
  “I can and I will. The question isn’t me anymore. The question is you. Will you let this happen? You haven’t lost anything so far. Why not keep it that way? Just pack up and go home, Ch’i won’t notice the difference, except that its men are home again.”
  “Pe, listen to me, whatever deal he made, it can’t be better than half his kingdom. You’re the one with the army, the prince only has a few thousand men, I don’t know what deal you made, but crush him. Crush him already. We don’t need him anymore. It’s the best thing that has happened for Tang in a hundred years. With the Yang river basin, Tang will be the strongest since the fall of the dynasty. And you will be the king that made it that way. They’ll make statues and songs about you and how you restored your empire to glory.”
  “I’m sorry Ch’i. I keep telling you this isn’t about me anymore. I guess you aren’t listening, so I don’t see any point in repeating myself. If you don’t leave, I’m coming for you.”
  Min Kei Rok’s eyes narrowed. Impossible. There was no reason on earth Tang hadn’t turned on the Liuyans once he’d defeated Pi. If he couldn’t figure out why Tang was acting this way, he couldn’t figure out how to change his mind. The man was completely different from before. “So you say. But if it is that way, Pe Su Huang. You must understand, I cannot allow Liu-Yang to be reborn. If you revive Liu-Yang, if you restore them, then all my work will be for nothing, and Liu-Yang will come after Ch’i the moment it’s recovered. I don’t intend to fight this war all over again, except this time alone. I’m going to end Liu-Yang one way or another. You fought bravely against Pi, I congratulate you. But that was only Pi. How many men did you lose in that battle? How many men have you lost crossing the mountains at a forced march in the dead of winter, back and forth? It must have been a lot. I haven’t lost any men, Pe Su Huang. All my men are just fine. Do you think it will turn out the same this time? Pi was a fool, Pe Su Huang, I am not a fool. I will not lose. Do not cast your lot on the losing side of history.”
  Pe stood up. “Well, I’m glad that’s clear. I’ll be seeing you then.” He finished his glass of wine and walked away. Min’s advisors watched his back in bewilderment. There was no explaining what had just happened.
  “What now, sire? Do we go back to Ch’i?” One asked.
  “I’m afraid it’s come down to the sword. A nasty business.” Ch’i said. “But whatever Tang is playing at, he’s weak, and the Liuyans are even weaker. It’s best to avoid fighting, but if you have to fight, I couldn’t ask for much better odds. Marshal the men, we’re going on the attack. It’s best to finish this before they recover from the last battle. Damn that Pi for losing so easily anyway. If he had just escaped the pursuit he could have fought them two or three more times. Tang wouldn’t have dared to fight us then. The fat fool couldn’t even be relied upon to lose usefully.”

  Pe entered the tent, tiredness written all over his face. “How are you? That arm healing?”
  Hei gave a wry smile. “My own fault for being a reckless little child.”
  “Well, we all have to learn sooner or later. At least you can tell your kids you’ve fought before.”
  “Yeah, they can be so proud I almost threw away our victory.”
  “Howso? If you died, then Yue’s child would be the next heir. That sounds like victory to me.” Pe smiled.
  “Well, don’t hold your breath, I’m not dead yet. And I have a wife ready to contest whose child will be next in line.” Hei smiled. “How’d it go?”
  “He surprised me. I thought Ch’i would never fight for himself. He always hides behind others. But it looks like he’s serious. It’s like he hates you or something. “Liu-Yang must be destroyed,” and all. It looks like the war isn’t over after all.”
  “Just Liu-Yang? So he had nothing against you?” Hei asked.
  “Nope. He even offered to write songs for me.” Pe laughed. “You must have offended him in your past life or something. Bullied him when he was a kid or stolen his rice cakes.”
  “Would my past self be capable of that?” Hei put on his best innocent face. “I’m glad you came back though. It would’ve been much harder otherwise.” Hei sighed and lay back on his bed, trying to soak the tiredness out of him.
  “I guess I was tired of changing sides.” Pe shrugged. “Get healthy quickly. Ch’i isn’t going to wait for us. By the end of the month I expect this will be decided once and for all.”
  “Right, I’m on it.” Hei closed his eyes. The herbs made it hard to do much but sleep. But without them his arm hurt terribly. It had bruised the bone and bones hurt worse than anything else. The apothecary just told him to give it time. Well, if Ch’i was marching on them, he would just have to feel the pain again. He needed his mind for the next match. Ch’i would be at full strength and completely fresh. And he would have some plan or other. Not like Pi, just offering to settle it in a fair fight. Ch’i would think up something. Hei yawned. I have to think of something even better before then. . .
  “Is he okay?” Yue asked as Pe left the tent.
  “He’s sleeping again.” Pe said quietly.
  “I guess that’s good.” Yue said, frowning.
  “We expect these sorts of things, it’s no big deal.” Pe said. “Spears are sharp for a reason after all.”
  “He didn’t have to ride so far out.” Yue complained.
  “Hey, I did my part. I stayed completely safe the entire time. Nobody saw a glimpse or a peep of me. Not a crossbow in the whole Pi army was within range of me. Aren’t you going to compliment me for being so sensible?” Pe smiled.
  Yue smiled back. “We women don’t worry about you unless you get in trouble, succeed too well and nobody will think of you at all.”
  “I’ll remember that for my next fight.” Pe said.
  “So Ch’i isn’t running?” She asked.
  “He’s not running. We’re going to have to fight again.”
  “I want you to know. . .that I want you to stay safe too. . .out there.” Yue kept her eyes on her feet.
  “My thanks.” Pe said. By the time she’s 15 I’ll be 26. I wonder if this will be okay. . .well, it’s what I’m here for. Too late to worry about that now. I didn’t care what Ch’i said because Yue is back here and because I came back she said she wanted me to stay safe. Pretty stupid if I decide I can’t have Yue after all. The play is made. Can’t change the strategy now. I’m on the side of Liu-Yang for the rest of my life now. Nobody else wants to be my ally after this. That’s for sure. And I don’t want to wed anyone else but her.


  “You’re up. I was wondering.” Pe said, the camp abuzz with the day of battle.
  “Couldn’t sleep.” Hei complained, holding his horse’s reins with one hand.
  “Is it so bad?” Pe asked.
  “I can’t think with those herbs in me.” Hei winced. “A true general doesn’t need arms anyway.”
  “The men with you said you fought well. The word has spread that you aren’t all talk. It helps morale, if nothing else. How good are you, anyway?”
  “I’ve been trained for the military ever since I was a little kid.” Hei said. “How about you?”
  “I was brought up reading tax tables and court rulings.” Pe shook his head. “It was hard finding the time to squeeze in more.”
  “Courts and taxes don’t count for much without an army backing them up.” Hei noted.
  “An army not channeled into courts and taxes is worse than a plague.” Pe replied.
  “Some would call the courts and taxes plague enough.” Hei laughed. “But either way, have the scouts reported in?”
  “They say we’ve got them. They split their forces to try and surround us and the other half has no chance of reaching the battlefield. It turns out we’re going to outnumber them even with the losses against Pi.” Pe said.
  “I thought it would be harder than that.” Hei frowned.
  “Exactly what I thought. But then, Ch’i was always cocky, he may have just plain gambled and lost. Besides, can we really afford to not take advantage of it, if it is true?” Pe said.
  “I wish I had heard more from these scouts. But I guess you’re right, if they really are divided, this is our best chance.” Hei said. Would Ch’i divide his forces in front of the enemy? That went against basic strategy. Maybe he had attempted to be so elaborate he tripped over himself. But still strange to make so basic an error. He who hesitates is lost.
  “We can always feint and see just how many men he really has.” Pe suggested. “Depending on how thoroughly they beat the first wave, we’d know what we were really up against.”
  “I dislike feints. The majority of casualties are caused crossing the space to the other side under artillery and crossbow fire. Telling one wave after another to cross it, giving the enemy the chance to do it to each section of our forces, it’s just so wasteful. The same with retreating, reforming, and attacking again. That’ll destroy an army. It’s always best to attack with absolute maximum force and win or lose with one moment, to make the melee the most important factor in a battle is the only way offense has a chance. And we have to attack them before their second group reinforces them. In my opinion we should throw everything at them. We can’t afford to lose too many men, even if we win this fight, with half of Chi’s army still intact hovering on our rear.” Hei said.
  “I still don’t like it. I don’t like having to attack. I feel Ch’i has cornered us into doing the ‘obvious’ move.” Pe said.
  “The ‘obvious’ move is ‘obvious’ because it’s clearly the best.” Hei smiled encouragingly. “Would you not take a group of stones because it was too obvious, and you’d rather make your opponent wonder just how incredibly stupid you are?”
  “I suppose not. Alright then, last I checked, Ch’i was still in marching columns trying to maneuver around. Maybe they got a false report about how close we were and that’s why they split their forces. Either way, the sooner we attack the better. The cavalry have had a rough time of it so what say you to letting the infantry lead this charge?”
  Hei nodded. “We’ll need the cavalry to be fresh enough for the pursuit. I want to annihilate these guys, not just push them backwards a little. My men will march when we hear the drums.”
  “Right, good luck. I’ll pass the orders down my side, you have your commanders to inform on your side. And do try to stay out of the fight this time. You look terrible.”
  “I’m all right.” Hei said, waving his arm back and forth to prove it.
  “Fine. Just stay that way.” Pe clapped Hei’s horse on the shoulder and kicked his own horse into a trot and then a gallop away.
  Hei kicked his own horse into a gallop to inform his two generals. If all went well by winning here they wouldn’t even have to fight the other half of Chi’s men. Seeing that the result would be poor, they would likely just retreat back to Ch’i. Just as Pi’s men had melted away the moment their king was no longer holding them together, all it took was one victory, one battle, and the issue could be decided. At least for a few years. The issues were never really decided. The war would go on forever, Hei could be certain of that, because it had already been forever since the beginning of time, and here they were still warring with each other, so it would also continue forever as well. Over and over again, cycle after cycle, nothing ever resolved. But to carve out his little niche of happiness, however short it was, even if only for a few years, that was worth winning a war for. If he couldn’t be happy, there was no use in living anyway. He would risk his life for his happiness however many times eternity threw at him.
  “It’s good to see you mounted again, sire.” Shea said, galloping up to greet him from his line of troops waiting to be given the order to attack. After their previous victory the men had grown certain of their generals and themselves, that one way or another they would always emerge victorious. That could be for better or for worse, depending on the circumstances. But it was human nature so there was no point worrying about it either way.
  “I don’t understand why everyone is so hung up on this.” Hei laughed, waving his arm again in demonstration. “Even if they cut my arm off I’d be able to ride a horse, wouldn’t I?”
  “As you say.” Shea deferred. “My men are ready, just give them the word. We all know Ch’i started this, they’re anxious to get to grips with him.”
  “That’s the sad part. While all these soldiers kill each other, the kings who cause the wars are always the last people to suffer anything. Most likely Ch’i will escape past the border without even rumpling his clothes.” Hei said.
  “Those who sanction and support evil are just as evil. The army enables the king to do evil, they could always have rebelled or deserted or surrendered or anything, but they chose to take part in it, and so they choose to suffer the consequences. I don’t mourn their deaths at all.” Shea said.
  “Then feel sorry for the widows and orphans they leave behind, it will go badly for them when their men don’t return, while Ch’i will still have all his feasts and hunts and pleasures without the slightest change.” Hei said.
  “And why should I feel sorry for them?” Shea asked. “If you sanction evil you’re just as evil. In that case, if you sanction the sanction of evil you are also just as evil. If a wife marries a man who intends to follow a king who wages undeclared wars against nations who do nothing but sell rice to them—then how is she any better than that king, and why does she deserve any more pity than he deserves? Wouldn’t she stand to gain the most from her husband’s successes? Wouldn’t she be the first to cheer their homecoming if they were victorious? And didn’t she kiss him goodbye in the first place? As for the orphans, their parents should’ve thought about their children before they made their decisions. From there on it’s their fault, not ours, whatever happens to their own children. As for me, I’m more worried about the orphans they’ve made out of our people who never had any choice in the matter.”
  “Well said.” Lu Huang rode up. “These people are barbarians, sire. They have no decency and no morality at all. An army out of uniform that had never declared war on us killed my king before he’d even said a cross word to them. After that there can be no sympathy, after that it’s clear that this war is kill or be killed, there are no limits at all to what they’re willing to do to us, Pe Su Huang told us all quite frankly that Pi intended to cause a massive famine so that our population would no longer overshadow his own kingdom’s. Famines don’t limit themselves to grown men, in fact, famines kill the old, the young, and the sick first, the grown men absolutely last. So why should we limit what we do to them? I say every man, woman, and child in all three of their nations deserves to die.”
  “Careful, one of those nations is on our side.” Hei said.
  “Yes yes but we all know that was only for convenience’s sake. He’s a jackal just like the other two.” Lu Huang said.
  “I thought that too, but only time will tell.” Hei shrugged. “Let’s just wait and see what he does once Ch’i is gone, and then we’ll see what Tang really wants.”
  “He never would’ve changed sides if we hadn’t made him.” Shea came in. “There’s no trusting an ally like that. If there were some way to win without him, I’d take it, but there isn’t, so I understand what you’re doing now. But there’s no difference between him and the other two, absolutely none. He was just as happy about what he did to Liu-Yang as the other two. He didn’t give a damn what would happen to us, even though Pi was going to do it. I don’t see any difference in that.”
  “By God, general Shea, is there anyone in the whole world who isn’t guilty? I suppose all the Liuyans who were willing to be ruled by the kings also sanctioned their own conquest? And since the eastern barbarians didn’t rally to our aid, I guess they should all die too?” Hei said. “I just hope you have mercy on me for not fighting against them as well as I should.”
  Shea bowed stiffly. “I am sorry if I have been misunderstood, sire. I just don’t like it when people who sanction evil pretend to be victims when it backfires on them. It’s so damn cowardly. First they aren’t willing to do it themselves, and second they’re not even willing to stand up for what was done. I can respect the man who dies for his cause, whatever the hell it is, but for people who just go around spreading poison with whispers and applause, and then they turn around and blame it all on the very people who went and died for the sake of their whispers and their applause, betraying the very people who gave everything for them—well, I hate them, sire. I hate them virulently. They’re the source of these wars and I hope the whole fount of human misery rains down upon them.”
  “Be that as it may, let’s just worry about killing the men in front of us for now.” Hei gave up. “When you hear the drums, we head north on the column, which, as far as we know, is still marching southeast, trying to reunite with the other half of Chi’s men. By the time we get there, they’ll probably have enough time to form a line of some sort. It’s not like we aren’t kicking up enough dust to be seen from miles away. The point is they won’t have much in the way of fortifications. Because of this it’s vital to maximize our advantage while we have it. We aren’t going to do much in the way of maneuver. I just want all the men going forward that can fit in the line. Understand? With a strong enough blow we can destroy these men, then turn and deal with the other half before they even get a chance to fight. In that case the war is won. Tang’s men are going to do the same on the other side. It’s a straight line, ending with us on the right, and we’re going straight forward. Any problems?”
  “Sounds easy enough.” Lu said. “I can’t object to something like that.”
  “My men are eager to finish this.” Shea agreed. “When the drums sound then. And sire, do try to stay out of the fight this time. The victory’s for nothing if you aren’t there to lead us at the end of it.”
  “All right all right. How many times do I have to hear that today?” Hei complained. “I’m staying right here, with my staff sergeants and artillery sergeants, they’re ordered to hold my reins if I try to take a step forward.”
  The sergeants laughed to hear that. It was impossible to attack with crossbows, they were too heavy and took too long to load, and once the melee began, they were just as likely to hit friend as foe. They were defensive, long range weapons, which meant they formed the heart of the artillery corps, along with catapults whenever there was time enough to build them on the spot. There was no way to carry them around from battle to battle, they were too large and too slow. Sieges would be full of catapults on both sides, but these open battles reduced the artillery to crossbows and a bunch of ballistics sergeants who watched on helplessly. For some reason his arm didn’t hurt at all anymore, even though it had kept him up all night. Everything felt perfectly clear and calm now that the battle was about to begin. That he could joke with his men was a phenomenal step up from his last battle, he felt much better now than he had in over a month. Everything was going his way, with Ch’i splitting up his forces like a fool, and Yue no longer angry with him. Maybe Da wasn’t either. It could always be hoped. But at least Yue wasn’t. That was enough for now. Enough that he could feel free of pain and stress for at least a little while.
  A low, deep tone filtered its way through the grass and occasional tree, steady and repeating. The Tang army was forming up on their left. Lu and Shea looked at each other and nodded. Then they left at a gallop to be with their men. Hopefully they wouldn’t get involved in the battle either. They were important, well qualified, and most of all loyal men. He couldn’t run an empire without their help. The low booms turned into a sharp ratta-tat-tat. The men stood still, God knows what thoughts running through each of them, until their own drummers took up the beat, and with shouted orders from the generals all the way down to the sergeants of each rank, they lurched into motion at a quick march. All their stuff had been left behind at the wagons, to retrieve if they were alive to use it. Except for water and bandages and weapons. The march would be far easier than what they were accustomed to, except that each step brought them closer to the inevitable crossbow fullisade that made armor useless and skill irrelevant. Just point and pull the trigger. Any peasant could kill any noble, if that was their karma. It’s how my father and brother died. Shot down without even a chance to fight. Well, can’t be helped. No matter how terrible a weapon it will never go away, we just have to adjust to it and go on. The genius who invented the crossbow probably managed to win a war or two for his king before all the rest of the Middle Kingdom adopted it. For that one victory’s sake all the rest of us have to live with the parity that has made life so cheap on the battlefield. Thank God making crossbows is still an intricate process so the peasants can’t make their own. Any lunatic rebellion would be able to fight on even terms then. At least the barbarians don’t have too many of them. We sell them crossbows, but they don’t know how to repair them or make their own, so they’ll never have enough. Another reason why the Middle Kingdom doesn’t have to fear them anymore. The power and range of a crossbow was twice that of any horse bow that the northern barbarians used, regular bows took around five arrows to bring down a man, they could even be blocked with shield walls or heavy armor, they were just useless compared to a crossbow. Children’s toys. And the skill required to fire a bow accurately was far more than the skill required to fire a crossbow. The only skill with a crossbow was how fast you could crank the bolt back into position. With standing armies impossible, there was no time to teach conscripts a weapon like a bow, but with crossbows, they all became deadly warriors. An armory of crossbows was a standing army, in a sense, as they were the source of the army’s strength, not the hands that wielded them. An armory and good generals could make any random assemblage of peasants as effective as a thoroughly trained standing army, supposing one could be afforded and kept from dying of disease. Yet another advantage. Crossbows didn’t get sick. They just worked. With that many advantages there was no way anyone would willingly give up their crossbows based on the promises of others to give up theirs. It would be suicide. Whether you wanted to play the game or not, you had to play or you lost. Trapped like always. The richer, the smarter, the more numerous the Middle Kingdom became, the more devastating, bloody, and terrible our wars will be. It’s the fate of man to be trapped into this vicious cycle forever, so long as we are man, it is in our nature, we are born trapped, and die trapped, and are reborn trapped once more. Strange that I chose to participate in this hopeless game instead of trying to escape to union with the Dao which is above all of this. Strange that anyone was left playing the game and we weren’t all just monks and nuns sick and tired of being human. Can’t be helped, we are born loving life, wanting to live no matter what. Like those peasants who had absolutely nothing still butchering Han Shao to save their seeds which, if eaten, would mean their certain death. They’re just as trapped as we warriors, only the game is always planting and harvesting, planting and harvesting, trying to keep enough to live by from year to year, with disaster always one bad storm or bandit raid away. The struggle for existence in an ever-changing world. That was the trap of life. Well, they were still alive so far. Maybe they’d always be one generation ahead of death. That, or the Dao created new life every time the old ones died out. A good question, that, whether the Dao ever had to restart the universe in order to make the symmetry work. Or whether the Dao had planned it so perfectly that it managed to keep symmetrical all on its own. He could ask the next priest he met about it.
  “Look, sire, they’re wavering.” An excited sergeant pointed. Hei got out his eyeglass to see his men charging forward with far greater numbers and far higher morale, sure of their coming victory. A good sight.
  “We have to move up.” Hei said, excited. “If they break now they’re going to need orders on how to pursue.”
  “Sorry sire, we’re under orders to stay right here.” Bi Liu Biao said, commander of the artillery.
  “Nonsense, I heard nothing from Tang about that.”
  “That’s because they’re your orders, sire.” Bi Liu Biao said patiently.
  Hei watched the enemy line begin to collapse, a few gaps appeared, with nobody rushing to fill them in. Instead they were just retreating back to form a new line just as shaky. Once they got used to backing up it would be a rout soon enough. It was working. They weren’t in the least prepared for us. “They’re breaking! Just look at them! You can see their will giving! Let’s go.”
  Three different sergeants grabbed his horse’s reins simultaneously. “Shea and Lu can take care of themselves, sire.”
  Hei looked from one to the other furiously. “You’ve got to be kidding. I’m your Emperor! I know what I’m doing. If we don’t pursue now this victory is for nothing. We’ll never get another chance like this!”
  “One thing I learned about Go, sire.” Bi Liu Biao said, calm as spring dew. “If your opponent starts making moves to save his pieces, it’s more than likely that they aren’t fools and their pieces really can be saved. Big stones don’t die. The little stones all broken up and patched together, running all over the place to try and keep the big stones contained—they die. And I don’t feel like letting you die today. If you want, chop off my head, and all the rest of ours here, then you can ride forward as you please. If not, we’re staying.”
  Hei took a deep breath, looking through his eyeglass again. The enemy was definitely retreating, though they weren’t routed yet. His own men were pushing with full force, it was only a matter of time. But Bi Liu Biao was very good at Go. As good as me. That’s how good he is. And that means I have to listen when he says something. He had been told all day to stay out of it, by everyone. Maybe this fight he really could stay back. Maybe they knew something he didn’t and it was time to trust them. Hei bit his cheek. But if I’m right and they’re wrong, instead of ending the war here, it will drag on and on and on, and who knows who will win it then. Who do I trust more? Myself or everyone else?
  “I hope to God you’re right, then, Bi Liu Biao.” Hei Ming Jong said, giving up. Soon the battle would be out of sight, and only messengers would be left to keep him informed. But after all, that was the point of messengers. They could be relied upon as well as eyes. It just took a little more patience.

  “Forward! Forward men! Press them! Press them!” Lu Huang shouted at the top of his lungs, running back and forth on his horse to encourage one clump of soldiers after another, finding men who had gotten lost or slowed down and throwing them into where the fight was still hottest. The Ch’i line hadn’t broken all at once, some clumps of men gave up almost immediately, others were offering incredibly stubborn resistance even when surrounded on all sides, it had turned a simple line of battle into a morass of troops everywhere mixed together into a bewildering jumble. Like some semai out of a nightmare with only ten seconds to think between each move. That’s what commanding the battle at this point was. A miracle no crossbow bolt had found him on his horse yet. More than enough had flown by. He had heard the distinctive whizz of them. But he couldn’t dismount, the men needed a figure to rally around, couldn’t be helped. With just a little more they could completely destroy Chi’s army. That was worth risking a crossbow bolt for.
  “Onwards! Cut them down! Not one of them escapes alive!” Lu Huang shouted, spurring his horse to jump over a fallen tree. “Not one of them gets past the river! Cut them off, boys! Cut them off! Cut the blue bastards off who started it all!” Three crossbowmen turned with eyes wide as his horse practically jumped over them. Before they could aim other men from behind impaled them with spears. God I’m pushing my luck. Just keep moving and they won’t aim right. Just keep moving and I’ll have all the lives I need.
  “That’s the spirit lads! Keep it coming! They’re all running now! Cut the cowards down!” Lu brandished his sword and swung his arm forward for emphasis. In all the shouting and clash of weapons it was doubtful anyone could hear his words anyway, so the sign language was necessary.
  Lu Huang emerged from the thicket, hot on the heels of twenty fleeing Ch’i soldiers. The river was only a mile back. If they could seize the bridge it was all over. “Forward, to the bridge men! To the bridge! It ends today if you can reach the bridge!” Where was the blasted cavalry when he needed them. The battle was already in the pursuit stage, if they didn’t commit quickly they wouldn’t even be a factor in the battle. Pe Su Huang was probably hoarding all the cavalry for his flank, blast him. With a hundred horsemen he could take that bridge and completely destroy this flank. Just one hundred horse.
  His horse got over a slight hill, finally high enough to see the bridge he only knew of from the maps. The chokepoint that would decide it all. And his eyes widened in terror. Impossible. They can’t possibly have so many men here. Impossible. Oh God what have I led my men into. His horse reared as Lu Huang desperately tried to stop. For a brief instant he thought the horse would fall all the way over and crush him. At least then he wouldn’t have to worry about the rest of the battle. But the horse stopped, rolling its eyes at Lu for his violence.
  “Form up! Halt! Hold here! Form up!” Lu Huang sliced his sword through the air on either side, showing how they would man the thicket they’d just left. The twenty men he’d been pursuing ran happily into their waiting comrades line and melted behind them, turning and jeering at the man who had almost caught them. There are thousands of them. Thousands and thousands at this bridge alone. It’s a trap. Somehow Ch’i managed to gather this many men. . .they weren’t retreating, they were leading us here. . .and there’s no way on earth my men, who just ran all the way here, are going to get away. There’s no way to run away now. All I can do is form a line and buy some time and hope the other flank is still strong. I can’t believe I’m going to die here. God damn it. All my men are going to die. Is this what I trained all my life for?
  As more men emerged from the thicket, seeing the reforming line and the silent looks of their comrades, they too slowed to a halt and just looked at the enemy formation with despair. What they thought was a victory was a march into the jaws of death. They looked at each other, judging whether their friends would stand and fight, judging the strength of their own hearts to stay in the line now that their commander had ordered them to. This was the man who had gotten them out of the swamp. The one man who had been good enough to get his men out before the vise closed. He deserved to be obeyed now. He deserved troops who wouldn’t betray him. They were all dead, but at least Ch’i couldn’t call them cowards. That’s all they could fight for now.
  “Find cover! Stay down until they’re upon us! If they want to kill us, they’ll have to come kill us themselves! Damned if I let one crossbow touch us! Lay down and wait for them. They’ll have to charge if they want us, damn them!” Lu Huang shouted, trying to gather as many men as possible back into a line. The pursuit still hadn’t caught up with itself. Hundreds of men were still fighting back in the forest with Ch’i soldiers who hadn’t gotten away. Hundreds of others were charging forward alone still thinking they were winning. So hopeless.
  “Staff sergeants!” Lu Huang shouted. Five men on horseback snapped to attention. “I want two of you to ride left and inform the King of Tang of the position and numbers of the enemy, tell them to come quickly if they hope to relieve us or the whole right flank will crumble. Three of you, ride as fast as you can back and find the Emperor and tell him that we’ve been led into a trap. He’ll know what to do from there.” Run with what men he had left to him. . .run and try to raise a new army, form some guerilla resistance if necessary. . .so long as he lived there was still a chance. That’s all that mattered now.
  An eerie yell broke out from half a mile away. Suddenly the blue wave starting charging back the way they had just fled. A few minutes left in this life. And not even a child to show for it. God damn it. Well, Hei, I’ll buy as much time as I can. I guess that’s my side of the bargain. You can pay me back next time around.
  Min Kei Rok smiled, hands folded together. A close pursuit had worked against Pi, so of course they would try it again with him. Human nature to keep doing what worked. All he had to do was take that into account and Tang was left dancing to Min’s own tune. There was no other half of his army. Just a bunch of flags and fires and men marching back and forth and in circles and a few spies planted in the enemy scouts. All fifty thousand of his men were here for this battle. The line the enemy knew about was just a tiny portion of his forces, a screen to lure them in. With the enemy out of position and completely out of formation, tripping over its own headlong pursuit, they didn’t stand a chance at stopping him now. He would roll them all the way back to the original line, and then keep rolling them back onto their own baggage and the river they had crossed yesterday, and with that chokepoint it would be all over for Tang. The fool. So ugly having to fight someone when a peace treaty could’ve done as much. He’s the one who required his own death. Well, can’t be helped. Not everyone was smart enough to look to their own self-interest. Some just flailed around wildly shouting ‘justice’ or ‘vengeance’ or ‘freedom’ or ‘God,’ and there was no predicting what they would do. Even when you gave them the best possible future, laid it out directly at their feet, they would throw it away and choose some ridiculous, pointless death shouting some slogan or another. It was almost hopeless dealing with other people they were so irrational. Hopeless even trying to persuade them of what was in their self-interest when they so rarely consulted it when they made their decisions. Well, like it or not, Liu-Yang would be entirely his for the nonce. And with Pi and Tang’s armies routed and their kings dead, nobody would be in a position to contest the territory for a good many years. With that time he would be able to consolidate his hold on Liu-Yang forever, and with that it was only a matter of time before all the other kingdoms surrendered as well. With the combined strength of Ch’i and Liu-Yang no other kingdom came close. A strange way for it to turn out, but that’s how these things went. Play for a single stone, and the enemy becomes so insistent about saving it that it turns into a play for the whole board, and the stone was doomed from the start, and so the game ends when all you intended was a slight advantage. Impossible to play a perfect Go game with an imperfect opponent. This victory was silly, but it would do. The result was the same as if the game had been much tougher. That’s what mattered.
  “Sire, we captured the commander of that knot which was holding us up. They were Liuyans, sire. Guess they had more to fight for. Tang’s flank is already in full flight. We should have Tang before the sun sets. What should we do with this one though? Liuyans have no kingdom so they have no right to fight, so they have no right to be taken prisoner. We killed all the ones on the hill but we thought he might know something worthwhile.”
  “Well, boy, do you know anything worthwhile we should spare your life for?” Min asked the sagging child—he couldn’t be over twenty years old.
  The child just hung his head, staring at the ground.
  “Speak up boy, surely you have something worth saying.” Min said.
  “You can beat me, but you can’t beat Hei. Nobody can beat him. He’s the very best. I never beat him even once, even though we played a thousand games. Not once. You don’t stand a chance. If you think beating me means something, then you’re a petty fool. I’m nothing compared to Hei Ming Jong.” Lu Huang croaked, his voice totally gone. But he managed to look up at Ch’i with a smile.
  Min Kei Rok frowned in distaste. Hei Ming Jong? That little upstart? He wasn’t fighting Hei Ming Jong, he was fighting Tang. Hei was completely irrelevant either way, Tang had all the men, of course Tang was calling the shots. But this boy didn’t seem to think of it that way. If Tang was really under orders of this Hei fellow, then psychology wouldn’t work, because Min had never met the prince. That would complicate things. Well, let Hei try whatever he wanted, once Tang’s army was destroyed it hardly mattered. Tang was the only force in the land that could challenge his own now. This boy must be mistaken. Or overly proud of his prince’s role. This wasn’t a fight for their empire, this was a fight between two foreign lords over who would get to devour them. Perhaps Hei and all his subordinates hadn’t figured that out. Perhaps they had been tricked by Pe into thinking they would be given their freedom if he won. All the same. He could ask Tang when he surrendered about it.
  “Kill him.” Min waved his hand, riding forward to keep track of his army’s progress. In an ever changing battlefield situation, it was best to stay as close as possible so the messages didn’t become contradictory. Hard to make decisions when an old message and a new one claim they’re both winning and losing. The child was made to kneel and his head chopped off. The body was left behind. The vultures could bury the dead if they wanted.

  “Fire!” Hei shouted. The crossbows all twanged at once, a line of death at the oncoming Ch’i forces. “Reload! Come on lads! Double quick!” The men didn’t even wait to see how well their bolts did. The strain had become unimaginable. It was just a matter of living long enough to get the next shot off. That’s all they cared about. Firing and reloading so they could fire again so they could reload again so they could fire again. So long as they kept shooting the men trying to kill them, they would survive. The eerie Ch’i scream was enormous now. Even though they had already killed the first wave, there seemed to be an endless supply of the enemy. They had too many men. Too damn many. Something had gone wrong. Something had gone terribly wrong. They weren’t fighting half of Chi’s forces. They were fighting all of them. Every bloody one of them.
  “Fire! For God’s sake keep it up!” The crossbows that had managed to reload in time aimed and fired again. Hei cursed inwardly, he had panicked and ordered them to fire too soon, before most of the men could. But they were running out of room, just a hundred yards now and they would be upon us.
  “Sire! You must leave!” Bi Liu Biao shouted. “Run while the bridge is still ours! We can’t hold here any longer!”
  “Negative, sergeant! If we don’t hold this bridge nobody but us will escape Ch’i. I can’t give up our whole army to them. We have to wait until everyone else is across this bridge! We hold until then!” Hei shouted back over the Ch’i screams.
  “They’re gone, sire! They’re lost! Save yourself!”
  “I cannot believe they’re lost. I must base my actions on the one future that is a future, and that future is that our men are still out there and trying to get back across this river to safety. I’m not giving up on that future.” Hei stressed, as the last of the crossbow bolts slammed into enemies directly in front of them.
  “We hold here until sunset. We hold this bridge and let the rest of our army escape. That’s my final order.” Hei Ming Jong drew his sword, taking a deep breath. It had come down to this now. No more Go board. My weapon is now my sword. Hei saluted the sun with his sword, willing it to set. The sun would not move. For the past eternity the sun had not budged an inch. He had watched it all this time and it refused to sink any nearer the horizon. It was amazing. The sun was his enemy now. All he had to do was live until the sun set. To keep his men holding this side of the bridge until the sun set. The sun just had to set. His arm didn’t hurt at all. He hadn’t noticed it all day. Hei took another deep breath, falling into the trance of alertness he had been taught. No more words, no more sounds, save it all for breath and for swinging your sword. Watch everything and nothing, attack whoever’s attacking, always meet them halfway, don’t let anyone get to both sides, charge one side or the other so it’s always one on one. No matter how many men they have so long as you are attacking it will always be one on one, just over and over again. No problem. My sword is better than their spears. I can always win one on one, over and over, as many times as it takes. I can always win so long as it’s one on one. Just keep it one on one and my sword will always beat their spear. Hei took another deep breath and jumped forward, impaling the first man who had squeezed through his personal guard. For God’s sake set. For God’s sake, sun, why won’t you move anymore? Set, set, set. Hei pulled his sword out of the man’s chest and stabbed it into another. Pulled it out and broke the spear that tried to stab him in the side, followed up with a backslash that went across the man’s face. Blinded if not killed, no longer a concern. A spear point glanced off his armor, Hei spun and caught the spear with his free arm below the point and jumped forward and cut the disarmed man down. Took the blade out and turned and stabbed a man in the back who was fending off someone else’s sword. Blood already coated his sword, his clothes, everything. Just so long as it doesn’t get in my eyes. The ground was getting hard because so many dead bodies were there to trip him. Well, use it to your advantage, make them trip over the bodies, keep the dead between you and the living, they become your shields. No way to know if any of this blood is my own, I can’t feel anything except my sword and my breathing. If it’s my blood oh well. So long as I can move it can’t be that bad.

  Pe Su Huang looked through his eyeglass with the dwindling sunlight. Ch’i men stood between him and the bridge, but their backs were turned. Apparently someone was still holding the bridge. If they charged, they could catch the Ch’i forces and destroy them. They could still reach safety. With the bridge as their chokepoint, they could hold that with far fewer men. And if they marched all night they could be well away from here before the sun rose again.
  “Cavalry! You missed your chance earlier, so here’s your chance now! I want across that bridge. We kill all the bluecoats that stand between us. On my mark---Charge!” Pe spurred his horse back into a gallop, already covered in lather, it was his third horse, though he couldn’t be sure. One had been shot from under him, another had died underneath him from exhaustion. Or maybe it was his fourth horse. So hard to remember. Behind his cavalry were thousands of his men looking for a way out. Lu Huang’s messengers had told them of the trap quickly enough that they could form a line. There was no way Pe could save the Liuyans. The messengers begged him to come to his aid, but he couldn’t. with all the men he had, he had only managed to maintain enough of a line that they could retreat slowly instead of wholesale. There was no way he could’ve saved the Liuyans too. His entire advance force was gone. Wiped out. Everyone who had been in the attack had gone too far ahead. The reserves and the cavalry meant to pick up the pursuit were his army now. And whoever was still holding that bridge, God bless them. A few Ch’i soldiers managed to turn around in time, hearing the horses’ thunder amidst the battle. It didn’t matter, the horses ran right through them, riders slashing to their left and right. Ch’i men jumped aside, trying to avoid the horse’s hooves, no one had time to form pikes that could stop the charge. The cavalry made it all the way through with hardly a loss. Not enough. They had to clear a path for the rear guard which was still in a life or death struggle with Chi’s right flank. If Chi’s left flank was already here, it would have to be destroyed. All there was to it.
  “Rally! Turn! Rally! Another time!” Pe followed his own words and charged back into the Ch’i line, before they could form pikes and stop his horse’s gallop. The speed and weight of his horse was his entire defense. So long as it kept moving the footmen couldn’t stop him. Pe slashed all the way through back to the other side, fifty or so men following after him.
  “Rally! Turn! Again lads!” Pe shouted, turning his horse. The horse tripped, almost fell. Just a little longer. You can die on me after this charge, lad. “Charge!” His horse staggered, caught its footing, ran forward again, the peasants couldn’t take it, they threw down their spears and scattered in all directions. Pe turned his horse, catching up to a running man and cutting him down from behind. “That’s it lads! Keep it coming!” he caught up to a second man, a third, killing them as easily as harvesting rice. Then his horse stumbled again and Pe was suddenly floating through the air. He dropped his sword and curled into a ball, and hit the earth hard. Rolling over and over, thank god it was a riverbank and there were no stones. Pe caught his breath, staggered up, looking for his sword. If any peasant with a spear was nearby he needed his sword now. There it was, how did it get so far away? Pe ran over to it, scooped it off the grass. Nobody was nearby though. No blue to be seen. Only corpses and fifty yards away his own men running back and forth chopping down survivors. Pe breathed again, leaning on his sword. They seemed to have a handle on it. He could rest a little.
  “Sire! Sire! Are you alright?” A staff sergeant dismounted.
  “Fine, just the stupid horse dying on me again. I’m fine.” Pe said.
  “The bridge is secured, sire. What should we do now? Should we return to the front?”
  “No, that’s alright.” Pe breathed again. “We. . .we’ll just hold here. Wait for our men to cross the bridge, we’ll hold here and wait for them to get across. . .then prepare to retreat. . .we have to retreat when night falls.”
  “But sire, how will we protect the wagons? The wounded? How can we retreat?”
  “I don’t know.” Pe said, angry. “You’re the staff sergeant. You’re supposed to handle logistics. Take what wagons we can, take what wounded that can ride in the wagons. For God’s sake how am I supposed to know?”
  “Yes sire.” Of course the staff sergeant was just a messenger but he wasn’t going to argue with his king.
  Pe gathered up his strength and walked back to the bridge, to see what forces he had to work with.
  “God it’s good to see you, sir.” An old man said, clasping Pe’s hands between his own. “We’ve been waiting for you. How many men are behind you?”
  “Maybe ten thousand.” Tang guessed. “And behind them twenty thousand Ch’i.”
  “Two to one? Is that all? We must have killed ten to one over here. If it’s just twenty thousand we’ll be fine.” Bi Liu Biao said. “We’ll get your men across and then you’ll see, they’d be fools to try and attack across this river. We can hold them here.”
  “Please, is. . .is Hei alive? You’re Liuyan, right? Is. . .is Hei still alive?” Pe Su Huang was more tired than he’d ever been in his life. He had no idea he could ever be this tired. He had never thought this kind of tired existed.
  Bi gestured, showing him the clump of men surrounded by an actual pile of bluecoat corpses.
  Pe walked over, his eyes wide. Five or six bodyguards gave a grudging look at him and stepped out of the way. Hei was sitting, his back against a rock. His eyes were closed and he was breathing hard in and out.
  Pe took the last few steps to him and grabbed his hand with all his strength. “I’m here, Hei. My army will get back across this bridge. We can retreat in the night. It’s going to be okay.”
  “I knew. . .I knew you’d come.” Hei whispered. “I knew you’d come.”
  “It’s like you said. If you weren’t here, holding the bridge, it was over anyway. So I figured I might as well try.” Pe said, sitting down beside Hei. That rock looked incredibly comfortable.
  “I knew the sun would set.” Hei said again, still not opening his eyes. “It had to someday.”
  Pe sat beside Hei with his legs stretched out, watching for his footmen to come within sight. “How much of that blood is yours?” Pe asked.
  “I don’t know.” Hei said. “How much of that blood is yours?”
  “I don’t know.” Pe said. Then he laughed. Then they both laughed. For a full ten seconds the two lay against that stone laughing. God it was good to be alive.

Chapter 22

  Hei Ming Jong’s vision blurred and the map became a senseless jumble. He was too tired. Too tired to think, to figure out the route, too tired to run away any further. All he wanted to do was go to sleep and let Ch’i catch up and win. Hei dragged his eyes back into focus, blinked a few times and dug his nails into his palm. Just one little pain on top of all the others, his whole body was in pain, his shoulder was cut, his waist was cut, and there were dozens of lacerations where his armor had been pushed into his skin so violently it cut right through. Probably his palm didn’t much care after all that. But he needed to stay awake. God that first bath to clean out the wounds had been the most painful thing he’d ever felt, though. The things these apothecaries think up to plague us with.
  Pu Shi pushed his chair back and stood up, waking Hei from a daze. When had he fallen asleep? Damn it. He was twenty one, he shouldn’t have any limits.
  “Sire, I think I found something.” Pu walked over and put his map down, marked over with his pen. “All the rivers in Liu-Yang flow from the mountains in the nations west of us to the sea, right? The difference in elevation.”
  “Right. So what?” Hei asked, trying to focus.
  “Well it’s not true.” Pu Shi said. “There’s a river here that’s flowing east to west. Some underground spring feeds it.”
  “That’s impossible, the map was probably transcribed wrong.” Hei said.
  “Yes, that’s what I thought, so I checked this map, and this one, and this one.” Pu slapped one after another onto the table, with the same river marked. “They all say it’s flowing west.”
  “But that’s impossible.” Hei repeated himself, too tired to think of anything else.
  “It’s not impossible. Liu-Yang is flat, right? Sure, it’s slightly higher than sea level, which in turn, as it approaches Tang and Ch’i, gets slightly higher as it approaches the foothills. But it isn’t one long slope. Most of it is flat.”
  “A plateau?” Hei asked.
  “That’s right. Like a plateau which is on the ground, doesn’t go up at all, but the same idea, a stretch of level ground even though it’s higher than the ground before.”
  “I guess that would be hard to notice.” Hei said, beginning to believe.
  “Generally if the land is flat, the rivers are already flowing downhill, they get pushed by the water behind them, and momentum carries the load, right?”
  “I guess.” Hei said.
  “Well what if it’s flat, and there’s some underwater geyser that is getting heated until it’s pushed onto the surface, so long as that water is being pressured through whatever hole in some rock it’s coming from, it’s gonna be pushed in the opposite direction, right? If it really is flat?”
  “I guess.” Hei said. “I’m not an expert on this. I just thought there was always difference in elevation enough and that’s why water moved.”
  “What about the currents, the tides? The ocean’s all the same elevation, but the water still moves very quickly from one area to another. Even lakes are always moving with waves going inwards and outwards, they’re the same elevation.”
  “That’s right. The difference in heat causes currents in the ocean, right?”
  “Sort of. Also the wind and some other stuff we’re not too sure of.”
  “But the wind is also caused by a difference in heat, right?”
  “Right. Hot air rises, cold air sinks, but the air doesn’t just leave void behind, more air has to come and fill in the hole that the hot or cold air left, and then more air has to fill in the hole that that air left, until a long chain of air is all moving in one direction covering each other’s backs.”
  “So I was right.” Hei smiled.
  Pu Shi shook his head. “Fine, you’re right. The point is water moves so long as something is pushing it, even when there’s no difference in elevation.”
  “And these maps all noted down this river as an anomaly.” Hei looked at the river. A small river, nothing like the Liu or the Yang. But the possibilities started marching through his brain. “And there’s no way on earth Ch’i would know about it, because he’s not from here. Which means, if we can get our troops on that river, they can move quickly in a direction he won’t be expecting. . .which means we can flank him. We can bloody flank him.”
  “Exactly what I thought, sire.” Pu Shi stretched with a grin. “If we can lure him towards this river. . .we can lure him any direction we want, he’s got to chase us when we’re this beat up, he’s going to chase us. So we lure him behind this river, get some of our navy which Ch’i doesn’t have and we do, put all the men we can on all the boats we can, and like a bolt out of the blue sky, we’re attacking his rear.”
  “All we have to do is get behind the river, then march east parallel to it, while our ships sail our men back west. . .one day on those ships would be like a week’s march in that direction, it’s like sending our men back in time to their former position.” Hei was more and more excited, sleep banished. “Pu Shi, you’re a miracle! Oh, God, is the river wide enough? Does it ever turn into rapids or a trickle?”
  “It’s an underwater river that just goes onto the surface, there are no seasonal fluctuations. There’s no change in elevation so how would there be rapids? No, it’s a gentle river. We can rely on it, sire.” Pu Shi confirmed.
  “Karma.” Hei said. “God has given us a way.” A river flowing backwards. It was like it had been designed for all these million years just for this moment. Just for him to take advantage of it. Absolutely karma. “I have to tell Tang about this.”
  Pu Shi handed over the three maps. “You’ll need these.”
  Hei rolled them up. “God bless the men who made these maps. God bless them. God bless all maps.” He couldn’t feel any injury at all. Happiness was overcoming all of them.
  “Yes, sire.” Pu Shi smiled, being the staff sergeant whose job it was to study them.
  This was the second time Pu Shi had delivered a miracle. Hei thought. First he changed my entire method of attack by pointing out I could use the Yang to enter Tang. And now he gives me a river that flows backward so I can flank Ch’i for pursuing me too hard. If we win this war, it’s because of him. Because he’s a genius. All I do is listen to what he says. That’s all the genius I’ve had so far.
  “Still awake, sire?” Bi Lu Biao called. “We’ll be on the march again in just a few hours, don’t you think you should sleep?”
  Hei turned and smiled at the much older man. “So you say, but you seem to be awake all the same.”
  Bi laughed. “Well, that is, old men are always awake and always asleep. We don’t go in ten hour stretches like you kids.”
  “It’s just because we kids can hold our water a little longer than girls and old men.” Hei smiled back. Bi Liu Biao scowled at him in response Hei raised his hands up defensively. “Hey, I wanted to thank you. If you hadn’t kept us in position there’s no way we could have defended that bridge long enough. You saved the entire army. You and your men. Artillery men who fought the hardest melee in the war. I can’t thank you and your men enough for that.”
  “They fought for you.” Bi said simply. “They fought because you kept fighting. I’ve never seen anything like it. You were a demon, and you made demons out of them. In all my life I’d never seen any of my men fight that hard.”
  “It wouldn’t have mattered if I had gone running like a fool into the fight instead of making a stand at that chokepoint. It was the ground, you can only fight so well, the ground is everything.” Hei stressed, not wanting to boast.
  “As you say, sire. Thank you for not flaying me alive for a traitor, at that. Not many emperors thank their men for mutinies.” Bi said.
  “Well I was never raised to be an emperor.” Hei smiled. “I must have missed that lesson.”
  “You may have been the second son,” Bi Liu Biao said, “But the Dao raised you our Emperor.”
  Hei blushed. He had just led all his men into a terrible attack and destroyed his army, and they still loved him. He had completely screwed up, and they treated him like some conqueror. God he loved these men. Hei swallowed to get the knot out of his throat. “Any word concerning Shea Lu Pao?”
  “Sorry, sire. Missing, presumed dead, along with all his men.”
  “Can’t be helped I guess.” Hei bit his cheek in guilt. Well, Shea wanted it that way. Kill or be killed. He had to have taken his chunk out of them when he went. All you can hope for in war. “Can’t be helped.” Hei repeated. “Karma.”
  Bi was silent for a moment. “If I know him, he’s already reborn, so he can grow up and serve you for your next war.”
  “Yeah,” Hei laughed. “Yeah, that would be him.” He had wanted them to live. He had wanted everyone to live so that they could build a bright new future together. God damn it. And instead he had killed them. “I’ll just watch for the most brilliant officer and that will be him. His eyes will know, even if he can’t remember. His eyes will know that he is Shea Lu Pao.” God damn it. He should have known Ch’i wasn’t stupid enough to divide his forces in front of the enemy. Of course it had been a ruse. Of course it had been. What a stupid trick to fall for.
  “For now let’s just win this war for them. For all the men who have died so far.” Bi Liu Biao said.
  Hei nodded, his eyes sharpening with determination. “I will win. I’m going to kill that snake. For my father, my brother, for Lu, for Shea, and for everyone else. I will kill him. I will kill him for what he’s done to me.” Hei clutched his three maps with all his strength. This will be the final battle, Ch’i. This is where it ends.

  Min Kei Rok looked at the maps as he tried to find a way to finish off the retreating enemy. They couldn’t fight anymore, but if he allowed them time to recover they would become a nuisance again. The last battle had gone well but it had been very bloody, with Tang’s Liuyan allies the numbers had been far more even than he had expected, and with the stubborn fighting the Liuyans gave it had made the exchange rate something like two to one instead of the victory it should’ve been. Which left Min with around thirty thousand men, and the enemy with around ten thousand. A large advantage, but not enough to be secure. Especially with how much of an advantage it was to be on the defensive. The most important thing for now was to keep the enemy retreating away from any large cities, so they couldn’t turn the battle into a siege. With the time it took to take a walled city, any number of new factors would emerge. Would the Liuyans rally to their prince? Would Tang send for reinforcements from his native country? Would my own troops lose their morale and desert? If the battle stayed on the open field Ch’i would win, but if they managed to escape into a city the battle would just go on and on. Every day of pursuit gave him more abandoned baggage and wounded. Ch’i in turn discarded unnecessary baggage and wounded to keep up his own speed. There was always the difficulty that larger numbers of people always moved slower than smaller numbers of people. The organization was more cumbersome, and entire columns could be stopped by a few crossbowmen left in ambush. Because of that despite his best efforts Tang’s army had opened up a sizable lead on his pursuers. But they must be feeling the strain, to march that long almost day and night after losing a battle, his men must be on the brink of surrender. I just have to keep the strain up, keep the fatigue up, so that they snap at the first hint of another combat. Their will is broken, if I could only reach them to break it. But now the situation had become more complex. Scouts reported that the enemy had divided their forces and gone marching in separate directions, one north, the other east. Had their been an internal rift between generals? Between Liu-Yang and Tang? Had they decided to split into two groups so that he could only catch one of them and in that manner they would survive? Or was it a trick, and they hadn’t split up at all, but were just trying to emulate him? More importantly, of the two, which one should he pursue? The maps gave the answer. The one heading north was just wandering into wilderness, the one still heading east was making for the coast, and potentially a navy that could supply them or transport them, and a walled city, as all the major cities were either on the massive rivers or the coastline. It was practically impossible to lay siege to a coastal city, because ships would always be supplying them from the other side. Ch’i had no navy, they were landlocked, there was no way to stop any navy that Liu-Yang might have. So he pretty much had to pursue the ones heading east. East was so clearly the better direction that it begged the question why anyone would be sent north. The solutions were, Tang was sent north with his best forces in an attempt to sacrifice their weaker divisions so that they could run back for Tang. In that case, all was well, because it was Liu-Yang and not Tang that had to be defeated. Tang escaping really made no difference to him. That was one explanation, other explanations remained, that it was a trick, that it was an internal dispute, etc, but the possibilities became lower and lower with those. The best explanation was the men heading east were bait, and Tang was running for it. Unfortunately the bait was kikashi, the threat you had to respond to, the move you had to make. If he ignored the men heading east they would inherit an incredibly strong position on the coast. So even though it was a diversion, Min had to be diverted. Catching up to the eastern half of Tang’s forces was more important than catching Tang himself.
  “We’ll continue on our present course.” Min Kei Rok finally announced to his advisors. “I want cavalry harassing their flanks the entire retreat, I want that army to break and surrender before it ever reaches a city. Tell the cavalry commander that it is essential he create a continuous strain of combat on the men heading east.”
  “Yes, sire.” A staff sergeant saluted, leaving the tent to fetch his horse. The game was won, but he still had to be careful. There was enough strength left in Tang for some desperate effort, and so long as Min had to pursue, in a sense, Tang had the initiative. Not that Tang had done anything all that intelligent so far, but it was always important to be careful. Just because one person played poorly that didn’t mean you should.

  Thank God most of my cavalry survived the battle at the two rivers. Pe Su Huang thought. They’re the only reason I can keep my army moving now. Without them screening the flanks, Chi’s cavalry would have cut us to pieces by now. Instead there’s just feint after feint and sortie after sortie where we carve each other up and then go back to watching each other warily again. I’m in position, Hei, where are you? Impossible to time this well, too much distance and time was inbetween them now. Messages were always dated too late to matter. But Min Kei Rok had moved as they wanted, parallel to the west-flowing river marching east, chasing him. If Hei could catch up to him from behind, which shouldn’t be a problem, since his five thousand was a much smaller force than Chi’s thirty thousand, and if he could engage them in a defensive strongpoint until Hei was ready to attack, which shouldn’t be a problem, since Min was clearly wishing to engage Pe as soon as possible. . .then it would just come down to timing. Pe Su Huang had found good ground, some old decaying feudal boundary with a river on one side and a swamp on the other. No doubt those formations had also served as the boundary between the two lords, but what it meant was Tang had a wall in the middle of the countryside. Not a very tall or thick wall, but a wall. Which in one moment eliminated the threat of both enemy crossbowmen and cavalry. You couldn’t ask for more than that. And with both flanks reasonably covered by the marshy terrain, Tang wanted to make his stand here. It was good ground. But if he made his stand here and Hei hadn’t caught up yet, then he would be overwhelmed and killed for no reason, and the war was lost. Tang ran the calculations through his head again. Five days or so marching north to the river. A day or two sailing down river to get behind Ch’i, a week or so to get back within striking range but out of screening range so they wouldn’t be noticed. It had been twelve days. To be safe, Tang would have to keep retreating four more. But his army was tired. His cavalry was depleted, he was under constant harassment and he didn’t know if he could give Hei four more days. And this ground was the best he would have. Was giving Hei more time worth this ground? Twelve days was below even the minimum estimate, but he had to believe Hei would find a way to speed them up. He couldn’t give up this ground. He couldn’t hold out much longer. He was going to fight here and Hei had better just have found a way to cut the time down. Everything was a gamble, but karma balanced it all out. Ch’i would lose because he had to lose, so Hei would catch up so that Ch’i would lose, so he would hold out long enough for Hei to catch up, because the Dao didn’t reward evil or punish good. The Dao was symmetry. He was willing to gamble on an absolute being absolute. That couldn’t be that risky. He would just leave it up to God. He had found the right ground, it was the right time, if God wanted them to win, then Hei is currently on Chi’s rear. If God wants Ch’i to win, then Hei isn’t on Chi’s rear. That simple. I’ve done my part.

  Hei Ming Jong looked through his spyglass, his horse wheezing under him. Then the dust clouds and the steady boom of the drums and marching were real. For some reason Tang was already engaged. Damn it, I asked for at least thirteen days. Alright, calm down. Tang had waited this long, and it was long enough because I’m here, after all, so I’ll just have to back him up. Even though my men marched through the night because I was worried there was too much dust for me to be seeing just Chi’s men and it looked like both Ch’i and Tang were just ahead of me. Even though they’ve marched all yesterday, all night, and all morning to get here, they’re here, so they’re just going to have to attack. Hei blinked. How long had they been fighting? Surely it only started this morning. Then Tang would have to hold for. . .two hours longer for my men to reach Chi’s rear. And they’ve been fighting for. . .three hours already. By God Tang I hope you have some good ground. You’re outnumbered six to one and you have to hold for five hours. God I hope you know what you’re doing.
  Hei took a long drink of water to give his throat some new life. He’d been on the move forever. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d really slept. Over a week ago. And his men were hardly any better off. Ridiculous. Tang, you cut it too close. I needed more time. I told you at least one more day. Damn it. “Staff sergeants, get back to your men, that’s your king down there fighting for his life. Tell your men that. Your king and your army is fighting for its life and we must engage as soon as possible. Every step they take is one step closer to the battlefield, tell them to come forward as soon as possible, to march forward until their legs fall off, just get them into the fight. Every last man must get into the fight. Anyone who doesn’t get into the fight is a traitor and a deserter and I will hunt them down. Understand? Every last man.”
  “As you command.” The Tang generals saluted curtly. They didn’t like following him, but they were in the army and the army understood obedience had nothing to do with who you liked. They were as anxious as he was to get in the fight. It was their king and their army that was on the line. They would do what they had come here to do. Even if it was awfully strange that they had started the war against Liu-Yang and now they had fought against Pi and Ch’i, even if their king had led them into an incredibly dangerous war where they were outnumbered at all times and run ragged marching back and forth, left and right, all that didn’t matter anymore, because right now, if they could just march a few more miles, they could end it. The war would be over, their country would be safe, and they could all go home. However stupid the war had been, however flawed Tang’s strategy was, the war could end right here if they followed Tang up to the hilt. If they obeyed their king just once more.
  Hei stared helplessly through his looking glass at the battle ahead. It was just a race now. It’s completely out of my hands. My men will make it in time or they won’t, and the whole war hinges on it. . .and my sister is down there with Tang and if we don’t make it she’s probably dead, and if that happens I’m not living on, I’m fighting until I die too right here right now. Damn it Tang you promised me another day.

End of Book One

  “Da, I’m back!” Hei shouted, dismounting from his horse. He had come here straight from the battlefield, ragged clothes, dirt and all. His coronation could wait until he had an Empress to be coroneted beside him. The little apartment he’d lived in had only been for a few months but it still felt like home. He had dreamed of it so many times. Thought about it constantly, worried about her ceaselessly. And he’d finally gotten the chance to return. Only a little over a year later. A terrible year but it didn’t matter anymore, the future would make up for it, everything was better now, and he could finally start his family with Da. Sure, he was emperor now, he had to worry about a lot more than he thought he would, but that didn’t matter because in return he could have his family with Da which was all he wanted. He would have to learn how to rule while he did it, he didn’t know how to collect taxes or judge cases well, or how to appoint good people to positions and avoid bad people, or how to be diplomatic with the other nations and make enough friends that they’d leave Liu-Yang alone. He had a lot to learn but that was okay, he could learn it, he had already learned a lot as a scribe here and there were advisors enough to teach him the rest.
  “Da! I’m home!” Hei burst into his chambers, upsetting two girls who screamed in fear. Hei looked at them with utter confusion, a mother and a daughter he had never seen before, making clothes out of bolts of silk. Trade was already coming back now that the situation was settled. No merchants had wanted anything to do with Liu-Yang until some stable rule was clear, but with the rice coming in this fall merchants were scrambling over themselves to get back into the market. No matter what happened the Middle Kingdom needed Liu-Yang’s rice. Whether Pi owned it, Tang owned it, Ch’i owned it, or Liu-Yang owned it. The merchants would always come to buy it. It was life itself.
  “Get out! Get out you tramp! Get out of my house!” The mother screamed, grabbing a broom and beating him with it.
  “Sorry, sorry!” Hei fended off the broom helplessly. “Sorry to intrude!” Hei fell backwards over the door frame, jerked his foot out just in time before the door was slammed on it. Hei stared at the wooden door in confusion. Now what? Perhaps she moved. Maybe the judge would know. He stood up, dusting off his silk coat. By the Dao, the Emperor shouldn’t have to be beaten by a broom. There should be a law about that. He went through the garden, the public bath, and knocked on the judge’s door. He may be out already holding court again, but this was a good place to start.
  The judge’s wife opened the door, looked at him with confusion. “Do I know you?”
  “Yes, well, I worked for your husband a year ago, and—“
  “I’m sorry, I know how hard it is to find work these days, and you look like a nice lad, but. . .my husband is dead. He died half a year ago from some sort of breathing problem. The apothecaries said he was old and it was just karma. There’s no way I can find you a job now that the courts are being reinstated.”
  “Is he really dead?” Hei asked. Impossible. He had been so healthy when Hei had left. “I’m sorry. . I was his friend. . .but did he ever mention anything to you—when I left there was a girl who lived here, Da Fing Jong, my wife, you understand? My wife lived here and now she isn’t here. Did he ever tell you where she went? What happened to her?”
  “I’m sorry, I don’t know anything about it. . .I have a vague memory of a couple that left in the night. . .but could that be you? Do you mean you didn’t leave together?”
  “No, not together.” Hei said, a rising sense of panic in the back of his mind. Da left the same night. Where could she have gone? Why did she go? Why didn’t she wait for me? And it wasn’t like she waited for a long time but gave up, she left the very same night. Where did she go? How will I ever find her now? Doesn’t she know I’m emperor, that I won the war? Doesn’t all of Liu-Yang know I won the war? Why wouldn’t she want to be my wife? Why would she run from me?
  “That’s funny, though.” The widow noted. “You have the same last name as Hei Ming Jong, the new emperor. Maybe you’re distantly related? Maybe you could appeal to him for a job.”
  “Yeah. . .I’ll do that.” Hei said hollowly.
  “It was nice meeting you then, good fortune, sir.”
  “Yes, thank you very much.” Hei said again. The door closed. Da. She didn’t leave me for another man, she didn’t get tired of waiting, she left the very same night. She couldn’t have fallen out of love with me in one night. Impossible. Which meant there was only one other reason. She decided I hadn’t loved her. She can do that in one night. Hei dug his nails into his palm in frustration. But I did love you, damn it. I loved you enough to give up everything I had just to be with you. I haven’t touched another girl since I was gone, I haven’t even wanted another girl. I told you a thousand times how much I loved you, why didn’t you believe me? What should I have done? What can I possibly do now? Damn it, Da, if I just knew where you were I could convince you I still loved you. I can bring you back. It can’t end like this.

  The abbess opened the door to the little cottage set up for a nun and her new child. It would have been too hard on the baby to keep the mother in a strict ascetic living conditions. And also, the abbess knew a secret that made this nun deserving of a little better conditions than others. This nun was the empress of Liu-Yang. Messages had gone out from the capital for all the monasteries to check and see if there was a Da Fing Zhou or Da Fing Jong enrolled. A message pleading to deliver her back to the capital as his lawful wife. The abbess hadn’t believed Da when she had arrived, she had thought it a clever little fairy tale to cover up whatever disgraceful situation had gotten her with child and without a father. But it turned out to have been true. Wonder of wonders.
  “How is she?” The abbess asked, picking up the baby girl to hold and look at. The princess of Liu-Yang. How very strange.
  “She’s fine. She feeds well and doesn’t cry that much. Thank you so much for letting me care for her in this cottage. It makes things ever so much easier.”
  “What’s her name?” The abbess asked.
  “Umm. . .” Da bit her lip. “San,” Da hesitated again. “San Lei Jong.”
  “A pretty name, but don’t you go by Zhou?”
  “The children carry on the father’s name.” Da said, with a sad look. “But don’t worry, I’ll just say it was a coincidence. I won’t fill her with false hopes.”
  “They aren’t false.” The abbess said, giving the daughter back. She gave Da the message, since she could read and write flawlessly now.
  Da Zhou read the message and then read it over again, and tears started falling down her cheeks. “It’s too late. . .Oh Hei it’s too late for that. . .don’t you see? You’re the emperor, I can’t be married to you. . .not me. . .emperors marry queens and princesses, not peasants. . .they’ll never accept me, don’t you understand? I can’t be your wife. . .and. . .it’s too late. . .I already swore. It’s too late now. It’s karma, Hei. It was never meant to be. It was just never meant to be.”
  “These are special circumstances. The Emperor is the head of our church, he can unbind any oath you swore. Nothing stops you from going back.” The abbess said.
  “Even so, even so. I just can’t go back. I’d just be a burden to him. He’s Emperor now, I’d just be holding him back. He can’t be an Emperor married to a peasant. I won’t hold him back like that. He’ll marry a queen and have royal children and we can both live happily the way we were meant to live. I gave up my ambitions, I don’t want them back. I don’t want to be struggling for acceptance all the rest of my life. I don’t want all the nasty whispers about how I trapped Hei into a worthless marriage with my body while he was still a child, I don’t want whispers about how Hei’s children aren’t real heirs and create some new civil war, I don’t want my children crying to me about how all their friends say I’m just a dirty muddy peasant and their blood is half dirt. No, it’s just not possible. It would be too painful for everyone. Everyone would suffer, Hei, me, our children, even my baby daughter here. It’s not worth it. I can’t go back.”
  “Would you like to tell him?”
  Da shook her head, tears splattering. “No, if I explained to him, he wouldn’t accept it. He’d just come and take me back and think I was just inventing difficulties and none of it mattered anyway. He doesn’t care about what people whisper, he wouldn’t understand. But I would care. I would care so much. I can’t explain it to him. Just. . .leave it alone. He’ll give up on me eventually.”

  “We’ve done all we can, Hei.” The archbishop and other advisors said. “The marriage must be annulled. There’s no helping it. She’s gone.”
  “Take away Da and what is left to me?” Hei asked. “How can a marriage just disappear?”
  “I know it’s hard, Hei, but you have to look forward for the sake of your people. Your older brother was betrothed to the head of the Fu family, but he died. The Fu expect to marry into the line of emperors, if you don’t marry their girl, they will count it a slight and they might plunge us back into another war. We can’t afford anymore wars, Hei. We need peace. Just a little peace to catch our breath again. You have to marry the head of the Fu dynasty.”
  Hei’s eyes narrowed. “I’m legitimate because the Mandate of Heaven favors me, not some bloodline. I don’t need Fu’s blood to become a real emperor. Who are they anyway? Just the byproducts of a past, corrupt, weak age. I might as well marry the princess of Ch’i to legitimate my victory over them.”
  “I know, sire.” The archbishop soothed patiently. “But the Fu has a lot of land and many personal retainers, you cannot slight them, not right now. It can’t be helped, sire. It’s karma.”
  If this is karma then I hate God. Hei thought to himself. The thought came out of nowhere and struck a chord that vibrated with anger. For a year he’d done the impossible and taken two thousand men and freed his country from one hundred fifty thousand foreigners intent on its destruction. For a year he hadn’t thought about himself and given everything up, even his little sister who was only turning fifteen, for others. And this was his reward? How is that karma? I make everyone else happy, I save millions of lives, and my karma is to lose everyone I love? Was that the deal all along? First his family, then his friends, now his wife. It was too cruel. It was just too much. God has stolen everyone important to me one after the other. All God does is destroy my life, no matter how good I am, no matter how hard I try, no matter what I do, God punishes me. God just keeps coming, there’s nothing left for me, God has to have it all. I’m God’s servant in all things and my reward is to have nothing. Nothing. To have to marry some stupid duchess from Fu and Yue gone to Manching and my friends killed in the war and Da stolen from me and I don’t even know why—this is what I get for trying my best. This is my victory. This is my reward. There is a reason for everything and the reason for this is God hates me. That’s the only explanation. God hates me and wants to destroy me. Well if God hates me then I hate God. How’s that. I can’t control anything but there’s still one thing you can’t take from me, you may be all powerful but you can’t stop this, I still decide whether I sanction it or not. Do whatever you want, I will never sanction what you do to me again. I’ll never agree that it is karma that I suffer. I shouldn’t suffer, there is no reason for me to suffer, I haven’t done anything to merit this. This isn’t karma. This isn’t justice. I was supposed to win the war and get Da back and have children and live happily ever after. I earned that future. I did the impossible for that future. And you stole it from me. I’ll marry your stupid Fu duchess, but I’m never helping you again. This is war. You’ve always been at war with me, and so I’m finally declaring it on you. Because you control it all, everything is your fault, everyone I’ve been fighting against is just another facet of you. The only person I’ve ever really been fighting is you, you and your karma and your all-powerful cruelty to everyone on this earth. I hate you most of all. Your karma has only been perpetual suffering, a never ending cycle of death and pain for everyone on this earth. Why should that be? Why does it have to be like that? My life could be so much better, all our lives could be so much better, it’s so easy for me to see how our lives could be better if it were different. If we had food enough for all, if there wasn’t any disease, if people were more honest and kind to each other, if nobody had to die unless they felt like it—why isn’t that karma? Why isn’t that your divine plan for us all? What is this crap you’ve given us instead? And you say it’s the best you can do? Only if you’re the devil. Only if your goal is to trap us all into this eternal misery. A God would have given me Da back. That’s what a God would do. You’re just a devil.
  “Hei Ming Jong? Your answer?”
  “Yes, yes. I’ll marry her.” Hei said. “Now leave me alone.”

  The archbishop left the chambers disquieted. Those were dangerous eyes he had seen brooding inside themselves. This new emperor. . .all he’s ever known is war. . .he was raised a weapon. But a weapon without a sheathe is too dangerous. Too dangerous. Hei being our emperor saved us from war, but. . .he just might make the peace even worse. If he doesn’t find love again. . .something terrible will happen. That’s what his eyes said. Something terrible will happen inside him and our new Emperor will no longer be our saviour but our destroyer. I pray to God the duchess of Fu can be that sheathe. Well, it was in God’s hands. Karma.

  Pe Su Huang walked to the carriage which awaited him. The dual marriage had sealed the alliance between Tang and Liu-Yang for the foreseeable future. Yue Fang Jong was finally his, and Hei Ming Jong was married to the duchess of Fu. It was spring again and everything was better off than before. Fortresses were being built on the Yang river that would garrison his troops, so strong that it would be practically impossible for Liu-Yang to attack them and take them before Tang had a chance to respond. With those fortresses garrisoned, Tang would have a permanent say on what shipping went in and what went out, and under what conditions. They would no longer have to fear the embargo that losing the Tang Dynasty had created one hundred years ago. But Hei had not looked happy. Hei looked more grim than he ever was on the battlefield. The conversation had been entirely stiff and formal.
  “What’s wrong, Pe? Frowning on our wedding day? What, have you changed your mind about me already?” Yue gave him a warning pout.
  “Never.” Pe smiled to see her. “I’m worried about Hei is all. He didn’t look happy marrying that other girl. He barely even kissed her at the end.”
  “Well. . .we’re royalty.” Yue looked down. “It’s our duty to marry where it best helps the state. It comes with the title. He knew it had to be done.”
  “I hope I’m not just something that had to be done.” Pe said.
  “Well, you were. . .” Yue teased. “But I lucked out. I had to marry the one man I wanted to marry after all.” She smiled and kissed him. “When I heard that the battle at the two rivers had gone wrong, that everyone was in a retreat, I was terrified. Do you know what I was scared of?”
  “That Hei wouldn’t come back?” Pe guessed.
  “No, you see, I knew because he was injured, he wouldn’t be in the fight.”
  “That Liu-Yang would be conquered?” Pe guessed again.
  Yue punched him. “No, silly, if you had lost I would’ve just started a guerrilla war and won anyway. After that battle Ch’i didn’t have nearly enough troops to garrison all of Liu-Yang. We’re twenty million people! When three kings were working together, they could handle us. But by then it was like half of one king. Ch’i never stood a chance.”
  Pe considered it. Was it true? Would they have won anyway? Had they done enough damage that an unorganized army could have done the rest? Pe thought about it. With Yue as their leader, it was possible. She was the next in line, people would rally to her so long as they were willing to rally. . .and she was smart. Very smart. And she had the courage to do it, too. Hadn’t she been on the campaign as long as the two of us? Hadn’t she rode as far as we did, didn’t she sleep as little as we did, when we ran for those last couple weeks? Didn’t she cross the mountains of Tang in the middle of winter just like us? And didn’t she already command an army until Hei came to take it from her? She could’ve done it. She definitely could’ve done it.
  “Then what on earth were you worried about?” Pe asked.
  “That you’d die before I ever got to be nice to you.” Yue said. “That you’d die thinking I hated you. That’s what was running through my mind.”
  Pe Su Huang was silent. “Hei is going to hate me. He’s going to hate me for taking you from him. I know because I’d hate anyone who took you from me.”
  “That’s silly, how could you take me from Hei? He knows I love him. Just because I’m far away doesn’t change anything.”
  “Maybe we should stay. Just a couple months. Tide him over. You could keep him some company until he was okay with this marriage.” Pe suggested. Maybe it was just his paranoia again, but he felt like there was something seriously wrong. Like when he was thinking before, that Hei was taking too much strain on himself and that he was going to snap. After seeing Hei’s eyes his fear had redoubled that something was seriously wrong.
  “I couldn’t do that. The duchess of Fu would hate me if I tried to interfere with their marriage. This is her chance to get him to care about her. I can’t get in the way of that. And it’s better for Hei if he can love her, because she’ll be right there. Besides, don’t you want to be alone with me?”
  Pe Su Huang gave up. That question was too loaded to resist. “I hope it’s okay. Losing the wife he loved, losing his little sister, Shea and Lu dying in the war. . .not much has been going his way these days.”
  “It’s okay. Hei is strong. Nothing can hurt him. He’s not like us, he’s entirely better. He can handle anything.” Yue said, confident. Pe was like this, always worrying. She knew it was something they would get used to, Pe worrying about something and Yue reassuring him. That wasn’t so bad. Making your husband feel better when he mentions whatever is keeping him down at the moment. That wasn’t that bad a pattern at all.
  “You’re right. He did the impossible. If he can beat the three of us then there’s no way a little thing like loneliness could stop him.” Pe Su Huang said. “He’ll be fine.”
  Yue nodded. “I wish you wouldn’t say ‘us’ like you were on Chi’s side. You’re too hard on yourself. Hei didn’t beat us, we beat them.”
  “You’re right. I guess we had some part in it too.” Pe laughed. “Here’s to Hei, then, may his future be as bright as ours.”
  Yue nodded. Here’s to you, brother. I’ll never break my promise, you can count on it. You’ll never be alone so long as I’m here, even if I’m far away. You’re not alone. You’ll be fine because you’re loved so much anyway. Even if Da doesn’t love you, we do. Pe and me love you a lot. And if that’s not enough then you’re hopeless, because we’re the best there is.
  Here’s to you, Hei. Pe toasted. I held five hours against thirty thousand men because I knew you’d come. And you did, and we got that snake. His men were as tired as ours and when the frontal attack wasn’t working and Hei came on their rear when there was no way Hei could be on their rear. . .we trapped them and killed them and Min Kei Rok is dead. Because you did the impossible and came a day sooner than the absolute minimum, and I knew you would. I knew you would hold the bridge, and I knew you would come a day sooner than humanly possible, because that’s the sort of person you are. Because of you I’m a decent person. Even though you’re younger than me I ended up learning how to be a decent man from you. You didn’t just save Liu-Yang, you saved Tang, too. Saved Tang from me. And not just that, by restoring Liu-Yang, you gave the Middle Kingdom back its balance. The war will end for a while, because no one nation is capable of conquering the other six again. We can pause and take a break and just live for a while before having to try again. So you didn’t just save Liu-Yang, you even saved Pi, Ch’i—even Ch’in and Mae-Dong and Weh, which the war would have gone to once any one of us had control of the south. You stopped a war which would’ve swept over us all. That’s really something. It’s been a hundred years since the last dynasty and so we’re due for a new one. . .but maybe history can wait just a little longer, and we can worry about that later. Maybe we can have piece for say, fifty years more and then my children can worry about reconquering the world. Because honestly, I’m fine with having seven nations. I don’t have any problem with it. I can handle extra lines on the map, if it means we can have peace. That was true harmony. Unity was just everything being the same, but harmony was nature’s way of everything being incredibly different and yet still working together. People united the Middle Kingdom in the name of harmony, but true harmony would be all seven kingdoms being different and together anyway. That’s what the Dao really wants. That’s the goal we should really be after, not this perpetual war, this breaking up and then coming back together. It should be just not caring and seeing a cloud and saying, ‘that’s pretty’, and then seeing the sky, and saying, ‘that’s pretty,’ and deciding that, after all, it would be okay if both the cloud and the sky remained. That they didn’t have to fight it out. If we ever do that, if we ever stop the wars, the dynasties and the warring states, if we could just stop that cycle, then our history wouldn’t have to be a cycle. It wouldn’t have to spin and spin and go nowhere. Instead it could be a line going forward. A line heading towards infinity.

  Hei Ming Jong paused, unconsciously taking his hand out of Qiao Lin Jong’s. She had been very beautiful in her wedding dress, but it still hurt to kiss her, it felt like a betrayal, even though Da had left him. Talking to Pe had been even harder, as good a friend as he was, he was taking little Yue away from him, taking her so far away they’d probably only see each other a few more times before they died. It had been hard enough staying polite, hiding that anger, shaking his hand instead of slugging him. Even though he had been the one who arranged the marriage, now that it had happened, somehow he blamed Pe. Like he had been tricked into giving her away. This was the first face he was happy to see all day.
  “Sire!” Pu Shi saluted. “Congratulations, Emperor!” He bowed to the Empress at his side with perfect courtesy.
  Hei Ming Jong looked past his friend with a widening smile. A wife and three daughters, dressed in their very finest silk, blue, pink, and yellow, with flowers in their hair. “Pu Shi, they’re beautiful.” He spoke, envious.
  “Aren’t they?” Pu Shi looked back at his family with all his pride. “I was with you the whole war, so I wanted to see it through the peace to, until you were properly on the throne and all. Figured it was the least I could do.”
  “My thanks. You won that war for us, by God. I couldn’t have done it without you.” Hei said, warming up. Perhaps today wasn’t all bad after all.
  “Hei Ming Jong!” Another man hailed. “I thought I wouldn’t catch you! Congratulations, man! Isn’t she a beauty?” Pang Lei ran up, shaking his hand.
  Qiao blushed, not knowing any of these people. Hei Ming Jong looked at her, seeing her shyness. She must feel inferior to these people, that I care more about them than her, even on her wedding night. She’s right, but that’s not what she deserves. She doesn’t deserve to remember our wedding like that. She deserves whatever love I can give her, whatever respect a wife should get from her husband, whatever support her dignity as the head of the Fu line and now the Empress merits. She should at least be given that much, even if I can’t learn to love her. So Hei Ming Jong took her hand back in his, and smiled. “Isn’t she?” Qiao blushed even deeper and tried to hide from the other men behind her veil.
  “By God, man, have some sons. You’re the last of the Jongs, and judging from how you won that war, I don’t want your line to die out quite yet.” Pang laughed.
  “Not to worry,” Hei smiled. “I’m sure Yue will be getting to work soon too, and she can have enough sons for both our kingdoms.”
  “Even so, even so, I want you to have some sons, because by God I want to be there when they join the army. I’ll teach them everything there is to know about wagons, and by God about how brave their father was too.” Pang said. “And to think I called you a coward when this all started. Will you ever forgive me?”
  Hei smiled, started to say something, but was interrupted by another call. “Hei Ming Jong! By God you walk quickly, thought I’d never catch up to you. Congratulations man! Married and consecrated Emperor all at once!” Bi Liu Biao walked up and shook his hand.
  “I wanted to keep the ceremonies to a minimum, so I figured people wouldn’t mind if I squeezed them all together.” Hei joked, shaking the old man’s hand.
  “And such a beauty at that! And the daughter of the Fu line, why, the dowry must have been something to see!” Bi Liu Biao said, unapologetically staring at Qiao’s face.
  “Alright alright, I think there’s a consensus over how beautiful my wife is, now can we please stop teasing her?” Hei demanded, seeing her blush again. “Even old men should have some manners in front of a lady.”
  “Old? Ha. I’m young enough to teach your sons something about artillery, or I’ll be dithered. I’m just the right age to be their Shikijo. You know, I wouldn’t mind playing a few games with you over the years until then, too. You’re a damn good Go player. And damned if you aren’t an even better Emperor.”
  Hei smiled. “It would be an honor if you taught my son. And you’re welcome to come play me anytime.”
  “We do have an army to train, right Hei?” Pu Shi asked. “I mean, it feels like our only army has been Tang’s this whole war. And what with the battle of two rivers. . .I mean, where will we go? What are we supposed to do? We still have a job, right?”
  Hei looked at the three of them, remembering the two rivers and how many had died that day. Not one of them blamed him. Not one of them had ever stopped believing in him, after that day. They had all proved themselves that day, and the days after, there was no way he could ever forget any of them after that. “I have some ideas. Pu Shi, you’re a noble, so was Shea Lu Pao, so don’t get me wrong, a lot of the nobility rode when they were called for, and a lot didn’t. Besides, it took so long to marshal the army, and it was just such a random assortment of volunteers, that we practically did fight the war with Tang’s army. So I plan on changing that around a bit. We can’t afford a standing army, even with my wife’s dowry—“ The three laughed and Qiao glared at him.
  “We can’t afford a standing army!” Hei rose his voice and repeated himself, squeezing her hand to show he didn’t mean anything by it. “But maybe we can afford some sort of half-standing army. An army at ready. I think it’s time we trained our army pieces at a time, and for the rest of the time, have them on notice, ready to be called up in a week. That’s what we should be shooting for, and I’m going to need all of you to train those pieces, every year. In a week’s notice, we should have a standing army as big as any that can attack us. And if the nobility don’t plan on answering to our call when we call, then well, we’ll just have to find those who will, and reward them instead. I don’t think I could win this same war twice, the way we went about it.” Hei laughed, and the others laughed with him, agreeing. Happy that they’d won, that they had lived, that their story would continue. Soon enough each of them took their leave, saying their goodbyes. He might see them again, he might not, but they would always be there. Hei realized that. Not all his memories were bad. Not everything had gone wrong. Pu Shi had lived to see his daughters again, when they had all sworn he wouldn’t, that he would die before he ever came back. Pu Shi had lived through it all and come back to them. That was something.

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