Blog Archive

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Emperor's Son: Part 2



THE EMPEROR’S SON

BOOK TWO

Chapter 1

  “Alright, let’s go over it again. What is the work of the Emperor?” The tutor asked.
  “To facilitate commerce. To administer justice. To make and uphold the law. To negotiate with other nations. To defend our borders. To root out corruption or oppression within the State. To. . .umm. . .be even higher than the archbishop when it comes to the one true religion.”
  “To defend the faith.” The tutor provided.
  “Yes, that’s it. To provide heirs or in any case delineate who is next in line at all times so there can be a smooth transition from Emperor to Emperor.”
  “You won’t have to worry about that part for a while though.” The tutor said.
  The boy laughed. “Right, so. . .let’s see. . .to maintain the army and public works. . .to maintain the currency by keeping all the granaries full of rice unless in time of famine. . .oh, yeah, to print the currency in the first place. . .”
  “I think you’re breaking into smaller categories. Printing the currency and keeping its worth from changing all fall under facilitating commerce.” The tutor said.
  “Okay, so. . .to promote the arts and culture. . .to promote learning and scribery.”
  “Scribery is not a word.” The tutor interjected.
  “Well, to make sure there are scribes then.” The boy amended himself.
  “You’re in a smaller category again. Should scribes exist for themselves or something else?”
  “Well, you need scribes to run the government.” The boy said. “So you need the government to make scribes.”
  “But what exactly do scribes do?” The tutor asked.
  “Well, they keep track of the treasury, the revenue and the expenses. They write all our laws and send them to the provinces, they write down court cases so judges will follow a single rule and not be arbitrary, they keep the accounts so we know if officials are accepting bribes or. . .the scribes do everything!” The boy gave up.
  “Not everything.” The tutor laughed. “The scribes multiply the power of the sovereign by communicating his will to the people and the people’s needs to him. We are intermediaries. Ideally scribes do nothing at all. But this leads to a good question, what are the branches of government and what do they do?”
  “Well, there’s the scribes. They write things down.” The boy put up one finger to account for them.
  “Then there’s the military. They are the officers and the men currently in training under those officers, plus all the men who have trained before and can be called upon to come back and fight. . .There is a general of the left and a general of the right who are given equal authority and men so that no one person can gain the support of the military to overthrow the Emperor.” The boy held up another finger.
  “Then there’s the priests. They teach the one true religion to everyone who will listen and teach the people to respect the Emperor because he has the Mandate of Heaven, and also they take care of charity, hospitals, monasteries, funerals, and have a yearly stipend from the treasury to take care of all their needs. Each district has a bishop and then there’s an archbishop who looks after it all and the archbishop reports to the Emperor.”
  “Last there’s the. . .I don’t know. . .all the little people who collect taxes, customs, make inspections, the ambassadors to the other countries, the servants who keep the palace clean. . .I don’t know what category they fit into.” The boy said with his fourth finger.
  “The civil service.” The tutor provided.
  “That’s all I can think of.” The boy said, hopeful.
  “You forgot the nobility.” The tutor said.
  “But they aren’t part of the government!” The boy complained.
  “Not part of the government!” The tutor laughed. “Lin Su Jong, the nobility are an enormous part of the government. The nobility provides their appointed revenues to the central treasury, keeps order and justice in their territory, and provide men, armaments, and supplies when the Emperor calls upon them in case of war. The nobility also forms the largest portion of all the scribes and all the officers in the military. In addition, they are local patrons of the arts, and by investing their wealth into joint stocks, providing insurance, improving their land for more intensive agriculture, and other works, they are pivotal to the economy.”
  “But the nobility doesn’t do what we say.” Lin Su Jong complained.
  “Of course the nobility does what the Emperor tells them. The Emperor allows them a certain degree of independence because they are closer to their people and know better what’s best for them in that particular area. Also because they create centers of authority that can do the Emperor’s work, like collect taxes and hold courts. And also because they make sure that the vast majority of wealth in the country is interested in keeping the current ruler in power so that he will defend their ancient rights and incomes. Without a nobility, the people, the merchants in particular, would have so much wealth they could take care of themselves and it would be total chaos. Everyone in Liu-Yang must need the Emperor or they will revolt against him. For the churches, they need our annual support so that they can provide all their services, for the merchants, they need our insurance and security and public works on the ports and bridges and canals, for the military, only the Emperor can summon most of the forces and at any given time the two generals are only allowed their fresh recruits, for the nobility, they need a ruler who will ensure the stability of their inheritance. For the bankers, they need us to print and insure their money. For the peasants, they need our justice, our oversight so that local rulers don’t oppress them or overtax them, and to be protected from bandits and foreigners who would seize their goods or lives. Everyone in the Empire needs the Emperor to be secure in his life and property. Only then is there harmony throughout the land.”
  “That’s what father said, that in the end the Emperor’s job was to be like the Dao. To provide symmetry by making sure the rule of law applied to everyone and nobody abused it, inside or outside the government—and to provide harmony by making everyone rely on each other and help each other under the stable rule of just one person because only one person can ever provide harmony because even the closest couple in love will fight sometimes.” Lin Su Jong said.
  “That’s right. In a family, the father has the power so he can provide harmony, and in the state, the Emperor has power so he can provide harmony. If you split up power everyone will just fight with each other and nothing can be done. In the universe all Nature is kept harmonious by the will of the Dao, and so for us all people must be kept in harmony by the person anointed by the Dao, the commander of the faithful, the Emperor.”
  “But wouldn’t it be more symmetrical if everyone were the same?” Lin asked. “I mean, if it were really symmetrical, how can one person be Emperor and another be a peasant?”
  “Symmetry isn’t unity.” The tutor said. “Symmetry is a beautiful pattern that balances itself. You are symmetrical, but you still have eyes, a nose, ears, legs, arms—you see? Your parts are very different but still symmetrical. It’s the same with harmony, you aren’t one giant eye, you’re many different parts that work together and help each other to form a whole.”
  “Then what’s the difference between symmetry and harmony?” Lin asked.
  “Hmm. . .” The tutor thought for a moment. “They are different but also the same, because they both originate from God. They are two different ways we as humans can perceive the perfection of God.”
  “So it’s like symmetry and harmony are different but work together harmoniously to form a perfect whole, the Dao!” Lin Su Jong said, impressed with himself.
  “Ha! That’s good. That could be written in a sutra and not look out of place.” The tutor smiled. Lin was smart, just like his father. He would grasp whole patterns after seeing only the first few pieces. He would probably be a great Go player like his father. The tutor looked up as the doors banged open, as though the thought had summoned the very man.

  “Daddy!” Lin Su Jong jumped up and ran over to his father who walked in talking with a host of officials about grown up stuff. Daddy was always busy talking to people because it was almost impossible to know everything you needed to know to run the lives of all twenty million subjects as well as possible. But he still made time for his son.
  “I don’t care if they’re making tons of money on the spice trade, there’s no tax on spice. The tax is ten percent of the rice, our banks are filled with rice, not spice, Liu-Yang is built on rice. The land produces rice. That is our source of wealth, and the government’s source of wealth must rely on the country’s source of wealth. We rise and fall together.”
  “But sire, think of what we could do with taxes on the spice trade! We could double the army! We could demand Tang dismantle his fortresses on our river—“
  “I’m the one who ordered those fortresses built!” Hei shouted. “Has Tang ever interceded in our trade? Once? Have those fortresses ever harmed one Liuyan?”
  “No, sire, but just think, they could cut Liu-Yang, our very capital, off from the sea. It’s disgraceful! Enemy soldiers on our own soil.”
  “They’re not enemies!” Hei shouted again. “Get out of my sight. And don’t you dare touch the spice trade!” The four or five officials closed their mouths on their next words and bowed low. The Emperor’s temper was short at all times and their positions didn’t last long unless they learned when to back down. Nobody was friend enough to feel secure in his company.
  “Hi Daddy.” Lin Su Jong said, smiling.
  Hei Ming Jong looked down and smiled back. “Hi Lin. Do you know why we shouldn’t tax the money journeymen make on selling spice?”
  “Because they already paid taxes on the rice which they sold to get the spice?” Lin guessed.
  “Exactly.” Hei said. “By God. My eight year old child is smarter than all my advisors.”
  “Then why do they want to tax the spice too?” Lin asked.
  “Because they don’t think it matters. They don’t care about justice, they want as much money as possible, and they see that spice is making money.”
  “But why don’t they care about justice?” Lin asked. “Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Provide justice?”
  “What is justice?” Hei Ming Jong asked. “Is it justice that these spice traders are becoming richer than even the nobility? Is it justice that our insurance and our giant navy protects them free of charge? You see, justice is whatever one person thinks it should be. Everyone has their own idea of justice.”
  “Then which is the right justice?” Lin asked.
  Hei laughed. “Mine, of course. Or I wouldn’t believe it. My justice is you don’t tax people over ten percent, because we don’t need any more taxes than ten percent. My justice is allowing people to take risky journeys around the southern peninsula all the way to the western coast and back to make a profit from it. Because of this spice trade, by the time you become Emperor, Liu-Yang will be an entirely different nation. Anyone who harms the spice trade harms Liu-Yang. Do you know that for thousands of years all we’ve ever done is farm? That’s Liu-Yang. The Liu river and the Yang river. It’s even our name. All we are is these fertile rivers which produce lots and lots of food. The problem with that, is that no matter how much food we make, we just make more peasants to eat the food, and so we end up just as hungry. Liu-Yang has more people than any three other kingdoms put together. No matter how much food we make, all we ever manage is to break even. Most everyone lives and dies very, very poor.”
  “Then make them stop having babies.” Lin Su Jong said.
  “Impossible. The peasants would be very unhappy if they couldn’t make babies anymore.” Hei laughed at the thought.
  “Well okay. Then how can things change?”
  “With trade.” Hei said. “Trade is the key. Trade is the way out. The end of the cycle. Trade is the answer. Take ten bowls of rice.” Hei said, sitting down next to Lin and scribbling the scenario down. “Now, you have ten bowls of rice, and you need, say, 5 bowls of rice to just stay fed.”
  “Okay.” Lin nodded.
  “Now, what will you do with your other five bowls?”
  “Save them for later.” Lin said decisively. “I’ll eat them when I’m hungry again.”
  Hei Ming Jong nodded. “That’s a good idea. Now we have five extra bowls of rice. Enough to feed another person. Now say you have a kid, he can eat your five bowls of rice and live too.”
  “But then I’m out of rice.” Lin complained.
  “That is bad, but luckily another ten bowls of rice arrives just in time. If your lucky, ten bowls of rice will always arrive just in time for both of you to stay fed from here on. You can eat rice forever.” Hei said.
  “Well. . .I guess that’s good.” Lin said. He wasn’t sure what his father was getting at.
  “But say you didn’t save up your rice. Instead let’s say you just ate ten bowls instead of five.” Hei said.
  “But that’s wasteful!” Lin complained.
  “You’re right. Now you have a kid and he just dies because he has no rice. So from now on you eat all ten bowls of rice all the time and get fatter and fatter.”
  “I don’t want that much rice!” Lin complained. “I only want five bowls.”
  “Right, what can you do with so much extra rice? It doesn’t even taste good when you eat that much more. Everyone agrees that they have no use for all this extra rice. But then it turns out that there’s just twice as many people all eating rice forever, and that’s the only difference.” Hei said.
  “So what do we do with all these extra people?” Lin finally saw the connection. “It’s just like eating twice as much rice, isn’t it! Except now it’s twice as many people eating rice!”
  “Right! Exactly! That has been the problem of Liu-Yang since the beginning of time. We have more and more people all just eating rice!” Hei said. “And the only alternative is to just eat more rice and have less people, is that any better?”
  “No. I’d rather have more people than more rice, since people are better than rice.” Lin decided.
  “But wait, what if you could do something else with your rice? What if some guy wanted your rice, and he would give you, say, a ball for it. You have five bowls of rice, he has a ball. He could use the rice, and you already have enough rice. You could use a ball to play with, so you can do something other than just eat rice. Will you trade your five bowls of rice for a ball?”
  “I don’t know. Just one ball for all five bowls?” Lin complained.
  Hei laughed. “That’s the spirit. Say one person will give you a ball, another person will give you candy, a third person will give you a pair of shoes, a fourth person will give you a kite, and a fifth person will play a song for you that they made up themselves. Now will you give them your extra rice?”
  “Sure!” Lin said.
  “Now you have all sorts of good things—but you have a son, and he starves to death because you gave away your rice.”
  “I guess that’s not so good.” Lin said.
  “You’re right, it’s not so good. So instead you sell your ball to someone else for five bowls of rice, and feed your son too.”
  “But wait! I traded only one bowl of rice for that ball! How can it magically create five bowls of rice?” Lin complained.
  “I’ll tell you why. Because you went far away to find the guy with that ball and in his land balls are all over, but where you’re from, balls are nowhere to be found. So a ball is worth only one bowl of rice to him, but to the person you sold it too, it’s worth all five extra bowls of his rice. So now you have all that stuff and rice for your son too.” Hei said.
  “But what about his son? If he gives away his extra five bowls of rice then won’t his son starve?” Lin said. “In the end there’s only so much rice!”
  “You’re right, Lin. There’s only so much rice. So we have to ask ourselves, do we want all of our rice to make more people, or will we take all the extra rice we have, and use it to get all sorts of other good things to make us happy? The richer people will have both rice and good stuff, the poor people will have only rice or only good stuff, they will have to make a decision. You said before, just tell them to stop having children, but then they’d be unhappy. But what if we say, don’t have a child and you can have this ball instead?”
  “. . .they’d still prefer a child.” Lin said, crinkling up his nose. “Balls aren’t that great, daddy.”
  “Alright,” Hei smiled. “What if we said, don’t have an eighth child and instead you can have this ball? Or if you don’t like balls, insert whatever really good thing they could have instead.”
  “Well. . .I guess eight children would be a lot.” Lin said.
  “It’s not that many, because so many children die of disease.” Hei said. “But that’s not the point. The point is, at some point you have to ask yourself, what is good? More life or better life?”
  Lin thought about it. “Aren’t they both good?”
  “Yes, they’re both good. If you’re rich you can choose both. But if you’re poor you have to choose one or the other. There’s only so much rice.”
  “Well in that case, I think I’d want to have a better life. Because life wouldn’t be that great if all I ever did was eat rice. . .I’d just be like a pig or a cow, then, wouldn’t I? And that isn’t that great.” Lin said. “I’d want to have a song and candy and a ball to play with and a kite to fly and shoes to walk in.”
  “It’s just like that. That’s exactly the problem. Right now most people aren’t living like people, they’re living like cows or pigs, and that’s wrong. I don’t like it. I want that to change. That’s what we have to change. All people do now is work very hard to provide for their basic desires, just like any animal. Because Liu-Yang is so hot, it’s much easier here than other places, also there’s a lot of water and the soil is very fertile. That’s why so many people live here. But the problem is, even though life is much easier here, because there’s so much of it, everyone is stuck working just as hard and getting just as little as ever. It’s understandable when the northern barbarians live like animals because it’s so cold all they can do is ride around on their horses killing their sheep to stay alive. But we have a chance, we have a very good chance, to save up our rice and trade it for all sorts of good things we can enjoy. We are much wealthier than the barbarians, everyone in the Middle Kingdom is, because less land produces much more food for all of us. We have to use that wealth and for once, instead of just making more and more peasants, we should make better and better peasants. And the only way to do that is to give them a choice, to give them the opportunity. If a peasant wants, he can go on one of those ships and try and get rich so he can get everything he wants. Or a peasant can decide to forgo children and concentrate on saving up his wealth so that the children he does have can have better lives. Either way we’re finally breaking free of the cycle, we’re doing more than just refilling our rice bowls from year to year.”
  “But if people were willing to choose better lives all along then how come we haven’t already chosen better life over more life?” Lin asked.
  “Well, in the past, there were a lot fewer people, so the more people you had, the better, because they would just turn some useless wilderness into another farm and we would have more rice.” Hei said. “It went like that for thousands of years.” Hei said. “And also, in the past, nobody had any kites, balls, or shoes, so why not just have more rice? People had to figure out how to make kites, balls and shoes, and somebody had to be willing to give them rice for it. But the big thing everyone wants—well, it’s silk, so they can have clothes that aren’t hot—but the next biggest thing everyone wants, is spice. So their food can be preserved, for one thing, especially meat. Without spice meat gets rotten and so you can only eat meat the same day you kill your cow. But killing a cow in winter is a waste because they’re very skinny in the winter. With spice, you can kill the cow when they’re fat, get lots of meat, and then save the extra meat for the winter. Also spice makes everything taste better that you do eat. The problem was the only way to get spice is from plants that don’t grow here, they only grow far away, even further west than Mae-Dong. Because Mae-Dong is the furthest west state of the Middle Kingdom, they would make lots of money buying spice from the west and then selling it to the rest of us—but they had to carry it all overland which is very slow and carries very little spice. With ships, you can carry much more spice much faster. And until everyone has enough spice that they can use as much as they want every meal, the more spice you can carry the more money we make. You see? But we never got around the southern peninsula and back safely and consistently enough until we figured out how to make better, larger ships. So until now there was no choice in the matter. All Liu-Yang could ever make was food which made more peasants which made more food which made more peasants. But now it’s food or spice, and that spice can turn into anything else in the Middle Kingdom, because everyone in the Middle Kingdom wants it. That’s why we can choose better life over more life now and not before, even though we wanted to all along. By the time you’re emperor, instead of worrying about the next famine and how you’re going to keep your granaries full of rice, you’ll be worried about making sure all the land stays cultivated so that there’s as much surplus rice as possible to trade with and make into wealth for all your people so they can live better lives. Lives with time to think, time to play, time to talk, time to make new things and new ideas. Lives with time to breathe and look up once and a while. Lives like ours, where a father can just suddenly sit down and draw diagrams to his son, because he isn’t going to starve if he does.”
  “Is that why I’m your only son? Are you saving all your extra rice to give me more good things?” Lin asked.
  “No.” Hei Ming Jong said. “No. . .that’s not why.”
  “Because I think I could trade some of my things for a little brother.” Lin said.
  Hei fought to keep his voice under control. “You’re my only son because your mother died giving birth to you, and I loved her too much to have another child with anyone else.”
  Lin crushed his lips together in worry. “You mean I killed mother?”
  “No, Lin, no. You didn’t kill mother. God killed mother.” Hei said. Because God kills everything I touch and everyone I care about. Because God hates me and he’s already stolen two wives from me and if I marry again she’ll just die too and I’m too sick and tired and I can’t go through this a third time, that’s why you’re my only son, because I can’t love another person and see them die too like I know they would because it already hurts too much as it is.

Chapter 2

  “Let’s face it, when it comes to the military, all our emperor thinks about is cost.” Shen Lao said, pouring tea for himself and his guest.
  “I wouldn’t even give him that much credit. I think he keeps us weak intentionally out of fear.” Hu Ran Shea replied. “How do you explain this policy otherwise? Continuously collecting new boys for the military and laying off the current ones. Since the beginning of time being a soldier was a profession for life, not some five year stint.”
  “The Emperor says the army needs to change into a format that allows for the most possible troops in times of need and the least possible troops when they are not needed. Every volunteer who enters the army serves for five years, and in return is given a plot of land, but in return for that he must come when called for once more. The Emperor says it is a great way to keep all the land in cultivation even with so many peasants flocking to the cities in hope of getting rich off the new spice trade.” Shen Lao said in a neutral tone.
  “How many people live through the round trip? Half?” Shea asked.
  “Oh, more than that. Two thirds at least. The main problem is the diseases the sailors pick up docked in the western ports. Then there’s the constant barbarian piracy at the straits, and then another line of Weh pirates that buzz around our coastline. The monsoons are predictable, so storms aren’t much of a problem. All in all the trip takes around six months, you leave with the spring monsoon, trade all your goods and repair and restock your ship, then come back with the fall monsoon.” Shen Lao said.
  “What fall monsoon?” Hu Ran Shea asked.
  “It doesn’t get past the Mae-Dong mountains, but to the south of us, where the ships sail, there’s a fall monsoon as well as a spring, blowing in the opposite direction. Something to do with their proximity to the equator.” Lao explained.
  “Oh, you mean how currents flow in the opposite direction on the other side of the equator.” Shea said.
  “Right, and that means hot water is flowing out and cold water flowing in, and the difference in heat causes a seasonal monsoon until winter cools all the water down or summer heats all the water up. On the other side of the equator the exact same thing happens, but at the opposite time of the year. So traders have to go at the very end of our spring monsoon and at the very beginning of their fall monsoon, and the trip is about six months.” Lao said.
  “So at the time inbetween the sailors, who have sold all their goods and are just waiting around with nothing to do until they get home—“ Shea said.
  “Exactly. They pick up all the local whores and muck about until they’ve got every disease imaginable and if they don’t die there, or on the way back, they die a little after once they’ve gotten home. And that means the cities are full of very rich people who are willing to buy anything you can think of—thus peasants will go there to make them stuff to make a living—but also breeding pits for all the new diseases these traders have brought back with them—which means all the peasants that do go to the cities die soon after. They’ve never been around so many people, they have no defenses at all, they’re just lambs to the slaughter.”
  “Why not ban peasants from leaving the land?” Hu Ran Shea asked. “You can bet my peasants aren’t allowed to just wander away without my permission. I need their revenue.”
  “I suggested that to the Emperor, he said it was no use, it can’t be helped.” Shen Lao said. “The peasants can disappear into these massive cities and you could never find them if they ran away, the city of Liu-Yang has a million people in it, one or two new peasants can never be noticed in that maelstrom. Furthermore, he thinks there are too many peasants anyway and wants them to move to the cities, come what may. However many die can always be replaced in a few years.”
  “That’s true. Our women breed like rabbits.” Hu said. It was the common wisdom of all the nobility that peasants’ sexual appetites were beyond description, due to their vulgarity and lack of education.
  “It’s a good point, as it is, our excess population just starves to death, or our babies are just killed at birth, especially if they’re women and thus can’t work as hard. Why not provide a high risk lifestyle which uses this untapped resource? With the wealth our cities can produce, many people who would have to die if they remained peasants, are only very likely to die by moving to the city. And for those who survive the city, we’ve created a new source of wealth for the Empire. Liu-Yang’s land is almost entirely under cultivation, the only place left for wealth to be found is the cities. The cities are the future of Liu-Yang.” Lao predicted.
  “Funny that the spice trade itself isn’t the focus of the economy, it’s catering to the desires of the spice traders.” Hu Ran Shea noted. “Only gamblers and desperadoes who expect to die go on those spice runs, so the moment they come back with all their wealth, they just throw it away on some adventure and have to go back and trade for yet more spice to continue their run. Some of these people have successfully made and lost their fortunes four or five times.”
  Shen Lao laughed. “God bless them. It’s true, the actual spice traders aren’t making the money, the insurers of the ships who get paid a healthy percentage after every successful trade, the quiet investors and bankers who are never even seen, the ship builders, the shop keepers who sell extravagant goods to returning journeymen, these are the true profiteers. And behind almost every bank or joint stock company which gather goods for sale to put on the ships is the nobility. The question now is whether we can ship something more valuable than rice all this distance so we can get yet more spice.”
  “Aren’t we already doing that? Buying silk from Ch’in, then shipping it all the way around the peninsula to sell to the western barbarians for spice? Even though the route is so circuitous, it’s faster than the old land route.”
  “The problem with that is Ch’in sells the silk at such a high price that it’s almost impossible to make a profit reexporting it elsewhere. We need a product we make cheaply but can sell for a lot. Rice is just too...the poor buy our rice, not the rich, so the only profit traders make is selling the spice back to the Middle Kingdom. If we could find a way to make a profit on both legs of the trip, the wealth would become phenomenal.”
  “Rice wine. We make it for cheap, but they probably have nothing like it.” Hu Ran Shea suggested. “Or why not this very tea we’re drinking? Do they have tea?”
  “Unfortunately they have remarkable soil. They have plants that create rich dyes, plants for tea, plants for other drinks we’ve never heard of, plants that fuzz the mind, even plants for a new type of clothing which is much cheaper than silk but almost as soft. I’m afraid the only crop they lack is one that produces food. They grow absolutely everything else. It makes it very difficult to sell them anything but rice. Whenever we offer something else, they say something like, ‘yes, yes, it is very nice, but all we require is rice, how much rice do you have?’” Shen Lao put on a foreign accent for added effect.
  “Ha!” Hu Ran Shea laughed. “They must think we’re the barbarians, when they have so much we want and all they want is our rice. Ha! The Middle Kingdom taken so lightly!”
  “There is one thing we could sell.” Shen said. “Crossbows. The problem with that is they’re smarter than the southern barbarians, sooner or later they’d figure out how to make them for themselves. It’s always unwise to sell something that can be copied. Rice wine is a good idea. Just so long as the product is consumed so they have to keep coming back to us for more.”
  “Damn, the fortune we could make with silk if only we could make it ourselves.” Hu regretted. “Silk’s invincible. They’d give us anything for silk.”
  “Just be glad Ch’in is landlocked. We can’t have everything.” Shen Lao counseled
“Karma.” Hu agreed with a shrug. “But did we come to discuss business or politics?”
“Is there any difference?” Lao smiled. “Well, getting back to the origin of the discussion, then, this egalitarian method of recruiting for the military is endangering our position. It’s better when the nobility provides the army, otherwise we just become a lot of rich people who can’t defend ourselves from the Emperor or even the people themselves. We have to keep our hold on the military or we go from rulers to subjects. All of our traditions and revenues will disappear the day we can’t defend them.”
“The Emperor decided the nobility was not trustworthy because it provided so few troops in the war.” Hu said. “How were we supposed to know he would win? By the time we were informed there was a war, it had already been lost in the swamp. At the time he was just some rebel with a few holdouts, we had to think of our future and try to save ourselves.”
“Of course we couldn’t join the war at that point.” Shen Lao agreed. “It was suicide going up against Ch’i, Tang, and Pi all together. There was no point wasting our men and our own power for a dead Emperor. But Hei Ming Jong somehow won, and now he seeks his military through other means. We bet on the wrong horse. The question now is how do we get back into our customary position?”
“Well he still needs us as officers because we’re the only people who can calculate, read, and write. He also needs us for cavalry because we’re the only people who can afford horses. It’s not like the nobility isn’t represented.” Hu said.
“I know I know. But I’m not content. Not until we provide the foot again. The Emperor has to need us, not just find us useful.” Shen said.
“It’s simple, father.” Fae Lao said. “I’ll become Emperor, and then we will make the rules.”
The two nobility laughed. Shen Lao tousled his son’s hair. “How did you get in here? Your mother was supposed to look after you while we men talked. Listen, son, you can’t say something like that. It’s treason, and the Emperor has a giant network of spies who are always listening for us to say something like that.”
“So what? I’m not afraid.” Fae Lao said.
“Listen, son, when you say something like that, nobody will do anything to you. They’ll think you got the idea from me, and they’ll execute me for treason, and your mother, and maybe even all my friends. So even if you’re not afraid, if you respect your father and your mother, you will not say anything disrespectful of our Emperor. He has the mandate of Heaven and his son stands in line to inherit after him. And the Emperor is only 30 himself, he will live for a very long time yet.”
“Fae! Why are you in here?” Lei Lao remonstrated, grabbing her wayward child. “I told you not to disturb your father.”
“But I wanted to listen!” Fae complained. “You never let me listen when you’re saying anything important.”
“Enough from you. Out! Out.” Lei bowed in apology to her guest. “I’m so sorry to trouble you.”
“No trouble at all. It’s refreshing to see such energetic children. I’m sure he’ll honor your family name in the years to come.” Hu Ran Shea said, half bowing back from his seated position.
“Oh, thank you.” Lei bowed again. “I’ll make sure you are left alone for the rest of your conversation.” Then his wife slid the door closed again.
“A nice family you have.” Hu said politely.
“Yes, I love them very much.” Shen smiled back just as politely. “Did I tell you Fae is remarkably good at Go for his age? He can also play the zither. I let him ride geldings as well as mares he keeps them so calm, and his archery is flawless at the range his muscles allow.”
“That’s some prodigy you have there!” Hu whistled, impressed. It was to be expected, though, Shen Lao was a genius himself, with all the talents and manners expected of a nobleman. Noble blood could only be expected to excel at everything.
“In two years he’ll be 14 and enter the officer training school.” Shen Lao said. “I expect he’ll become a General before all is said and done. It isn’t honor enough for him, but it is the highest rank possible, so it will have to suffice.”
“Ha! If he’s so good perhaps he can become Emperor after all.” Hu joked.
“I’m sorry, but let’s not talk about something like that.” Shen said. “Even as a joke, it is very distasteful.”
“Right, sorry, then back to the recruiting process. How is the Emperor affording to pay for his own army anyway?”
“Much of the land belongs directly to the Emperor rather than the nobility, especially the land around all the major cities which form administrative centers. In the end the nobility are provincial. Scribes, even though they are paid servants, consider themselves the true nobility. We only have power because it’s too hard to keep in communication with so many people so spread apart and far away from anything important for the state to run things directly.” Lao said.
“Yes I know. But what with the Emperor refusing to tax the spice trade, and giving away land to all these volunteers, it just doesn’t add up. Did he find some secret buried treasure?” Hu asked.
“I guess you don’t need much of a tax base when the military is so small. Bridges and the like support themselves with tolls. In the end the Emperor just keeps the expenses low. He doesn’t have any taste for luxury or show.”
“He doesn’t need it. The people still love him for winning the war. He doesn’t need any legitimacy beyond that.” Hu said.
“You’re right. Weak emperors buy the love of the masses, strong emperors simply command it. And he is a very strong Emperor.” Lao said. “Very strong. If we can’t find a weakness he’ll control everything, even the provinces. It’s worrisome. Who could expect a second son to be such a born ruler? Hei Ming Jong was a sleeping dragon.”
“Can’t be helped. If not for him we’d already be out of power and Ch’i would rule the world. And the Emperor was the one who encouraged the spice trade we’re getting rich off. It’s hard to complain about his policy so far.” Hu said.
“I guess you’re right.” Shen said, giving up and drinking the rest of his tea. “There’s no way to change his mind now, his position is too strong and ours is too weak. We’ll just have to bide our time. Things will change, they always do. For now, would you like a game of Go and some of our sweetmeats? You’ve come a long way and I would hate to think you haven’t enjoyed your stay.”
“Why thank you, I’d love to play. Perhaps I could watch your son play as well.”
“Perhaps. If he doesn’t do anything childish again tonight, perhaps I’ll let him play you. You’ll be amazed.”

CHAPTER 3

  “Alright, let’s talk about the problems you’ll have to face as Emperor.” The tutor said. “I’ll give you a scenario and you tell me what to do about it.”
  “Alright.” Lin Su Jong nodded. It was like a game, being given a story and getting to make your own decisions which influenced what happened next in the story and led to new decisions and so on. It meant you had to think very carefully about every decision you made to avoid a dead end.
  “Southern barbarians attack Tang, Tang asks for your help.” The tutor threw out.
  Lin Su Jong thought about it for a while. “I tell them I’m sorry but I can’t afford to help them, if they want, they can strip the men from their fortresses and I can promise to respect their autonomy and forbid any Liuyans to go anywhere near them until their guards can come back.”
  “Very good, Lin. Give and take at the same time is absolutely the essence of diplomacy. Let’s see, Tang decides to leave the forts for a while to fight the southern barbarians. The nobility insists that we seize the Tang fortresses while they’re undefended.” The tutor said.
  “I tell them no, we can’t break our word.” Lin said.
  “The nobility claim the emperor has become the pawn of Tang and so long as we don’t have control of our own soil we can’t possibly be a sovereign nation. They mutter that no true emperor with the mandate of heaven would throw away the dignity of his people or waste an opportunity to better ensure Liu-Yang’s safety.” The tutor says.
  Lin Su Jong thought about it. He could kill them for saying it, which would probably stem criticism until Tang returned and the issue was past. Or he could ignore it and hope the issue would pass before the nobility did more than complain. Or he could try and argue with them and convince them that it was genuinely the right thing to do. That was hopeless. “I ignore what they say and hope the issue passes.”
  “Alright.” The tutor nodded. “A fair decision. But let’s see. A massive earthquake levels a major city, thousands die, hundreds of thousands are left homeless from the inevitable fires that follow. Because of a lack of sanitation disease rages uncontrolled in the surrounding area. A million people end up dying from the aftereffects. The nobility claim this is God’s punishment and proof that you have lost the mandate of heaven, they assemble their forces and the people support them due to fear and ignorance.”
  Lin Su Jong was shocked. A million dead! “. . .I guess I messed up somewhere.” Lin said, chagrined. “I guess I really did lose the mandate of heaven.”
  The tutor nods. “Alright, say you resign, then. A few months later you’re executed for trumped up charges and the nobility elects a new emperor more beholden to the interests of the nobility. Taxes are raised, merchants are strictly regulated so that they will no longer compete with the nobility, and business weakens. The loss of revenue is made up for by higher taxes on peasants—peasants complain that the price of goods has risen due to the weakening of the merchant class and they can’t afford to lose yet more money to taxes. The peasants revolt, the nobility takes swift action and crushes them—meanwhile Ch’i and Pi see the chaos on their border and swiftly invade in order to return ‘balance and harmony’ to the land. Tang decides not to help us because we didn’t help him, and after all, the true Imperial line is already dead. Ch’i and Pi conquer Liu-Yang against a divided and haphazard defense of the nobility and a disinterested populace. Liu-Yang is soon after destroyed as an entity in history.” The tutor paused to drink his tea, watching Lin’s reaction.
  “But. . .All that because of a barbarian raid?” Lin Su Jong was shocked. How could he have been so terrible! How could Daddy ever trust him with the Empire if he was just going to destroy it?
  “No, Lin, not all of it because of a barbarian raid. The barbarian raid is a catalyst to induce sleeping dragons to awaken, mix together, and destroy. Liu-Yang has many sleeping dragons, and you must keep them asleep. At most you can only allow one or two of them to awaken at the same time, it is absolutely critical to see a dragon waking up and stop it before that happens. Once it’s happened there is a chain reaction and there’s no stopping it. The seven headed dragon, the Orochi, is the world-destroyer. But it only takes three to destroy something as small as Liu-Yang, don’t you think?”
  “The world can’t be destroyed, it lasts forever.” Lin complained. “The Orochi is just a story.”
  “Actually even the best scholars don’t know if the world is periodically destroyed and recreated, or if it lasts forever. There are many ways to look at it, after all, we suffer from death and rebirth, so why not the entire world? But then again, our souls last forever, so why shouldn’t the world last forever? Some things last forever and other things don’t. What lasts forever are absolutes, universals, internals. Transitory things are external, limited, relatives. Can you tell me this world, which is always changing shape, always in motion, clearly not everywhere because you can look off it towards the sun and moon and stars—can you tell me this world is absolute and universal?”
  “. . .no.” Lin said. “I guess it’s just really big and doesn’t change much. . .”
  “Right, but however long-lived it is, it’s something else to live forever. The world may very well be destroyed someday, and for all we know, a seven headed dragon will destroy it.” The tutor smiled. “But I’m more interested in the metaphor, not the specifics. Can you tell me what Liu-Yang’s sleeping dragons are?” The tutor asked.
  “The restless nobility.” Lin put up a finger. “I should’ve executed them the moment they started complaining.”
  “Maybe, maybe not. Let’s just worry about the problems before we think about the solutions.” The tutor said.
  “Okay. The enmity of Ch’i and Pi.” Lin put up another finger. “The ignorance of the people which will lead them to believe whatever they’re told.” Lin put up another finger. “The alliance with Tang which can drag us into a war we don’t want, and makes everyone complain about their fortresses on our soil.” Lin put up a fourth finger. Lin stopped to think about it for a while, put up another finger. “The weakness of an emperor who let it all happen without even trying to stop it.” Lin put another finger. “Natural disasters which are impossible to stop and could come at any moment.” Lin stopped to think for a while longer, then put up another finger. “The barbarians themselves.” Seven dragons.
  “That’s good. Let’s say you execute the nobility, that removes one dragon, the ignorant masses being incited to revolt. But it makes the nobility even more restless. You have one sleeping dragon awake for the foreseeable future. The Tang forts issue becomes sleeping again, because nobody is allowed to talk about it. The second dragon wakes up with the earthquake. The third dragon wakes up if you do nothing about it—so what do you do instead?” The tutor asked.
  “This time I summon the army to come rebuild the city and provide food, water, and shelter for all the refugees. I quarantine the city in case of a disease and I go there personally so that the army will be in full force protecting me and already deployed. Now the nobility will think twice about revolting, and the people will see that I care.” Lin Su Jong said, having thought out a better choice already.
  “Very good.” The tutor nodded. “Ch’i and Pi, seeing you have things in control, remain sleeping dragons. You’ve kept it to a maximum of two dragons awake at the same time. The crisis passes.”
  Lin nodded, pleased with himself. “If I think it over long enough I’ll make the right decision.”
  “But suppose something unexpected happens? A cult previously predicted the earthquake or something like it would happen, the leader is believed to have miraculous powers and prophesies from various gods. The peasants rally around him as he takes on popular causes like taking all the money from the rich and giving it to the poor, he promises them miraculous powers that will see them victorious in battle against all the odds, he gives drugs to people and they fall into ecstatic visions and belief in him grows—orthodox churches are burned and the peasants claim that all the disasters that befall Liu-Yang are because the rulers believe in the Dao instead of the true gods and only the cult of the true gods can placate them with proper rituals and sacrifices so that no more earthquakes or plagues occur again.”
  “You mean I didn’t really keep the ignorance of the peasants asleep just by stopping the nobility from taking advantage of it!” Lin Su Jong said, surprised again.
  “The nobility refuse to help you put down the peasant revolt because they don’t like you for executing some of their highest members. You have to rely on peasants to fight for you even though they share the polytheist religion and not your religion—they either don’t come or don’t fight hard—you can’t call to Tang for help because you refused to help him, what do you do?”
  “I gather what men I can and put down the peasants anyway, they don’t know how to fight or how to organize.” Lin said. The only other choice was to try and make a deal with the peasants, but that would make him look weak, which would wake up Pi and Ch’i again.
  The tutor smiled. “Very good. Through personal excellence you might make it through anyway, like your father did. At least until the next flood or earthquake. Let’s turn to something else, then. Inbetween times of crisis, when many different bad things happen at once, you have the potential to go on the offensive instead of the defensive against these dragons, how will you take advantage of this sente?”
  “You mean I should try and kill the dragon entirely so it can’t wake up and hurt me anymore.” Lin Su Jong half-asked.
  “That’s right.” The tutor nodded.
  “Well, I could try and convert the peasants to our religion.” Lin said.
  “No good, the peasants value their customs and traditions more than anything else, it is all they have, after all. If you interfered with the only meaningful part of their lives they would surely revolt.” The tutor said.
  “Alright. . .well. . .I could abolish the nobility.” Lin said.
  “No good. They would instantly revolt if you did and plunge you into a civil war, which, even if you won, Pi and Ch’i would take advantage of.” The tutor said. “Besides, without the nobility, there would be no way to collect taxes from our peasants or uphold the law against bandits, murderers, and thieves.”
  “Then. . .go to war with Ch’i and Pi, conquer them so that they can’t keep taking advantage of me when I’m weak. Fight them when I’m strong, and when they’re weak, since otherwise they’ll fight me when they’re strong and I’m weak.” Lin said.
  The tutor nodded. “A bold move. That’s something that can truly be eliminated, if you succeed, but you gamble everything on it, and create new problems you didn’t have to deal with before. Instead of Pi and Ch’i, you would now border Mae-Dong, Ch’in, and Weh as well, who would be afraid of you for being so aggressive. You would likely have to defeat them too before you were truly safe. It would take a lot of luck to win that many wars in a row.”
  “I’m the Emperor! Why can’t I do anything?” Lin exclaimed in frustration.
  “Because you care about your people and don’t want Liu-Yang to be harmed. Otherwise you could do anything, but since you care, you can only do the right thing. That is the limit of your power.” The tutor said.
  “Then what’s the right thing? Why can’t I solve any of these problems? Everything I do turns all the way around and does the exact opposite of what I wanted!” Lin complained again.
  “That’s karma.” The tutor smiled. “You pretty much summed it up.”
  I’m not smart enough to do this. Lin decided. I’m just not smart enough. This guy’s always three steps ahead of me. When I grow up I can’t rely on other people telling me these things because their motives will always be something other than mine, when I grow up I have to figure these things out for myself, I can’t rely on a tutor like this. But I can’t do it myself either. I’m going to be a terrible emperor. Just one mistake is enough to destroy Liu-Yang, and everything I’ve thought up so far has been a mistake, and all this in just an hour or two, what if I had to make decisions for thirty years? I’ll never make it. I’ll destroy everything. I have to tell daddy to have more children because I can’t possibly become emperor. I’m not like him, I’m not a miracle worker, I can’t figure things out like him, I should just become a poet or something, something that doesn’t require any intelligence or skill so I can’t possibly screw it up. That’s all I’m good for. That and killing my mother, I was really good at that. And making my father sad, I managed that terrifically didn’t I? I was born screwing things up and I’ll die screwing things up and I’ll drag the whole world down with me, I just know it. I have to tell Daddy to have another son before it’s too late.

  “. . .and so the Li dynasty fell from internal divisions and barbarian horsemen, which the Li army had no answer for. Not even the longest walls could stop the guards from being bribed to open the gates to the barbarians, and with most of the east welcoming the barbarians as saviors who would give them the opportunity to regain their independence instead of foreign invaders, the Li dynasty was only left with its core tribe to stop the hordes. After the barbarians looted everything they could, they took most of the Li people as slaves and their nation was wiped out forever, never to be reborn.” Hei Ming Jong closed the book. His son was trying to learn how to read, but having to memorize all those characters took an enormous amount of time and most books were still beyond his reach.
  “That’s terrible. What happened to the slaves?” Lin asked.
  “Well, the men were generally castrated and given all the dirtiest, hardest work. The women were generally made second or third wives and allowed to join the tribe.” Hei said.
  Lin blanched. “Why didn’t they try and stop it? How can you allow that to be done to you?”
  “People will do anything to live. They’ll live under any circumstances, under any conditions. People always want to live. The courage to die when the time is right is very rare and praised as exceptional by all the philosophers.”
  “Who would prefer to live like that instead of die and be reborn? Isn’t any other life better than that one?”
  “Even though we know we’ll be reborn, we’re afraid and aren’t sure. There’s no proof we’ll be reborn because nobody remembers their previous lives. Death and rebirth is only inferred, we can’t be sure of it.” Hei Ming Jong said.
  “You mean you don’t believe we’ll be reborn?” Lin asked, frightened.
  Hei Ming Jong paused, thinking about it. “I know this, matter cannot be created nor destroyed; it only changes shape. That’s absolutely certain, we see it every day around us, burn a log and it turns into ash, smoke, light, and heat, even though the wood disappears everything is conserved. Water evaporates and turns into clouds that rain back down and so our rivers never drain out even though they keep flowing into the ocean. Rocks are crushed into smaller and smaller pieces and pushed further and further down, but then they get squeezed back together and volcanoes throw them back onto the surface. Cycle after cycle sees everything changing but eventually ending up where it began. It’s just a simple question of time, then. If you have infinite time, and matter is constantly changing shapes over time, then eventually it will have to end up exactly the same shape as before, in fact, not only once, but given infinite time, it will have to end up exactly the same way it was earlier infinite times. Seeing as how we see cycles occurring all the time around us, it’s clear that things move in circles, why, even the planets move in circles around the sun, and the moon moves in circles around the earth, everything is circular, not linear—that means infinite time won’t just go on and on into some endless final state, it will start repeating—just like in long division it repeats. Divide a number and it eventually goes into some final remainder which keeps repeating, reinforcing itself because 7 in one decimal necessitates the 8 in the next decimal which necessitates the 4 in the next decimal which necessitates the 7 in the next decimal—you see? The initial conditions create an environment either for a repeating state, or an endless progression towards a final state that never quite reaches—that’s called an asymptote in geometry. Depending on what initial conditions you set in geometry, you get one of those two solutions. But the Dao set our initial conditions, and we can see all around us that it prefers a repeating state, not an infinite progression. Since we are no different from everything else, since the Dao is the will of the entire universe and has only one will towards everything, we, just like rocks, just like water, just like the orbits of the planets, just like how our history is always the rise of a dynasty, the fall of a dynasty, the interim wars, the rise of a dynasty, the fall of a dynasty, the interim wars—just like everything, I have to believe we repeat as well.”
  “What?” Lin Su Jong asked.
  Hei laughed, kissed his son’s forehead. “The universe is forever, so everything in the universe is forever too, nothing is ever lost, we always come back, in as many different ways as you can imagine, everything that can happen, has happened, and will happen again. We will be reborn as many times as we die, life and death are just a change of state, existence is forever.”
  “So in another life I’ll see mother too?” Lin asked. “Isn’t that possible? And if it’s possible, it has to happen eventually?”
  “That’s right. Eventually everything possible will happen, good and bad.” Hei said. “And one life only good things will happen, because that’s possible, and it will be so good it makes up for all the others.”
  “Daddy. . .I wanted to ask you something.” Lin said, finally facing up to his determination that morning.
  “Oh?” Hei asked.
  “Well. . .earlier today. . .I couldn’t do anything right. I kept being given these questions and I got every single one wrong. And I think it would be best if . . . if I didn’t become Emperor after you. Because Liu-Yang deserves a better ruler than me.” Lin swallowed. There, it was done.
  “Don’t be silly. You’re just a child. When you grow up you’ll get all the right answers. That’s why you’re learning now. It’s alright to make mistakes now, how could you know better? It’s not just you, everyone is really stupid and wrong, but we get better over time. Some people are born evil and get better at being evil over time; other people are born good and get better at being good over time. And you know what? I think you were born good, and you are getting better at being good every day.” Hei said.
  “But what if I were born evil? I ki—“
  “No, you didn’t.” Hei said firmly. “I’m sorry I ever told you that, if you won’t understand that you did absolutely nothing wrong. You want to know whether you’re good or evil? Ask yourself some questions—do you torture animals because it’s fun?”
  “No!” Lin said, aghast.
  “Do you humiliate people because it’s fun?”
  “No!” Lin said. “How could I make fun of anyone when they’re all better than me? And even if I were better, I would want them to like me for it, not hate me!”
  “Do you order people around because it’s fun?”
  “Well. . .maybe. . .I do like getting my way. . .” Lin fidgeted.
  “That’s not what I meant.” Hei said. “Do you like making up some stupid arbitrary thing for people to do, just to waste their time and see how helpless they are and how powerful you are?”
  “No. That’s stupid.” Lin said. “Why would anyone enjoy that?”
  “Do you lie to me or anyone else?” Hei asked.
  “Well. . .that is. . .” Lin fidgeted again.
  Hei laughed. “Alright, say no more. When I was a child, I only lied for a good reason, so I hope you’ll do the same.”
  Lin blushed. “I’ll stop. I don’t mean to, it’s just like. . .I suddenly do it and it simplifies things that don’t matter anyway. . .”
  “Listen, Lin, lying is a terrible thing. It betrays people’s trust, it renders important things worthless and meaningless, it steals away other people’s ability to make their own decisions—it destroys everything valuable, and leaves nothing in its place. But--” Hei said.
  “But?” Lin asked.
  “My father was very strict, and would punish me for disobeying. I told the truth whenever I could, but I didn’t always want to do what my father told me to do, and so I would disobey and cover it up with a lie, when I thought I could get away with it.” Hei said. “Usually it was with my older brother or my little sister, we would conspire together to have fun against father’s wishes. If I had just followed his wishes, almost all my best memories would have been stolen from me. I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything. When I lied, I was not taking something away from someone else, or trying to affect how someone else acted, I lied only to protect myself and the people dear to me, to protect my happiness, to keep my father from taking things from me, from controlling me.”
  “But everyone says you should obey your parents and not bring shame to the family. Children are supposed to honor their parents, wasn’t your father supposed to control you? Just like you’re supposed to control me?” Lin asked.
  “Yes and no. Suppose I ordered you to torture a squirrel to death, would obeying be doing me honor and avoiding our family’s shame?”
  “I don’t know.” Lin said.
  “Should you do your family and your parents honor instead of shame?” Hei asked.
  “Yes, that is a child’s duty.” Lin nodded, back on firm ground.
  “Very good. I am glad you don’t intend to shame me or your ancestors. So why won’t you torture a squirrel?”
  “Because. . .there’s no honor in that!” Lin protested. “The squirrel is helpless, it did nothing to us, why hurt a poor squirrel when it carries the same soul as ours, when we could be reborn a squirrel ourselves?”
  “Suppose I order you not to eat beef. It is my wish that you never eat beef again.”
  “Well. . .okay. . .” Lin said, confused.
  “Suppose you eat some beef anyway, at some friend’s house, have you shamed our family?”
  “I’m not sure. . .everybody eats beef. . .” Lin remained confused.
  “But you disobeyed my orders. Why aren’t you ashamed?”
  “I guess I am ashamed then.” Lin said.
  “Alright, say you’re ashamed, your friend is eating beef with you, do you feel ashamed for him? Has he brought shame to his family?”
  “No, of course not.” Lin said.
  “Then there is no symmetry to honor and shame, then it is relative and thus meaningless.” Hei said with finality.
  “But his parents didn’t order him not to eat beef. If they did, then he would also be shaming his family—“ Lin protested.
  “So somebody could do something, and you would not know if it were honorable or shameful, and could not judge a person’s actions at all, because you aren’t sure what particular orders they are supposed to be following. Again an absolute has become relative and thus meaningless. Go back to the example of the squirrel, you seemed to be certain of that. You see your friend torture a squirrel to death, you go up to him and ask him, “why did you do that? That was too cruel.” He replies, “It can’t be helped, my parents told me to do it, I must torture squirrels or bring shame to my family.” Do you think better or worse of his parents now than before?”
  “Worse, it’s unfair to make my friend do that.”
  “Then by obeying his parents he brought shame to his parents.” Hei said.
  “I guess he did.” Lin said.
  “So let’s forget this nonsense of who ordered what, the only thing that matters is whether your act was honorable or shameful, and it is immediately apparent to everyone which is which. If there is any meaning to honor or shame, there can be no possibility of confusing the two. When a parent commands a child to do something shameful, a child should disobey, to preserve the very honor of his family. That is self evident. If a parent orders a child to do something arbitrary, however, what should be done? Whether you eat meat or not has nothing to do with honor or shame, it has nothing to do with anything. Arbitrary orders have no authority, in fact, they destroy authority, because perhaps later, important orders will not be obeyed, because a child will assume they are arbitrary. When I give an order, for instance, I forbid you from torturing little animals, what stops you from torturing little animals?”
  “I don’t want to torture them, so of course I won’t.” Lin said.
  “Right, good. You enforce it yourself, by your own will. In fact, I shouldn’t even have to forbid such things from you; they are clearly terrible on their own. Suppose I order you to stand very still?”
  “Then I stand still.” Lin said.
  “Right, good. You enforce it yourself, because you trust that I have a reason. Say there was a snake and it would bite you if you moved. You saved your life by trusting me. Orders like that children should obey, categorically, without question. Say it is a more removed danger though—suppose I tell you not to drink this water, or, be silent and move to a different house. Perhaps the water was poisoned, or an assassin has been spotted in the palace. So let us abstract further—earlier you said it was a child’s duty to bring honor to his parents and avoid shame. Well, it is a parent’s duty to raise a healthy child in mind, body, and spirit. Any order touching on that duty should be obeyed, because a duty is absolute, and if you make it impossible for me to do my duty, then you destroy me. If anyone stops me from doing my duty, they are my enemy, they are actively hurting me by denying me the ability to live my life as it’s meant to be lived. Just as it is imposing on a child by forcing them to bring shame to their family because it goes against a child’s duty, it is imposing on a parent by making it impossible to do their duty of creating a healthy child in body, mind and spirit. If you refuse to learn, if you continuously do reckless, dangerous things, if you abandon yourself to drugs or drink or women or power or prestige or wealth or any worthless thing, and rot your soul, your pride, your value away—then you do me wrong. By ruining yourself you ruin me, because I am supposed to protect you. I have to protect you; it is my duty to protect you. If you don’t allow me to protect you, I can no longer be your parent, I will disown you, I will wash my hands of you, no child of mine will stop me from being their parent and yet claim me for their parent.”
  Lin nodded. “I understand.”
  “Very good. Orders like that I should not have to enforce, though I will. You should enforce them of your own free will because they are for your own protection. As you just mentioned earlier you couldn’t answer any of the tutor’s questions and were wrong about everything. Even the best and brightest children are too stupid and ignorant to take care of themselves, that’s why parents have to take care of them, and that’s why children must trust their parent’s judgment over their own when it comes even to their own welfare. There is no way you could love yourself more than we love you, and at the same time we are much more capable of protecting you than you are, so orders touching your own welfare are not open to debate or disobedience. I will enforce them immediately and fully, just as though there was a snake hissing at your ankles, even if you don’t see the threat, because I do. But if you trust me you will enforce these orders yourself and I should not have to do anything.”
  Lin nodded. “I trust you daddy.”
  “Good. Finally let’s go back to this matter of eating beef. Do you have any reason not to eat beef, save that I told you not to? Is there any point to not eating beef? Does it do anyone any harm if you do eat beef?”
  “No. . .not really.” Lin said.
  “There you go. The command is arbitrary. Arbitrary commands have no authority, no legitimacy. They are senseless, stupid commands that attempt to control others for the sake of control. The only reason anyone obeys them is fear of punishment. Punishment is only necessary to give force to a forceless command, the very nature of the command shows that even the parent realizes it has no legitimate right to exist but must be artificially supported by some external imposition. The previous orders we discussed are adopted freely by you, but these orders are weapons against your free will. Lying is also a weapon against another’s free will, it gets people to do and think what they would not do and think if the choice was left to them by giving them full access to the information needed to make their choice. A child cannot punish his parents, he is too weak. But a child can lie to his parents. An arbitrary order starts a war between parents and children, parents punish their children, children lie to their parents, the punishment grows, so do the lies, there is no end to the war, there is no family, only hatred and conflict. All true orders enforce themselves, punishment is never needed. My father was very strict and made many commands I felt were arbitrary—I disobeyed them, and kept them secret, if I were caught, I only thought to myself that I should be more secretive and clever, I never decided I should obey my father. When I grew up I was strong enough that I didn’t have to lie to avoid punishment, I could just refuse to be punished, so instead of keeping it secret, I simply told my father of my intention to disobey and left him to decide what he would do about it. I ended up banished, but quickly found a way to support myself without my parents. A child has no such luxury, he needs his parents if he is to live, his only choice is to lie and sneak about. A father with such a child has only himself to blame. Now am I such a father? Have I given you any such reason to lie to me?”
“No! It’s nothing like that. I don’t lie to you—just cooks and teachers and, well...when I do lie to you it isn’t about what I do, it’s just I’m always lying because I pretend to be a worthwhile son and I’m not! I’m so stupid and never understand what people try and tell me, but I turn around and always act brave and just and smart and it’s all a lie. It’s...it’s because...I’m afraid if I told the truth you wouldn’t like me as much.”
  “So I should like you more than you deserve?” Hei asked. “Is that fair?”
  “But I want you to like me!” Lin protested. “Who else do I have?”
  “Do I even really like you? Or do I like the imaginary Lin I think you are? Why on earth do you take credit and feel liked just because I like some imaginary other-you?” Hei said.
  “I don’t know. It would just be too cruel if you didn’t like me.” Lin said. “I’d rather be smart and good and strong and everything you hope for even if it’s a lie than disappoint you.”
  Hei shook his head. Lin still didn’t see the difference between externals and internals, there was no use trying to distinguish them. “Listen, Lin, you can’t pretend to be smart and good and strong every moment of your life, understand things so well and talk to me so well and remember your lessons so well and ask such good questions, come up with all the right answers, even all the right emotions to go along with your answers—and that be a lie. Nobody lies that well. You’re right, I think you’re smart and good and strong and the best son ever—and I don’t think it’s a lie, even if you tell me it is. You would have to lie a lot better than you do now, to make me think you aren’t smart. So how about you stop worrying about that. I don’t know what it is, my sister kept asking me this when she was a kid, and now you keep asking it too, I love you, and that’s not going to change. Love doesn’t change, it’s an absolute. It’s here to stay. So you don’t have to worry about it anymore.”
  “Alright.” Lin said.
  “Well, we’ve strayed a long way from the original question, which is whether you’re evil or not.” Hei smiled. “But if you don’t hurt others, don’t bully others, don’t mock others, and don’t trick others, I’m pretty sure you’re safely in the good category. For a kid, that’s about all the evil you can perform, and it looks like you called all of said choices ‘stupid’, which would lead me to think that you not only aren’t evil, you don’t have any earthly idea why anyone would be evil. You’re so non-evil it’s not even a choice to you, it’s just ridiculous on the face of it.” Hei laughed. “You know, I pretty much thought the same thing when I was kid, “what’s the point?” “why on earth would I do that?” It’s a privilege to think that way. A lot of people have to work very hard to get where we are and struggle over decisions we never even worry about. You have the gift of the good will, and the will is everything, you never chose for your mother to die, so how can you possibly be to blame for it? Only your will counts. Cherish your good will and even when terrible things happen, you can get through them. I promise. If I can manage losing my wife, you can manage losing your mother, because we both have a good will that knows we never meant for her to die. It couldn’t be helped. It was just karma.”
  “Am I so much like you, Daddy?” Lin said. He held his breath in hope.
  “Yes, very much. Like the very best in me.” Hei said.
  “Am I like mother any?” Lin asked, hoping again.
  “Maybe...You’re named after her, you know. After three people, really. Su comes from your uncle, the King of Tang, and my friend. You have my last name, of course. Your mother was Qiao Lin Fu, so you have her middle name. She said it was only fair to have your first name, since I had your last. Always the diplomat, your mother.” Hei smiled to himself. “But she was a girl and you a boy, after all. And you’re young and she was old. And she never got a chance to share her life with you, so it’s harder...but she was very smart, very beautiful, and very understanding to everyone around her. She was the kind of person who remembered everyone at a party and made sure each of them received a gift, that her servants were well cared for and that nobody around her was suffering if she could somehow prevent it. The sort of person who made sure everyone at a table felt respected and valued, a born diplomat. The sort of person nobody ever thought one bad thought about, or wished any ill. A person without any enemies at all, everybody was so busy liking her they never even got around to envying her for her position or her wealth or even her looks. A person nobody even bothered spreading rumors about, it was so hopeless getting anyone to believe them. So are you any like her? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”
  Lin smiled. “Impossible. If I’m like you I’ll never be like her, you make everybody mad.”
  “Yes, well, everybody makes me mad first. It’s entirely their fault.” Hei smiled back. “For now just listen to your teachers, learn how to read, write, and calculate, memorize the sutras, know your history—and all of a sudden you’ll find out you’re a lot more like a prince then you thought you were, and all of a sudden people will start asking you questions and expecting you to lead the way and following you –and then you really will be a prince, as good a prince as any.”
  “Alright.” Lin nodded. He thought he understood. Everything possible had to happen eventually, so this time, Daddy only had one kid, because one kid was going to be enough to make up for all the rest. He would just have to be that good. That was his karma, the way to balance the imbalance, the way to make it work after all.

Chapter 4

  “Sister Jun! Sister Jun!” San Lei Jong came running in her knee length smock. “I saw the emperor’s son! I really did! He passed right by on the road! He was so cute!”
Sister Jun stood up from her gardening and shook her head. “Listen, San Lei Jong, you’re twelve years old now so you have to act with more dignity. You shouldn’t be running around outside unsupervised, you should be praying and studying like the rest of us.”
  “But that’s so boring!” San complained. “I already know everything about God, and you say yourselves that God doesn’t listen to our prayers, so why on earth should I be praying to God all the time?”
  “Praying purifies the spirit and brings us closer to God, the true prayer doesn’t bring God down to our level, it raises us up to God’s level. Without prayer you will end up like everyone else, just an animal seeking to fulfill its animal instincts, is that what you want to be?”
  “Phooey, if animals get to play and run around then I’d rather be an animal than a nun. At least animals enjoy being alive. If we’re born wanting stuff, why not go get it? Why on earth do the opposite? That’s like a stubborn baby just trying to make trouble to get attention. “Look, God, I’m not going to act according to my instincts like everything else, I’m going to do the exact opposite instead, I am special!” But we aren’t special, we are just like everything else, the Dao doesn’t pick favorites, it has the same will for everything in the universe—so why not be like animals? We are like animals.”
  “We aren’t like animals.” The nun insisted, scolding. She couldn’t control San like other children because of the secret even San didn’t know, so all she could do was argue with her. San was constantly taking advantage of her special privilege, too. It made for such a headache. How can you control children without discipline? She was completely wild. “We’re the only people who can comprehend God and align our will freely, reasonably, through our own knowledge of Good, with the Dao. With symmetry and harmony. Pigs and cows just go through their motions, but we can give value to our motions, purpose to our motions. The only possible value or purpose to anything, which is the absolute, which is the Dao.”
  “Pigs, cows, and humans all have the same purpose, to be happy.” San insisted. “We’re just like animals, and all of you are unhappy because you refuse to admit it. When I grow up, I’m going to do whatever I want and get whatever I want and I’m never going to feel guilty about it.”
  “San? Is that you? Stop troubling sister Jun and come help me with this dinner.” Da Zhou called from afar. Cabbage and fish and rice were simple but seasoning them so that they tasted good was more complex.
  “Yes, mother!” San said. She stuck out her tongue at sister Jun and ran towards her cottage. “Mother, mother! I saw the Emperor’s son today! He rode on a horse beside his father on the way to the blessing of a new temple!”
  “Really? The Emperor came all this way to bless the new temple? That’s really something. I hope there will be some miracles there soon enough to show the Emperor’s blessing mattered.” Da Zhou said, keeping her voice very calm.
  “Oh, that’s silly, everyone knows the Dao doesn’t make any miracles. Why would the Dao intervene with itself, disrupt the very symmetry it chose to make? If God contradicted its own will, the whole universe would collapse, because only God’s will holds it together!” San Lei Jong countered.
  “Ah, you’re too clever for me, San. Most people don’t care about God unless God can give them something, and they won’t care about our Emperor unless he can give them something too. People are very selfish like that. So I hope something good happens, even though of course it is not a miracle, just so people will love God and love their Emperor like they should.” Da Zhou said, keeping her voice cheerful and unconcerned.
  “You know what, though? You know what? I think the emperor’s son looks like me! Maybe my father is related to the Emperor after all, since his last name was Jong too! Don’t you think? Do you think the Emperor would meet with me if I told him my last name was Jong too?” San asked, excited. It was rare getting to see anybody outside the convent, much less the Emperor himself.
  Da Zhou dropped the pan onto the counter with a loud clatter, only a few inches so the fish didn’t fall. “Clumsy of me.” She said, her voice less sure of itself. “Listen, San, don’t say anything to the Emperor, don’t even go look at the Emperor, or his son. They’re noble people and they have no time for people like us. They are very important people and they would feel insulted if you said anything like that to them.”
  “Awww.” San pouted. “They looked nice to me. Are you sure they wouldn’t even want to see me? We have the same last name after all—“
  “No, they wouldn’t want to see you at all. They want nothing to do with people like us, they would be very mad at our entire convent for letting you bother them, so please don’t go see them or talk to them again.” Da said, her hands clenched around the counter.
  “Alright, if you say so.” San said, pouting.
  “There, that’s better. Now let’s make sure we get all this cooked and not drop it again until it’s done. I’m sure the sisters don’t want to eat dirt with their fish.” Da Zhou said.
  “That would be funny! Maybe we should drop the fish, mommy!” San smiled at the thought of the fussy nuns eating dirt.
  “Goodness! The ideas you come up with! You are a regular devil, San. The nuns are very kind and good to us and it would be a shame to do anything bad to them in return. There’s such a thing as gratitude, San.”
  “I think they’re a bunch of fuddy-duddies. They could use a good mud pie. Maybe they’ll learn to laugh again.” San said.
  “The nuns laugh lots of times, thank you very much. But certainly not by eating dirt.”
  “When’s the last time a nun laughed?” San challenged.
  “Why, just last winter when someone thought of that intricate lace pattern—“
  “That was five months ago! Five months!” San said. “Five months, mother!”
  “Really, has it already been five months? Well, nevertheless, we aren’t putting dirt in our fish. The ideas you come up with—“ Da repeated, flustered. Anything to get San’s mind off the Emperor. God, what if the Emperor visited the monastery? It would all be over then. Her life would end, all her worst nightmares would come true.
  “But mother, you came up with the idea.” San protested.
  “Well, in a sense, but I had no intention of doing it—“ Da said. “You were just born for mischief. When are you going to settle down like a lady?”
  “Never! Never never never. I don’t want to be a lady. Ladies are boring.” San said.
  “You say that now, but men don’t like girls who don’t act like ladies.”
  “Who cares? I don’t know any boys anyway. We never even see any. Who cares what they’ll think of me?” San complained.
  “You say that now, but you’ll care later, but by then it will be too late to change.” Da scolded.
  “Oh well then. I guess I’m doomed.” San said, pickling the cabbage. Whatever mother said, the moment she was free again, she was going to see the Emperor’s son. It was the first exciting fun thing that had happened in a year or two, and she wouldn’t miss it. If they were going to be mad, oh well, it was worth at least trying. They didn’t look like mean people, whatever mother said. I bet they’d be intrigued that her last name was the same as theirs. Why wouldn’t they be? Who wouldn’t want to find a new relative?


“There is only one absolute, it’s not the Dao, the Dao is just made up. The only absolute is power.” Fae Lao replied to Fu Shi. He was just so full of karma this and that and it was getting on his nerves. “The priests made up the Dao to control everyone else with their sutras. The priests admit themselves that the sutras were written by priests, they say the priests ‘saw God’ and so their wisdom is holy truth. But who has ever seen God? I haven’t. You haven’t. Nobody has. Why should we believe someone else has, then? There is no God. That’s why nobody sees one. God is just an excuse to gain power over others. The only thing that has ever mattered is power. That’s what everyone really cares about, no matter what they say. That’s what everyone lives for. We live to become as powerful as possible. Strong people achieve that goal, weak people fail, and that is the only difference in people. I am going to be the strongest. There’s no such thing as karma, nothing else controls my fate, I choose my fate—but my fate is to become the absolute strongest. I will be the very best at everything. No one will be my better. No one will ever tell me what to do.”
  Fu Shi smiled, catching Fae in a trap. “You say that, but no matter how good you become, you’ll always just be a noble and you’ll have to do what the Emperor tells you. In the end you’re just a braggart.”
  Fae Lao shrugged, picking up a rock and skipping it across the pond. His father was meeting with Fu Shi’s father, his father was meeting with all the other nobles. Because his father understood power and strength. Fu Shi’s father was just another weak person, another tool for his father. And that made Fu Shi even weaker. It was useless even discussing it with him.
  “What, no answer?” Fu Shi jibed. “Will the Emperor abdicate because you can skip a stone?”
  Fae Lao said nothing, he just leaned back and watched the pond. It was more interesting than Fu Shi at this point. He wished father would finish so they could get back home.
  “Whatever.” Fu Shi complained. “If you can’t defend your positions then don’t make them.” The silence irritated him.
  Fae Lao closed his eyed. Fu Shi had a point. He was an idiot if he didn’t understand yet though. “I will be the strongest.” Fae Lao said again. “Figure the rest out for yourself.”
  Fu Shi stared at him. “You mean, you think you will--?”
  “I think nothing. That’s your assumption.” Fae Lao said. Finally he understood.
  “Right. I see. Well, you’re an idiot if you think you can get away with it.”
  Fae Lao closed his eyes again, feeling the sun against his skin. There, he’d defended his position.
  “You know what? This is boring. I’m leaving.” Fu Shi walked away. Well, they finally agreed on something. Fae had figured something out very early. Only weak people tried to influence others, because that meant they depended on someone else. Only weak people tried to acquire things, because that meant they depended on those things. And only weak people tried to find companions, because that meant they depended on their companionship. Fae Lao had no interest in acquiring anything at all. To be strong was to be the best. To be the best was to be the strongest. And the strongest person in the world was the Emperor of Liu-Yang. So that was what he would become. He wouldn’t just become an Emperor, he would become the greatest Emperor of all. He would become the Emperor that finally united the Middle Kingdom once more under his dynasty. After that, all he had to do was make his dynasty stronger than the three before his, and he would be the greatest man who ever lived. Only then would he be content. The only respect he cared about was from people whose respect mattered, the other great men. Only surpassing them mattered, everything else was just a petty pecking order like any barnyard chickens did. Since there were very few great men alive at any moment, the respect he really cared about was from the great men before him, and the great men who would follow him. To gain their respect he would have to do something monumental, so that’s what he would do. Only a few names were ever remembered, Ch’in, Li, Tang. The rest faded and were gone. Lao would be the fourth name. His father was already doing it, becoming as powerful as possible. But that ‘as possible’ limited him, you were born with a potential and at best you could only reach it. It took great men a great moment to truly become great. Fae was sure many great men had lived and died in absolute obscurity for lack of a chance to do anything. But he was not one of them. He was the eldest son of one of the strongest noble houses in the most powerful nation one hundred and ten years into a period of civil war in the Middle Kingdom which was past due for a new dynasty. The moment had been born for someone to take it. He had the luck to be born at the right time, his father hadn’t. The instinct was the same. The bird of prey instinct that separated the strong and the weak. Fae skipped another stone across the lake. Too easy. Everything was too easy. Time needs to pass sooner so I will be old enough to do something hard. Everything I do is pointless until it becomes hard for me to do it. Only then will I be reaching my potential.
  “Fae? We’re done here, let’s go.” Shen Lao called from the doors to the mansion.
  “Yes father!” Fae called, stretching. He wondered how many signatures father would get before he felt ready to petition the Emperor. He wondered what the Emperor would do about it. From all reports Hei Ming Jong was much stronger than even father. Hopefully he’ll be dead by the time I’m ready. I’m sure his son will be much easier to usurp.
  “Did he sign the petition, father?” Fae Lao asked, falling into step towards their guards and horses. It would have been more polite to stay the night, but the Shi family was too minor and Shea Lao wanted to reach the Tsu-Ning before nightfall. Always so long to do anything. Always the slowness of transportation and communication. It made almost any organization impossible. Well, no matter, if it made it harder for him, it was just as hard for his enemies, so it made little difference. Except the impatience and irritance it all was. But those were unimportant feelings thus not worth feeling.
  “Father?” Fae asked again, trying to keep up with the taller man’s stride. In a few years I’ll be just as tall and then I won’t be so invisible. But oh well. Fae shrugged inside himself. “Does Shi think you can transfer the military training to the nobility?”
  “Yes, he did. It’s a fair compromise, after all. And it would save the emperor money, which is all he seems to care about. Once we train the foot then all access to the current military has to come through us, even if the reserves only answer to the Emperor. It’s a fair enough compromise and the Emperor would be wise to take it.” Shen Lao said, casually grabbing his horse from a steward and mounting him in one smooth motion. “I won’t let peasants take over Liu-Yang, and neither will Shi, and neither will all the rest of the nobility, and soon the Emperor will know of it.”
  A peasant military. Fae Lao shook his head. They’ll all just break and run at the first scent of battle anyway. If the peasants don’t revolt first and make us slaughter them—or even worse, win, and turn Liu-Yang into an ignorant, dirty, violent anarchy. What could the Emperor have been thinking? If he’s such a military genius, why does he make such an obviously bad military policy? You’d think he could at least get this right.
  “I hope you were polite to his son, we need their support however minor they happen to be. Minor houses add up.” Shen Lao said.
  “I tried to be, father, but he was ignorant and rude.”
  Shen Lao grimaced. “So that means you should be ignorant and rude too? So that means a Lao should become a Shi? Is that how you’ve represented my honor?”
  “Sorry father.” Fae quailed, thankfully on his own horse and far enough away that a blow was more trouble than it was worth. “I...I’ll try harder father.”
  “You aren’t forgiven.” Shen said severely. “I try to teach you what it’s like to be a nobleman, and you act like a dirty fishmonger in return. Very well then, once we get home, you can avoid all ignorant and rude people until you join the military, does that suit you better?”
  “I’m sorry father. It won’t happen again.” Fae promised, frightened of the threat. He hated being away from important things. It made his life even more useless than it already was. He hated being a child. So stupid to argue with Fu Shi, what was the point? Who cares if you proved yourself better than Fu Shi? Anyone is better than Fu Shi! Even caring proved you were only slightly better than him anyway. From now on you never try to show up anyone, no matter what. Fae told himself. You are to be the best, not any particular’s better. Better was petty. Only best mattered. Prove you are the best and no one will question who is better. From now on you only prove yourself the best. So childish and now you’ve angered father and rightfully so, you’re interfering with his diplomacy and for such a petty, worthless object, proving Fu Shi’s Dao was wrong—who cares? Who cares what he thinks anyway. So stupid.
  “I don’t care if it will happen or not.” Shen Lao said. “Guards, we’re going to split our entourage from here. Half of you will escort my son back to his nursery where he belongs. The rest of us will proceed with the tour as planned.” The captain of the guard laughed along with most of the men. Fae kept his face calm but he burned with shame inside. “Alright lad, don’t get lost now—home’s this way.” The captain said, turning his horse the opposite direction from where they were going. Fae burned more as the rest of the men laughed. Let this shame remind you to never care about better again. Next time you try and be better, remember this laughter, and forget it. Your only goal is to be the best. The absolute only goal of your life. Fae jerked his horse around with the only anger he allowed himself to show. He bit his cheek and didn’t look back as his father rode away to important things.

  San crouched completely still, making sure one more time all the nuns were occupied elsewhere and no one was watching the road. Sorry mother, but I can’t let this opportunity pass by me. You never talk about father and I don’t know anything about him and maybe they will because my last name is Jong and so is theirs and how many Jongs can there be? And besides, it’s the Emperor, I’ll never have something this exciting ever happen to me again, and I can’t just sit here, I’ll go crazy thinking that just over the ridge where our new temple has been built is the Emperor and I can’t even go see him. San nodded to herself, the decision was final, and she jumped up out of the bushes and ran as fast as she could for the road, down the road, in a few more seconds they wouldn’t be able to see her—no one calling for her to stop yet—no one yet—andddd. . .FREE. San ran as hard as she could for another minute and then stopped, gulping in air, exhausted but knowing her energy would come right back in just a bit. How great it was to be a kid and being able to run and nobody will stop you. Adults just tried to make everything as unfun as possible. San swore that was their goal in life. But no matter, she could at least walk until she caught her breath. Just two miles to the temple and if she went fast enough there was still plenty of sunlight. They’d probably be drinking tea after dinner and talking to the priests and nobody would mind if she came up and wanted to talk too. Why would they mind? Don’t I have the same last name? That’s interesting, of course they’ll want to talk to me. Stupid to think they’d be mad and punish the convent, nobody was that mean just because a little girl came to talk to them. Especially a little girl with the same last name.
  San gathered her breath and ran the next mile, saw people ahead and slowed back down to a walk, breathing deeply again. They wouldn’t respect her as much if they saw her running. It’s like mother said, if she wanted their attention, she would have to be a lady now. Alright. San put on her best lady face and took a deep breath so she could start breathing through her nose again. All sorts of greetings were running through her mind on how she could best attract the emperor’s son’s attention. If she could be friends with him, he might introduce her to the Emperor himself. What a memory that would make! Everyone would be jealous of her forever.

  “Hey now, little missie. What’s your business here? Don’t you see it’s getting dark? Why are you out here on your own?” A guard, lounging in a loose picket around the temple, asked her. Just a normal girl going up the road. But strange that she’d be on her own.
  San bowed her very best ladylike bow. “I. . .I wanted to see the new temple and the Emperor and I wasn’t sure how long you’d be here so I ran as fast as I can, I’m from the nearby convent, and it’s just for a short while so nobody will miss me, so please can I pass?”
  “Well, not just everybody who wants to see the Emperor can see the Emperor.” The guard laughed. Just a little girl acting like any little girl would, he supposed. God knows I would jump at the chance to see the Emperor if I lived out in the country.
  “But I’m not just anybody!” San protested. “I really do want to see him—I bet he’s drinking tea right now, I’m not interrupting anything really am I?”
  “Well then, wouldn’t you be interrupting his tea?” The guard smiled.
  “Well yes, but. . .” San blushed. What on earth could she say to get any further? She didn’t want to mention her last name until she saw the emperor, if she just told the guard they’d probably think she was just lying and ignore it. . .
  “What’s wrong?” Lin Su Jong asked, noticing the altercation and walking up. Father was talking to the priests like he always did and it was all over Lin’s head so he’d decided to enjoy the gardens instead. “Oh! Aren’t you the little girl I saw waving by the road?”
  The guard was surprised. “You know her?”
  “Oh, not really. It’s just that she was here when we came in.” Lin said.
  “That’s right! I live at the convent and I wasn’t far away at all, so I thought it would be so great if I could come and see you, I mean, you’re the Emperor’s son!” San rushed out as quickly as she could, jumping at the chance. Karma that he came out just right now. There was no way the guard was going to let me through but karma found a way!
  The guard shook his head, “I suppose there’s no harm in it either way, just so long as you stay in sight.”
  “Of course.” Lin nodded. He turned his attention to the girl, she acted younger than him but she looked older. Well, best to be as respectful as possible either way. “You’re right, I’m the Emperor’s son. My name is Lin Su Jong. What’s yours?”
  San gave a sideways glance at the guard, biting her lip. Lin looked up, the guard looked studiously away, and so Lin walked back towards the temples and away from any eavesdroppers. “Okay, so what’s the big secret? Is your mother sick, poor, did you come to beg a favor? I’m sure father will do whatever he can. If you tell me I can tell him, he acts mean all the time but he’s really a nice person.”
  “Oh it’s not that!” San blushed, realizing what Lin thought of her. A beggar. I guess if you’re the emperor almost every commoner comes to beg. It seemed so sad when she thought about it. Just one person with everything and everyone else begging for a tiny little with nothing of their own. “It’s my name, see. You asked my name, and it’s, well, my name is San Lei Jong. Jong, you see. My name’s just like yours! I knew the guard would never believe me but you will, right? You’ll believe me. Why would I lie?”
  “Of course I believe you, if that’s what you say your name is.” Lin was amused. There had to be thousands of Jongs all over. The Middle Kingdom was so interbred that almost everyone was family somehow or another.
  “But it’s not just that—I noticed on the road, don’t you think—don’t you think we look just like each other? I mean, we have the same color eyes and all—“ San said.
  Lin laughed. “We all have the same color eyes—black. Only barbarians have weird colors.”
  “Yes, but, it’s not just that. It’s the hair, the face, everything, don’t you think? Don’t you think we must be related?” San asked.
  “I’m sure we are.” Lin said. “We’re all related after all.”
  “No I mean, really related. I mean like, maybe my father and your father are cousins, or uncles, or something. Don’t you think? It’s just I don’t know much about my father but his name was Jong and don’t we look alike?” San insisted.
  “I don’t know. I guess we could be. I’d have to ask father if he had any cousins or uncles with children or anything. . .” Lin said, confused. He was a boy and she was a girl, but she was right, they did look very alike. Not exactly alike, but it did seem strange. “But then, why would you be here? I’m sure all the Jongs are nobility.” Lin blushed. “I mean, not that it matters if you aren’t noble. . .” Terrible manners to remind her that she was just a peasant. So rude. It just slipped off my tongue before I could stop it. Come to think of it, how many distant relations did he have? Grandmother died before he could remember, aunt Yue was way off in Manching. . .did he even have any cousins or anything? Lin thought maybe most everyone had died and it really just came down to him. The only heir there was. Did he have any relatives? He would have to ask father what happened and why nobody else was born. Of course uncle Rin died before he could even marry, so. . .but the generation before that surely. . .and well of course there was the Fu side of his family but they weren’t Jongs, they weren’t the relatives that mattered. . .
  “Do you think? Do you think we could go ask the Emperor if he knew my father? I would thank you forever and ever. I’d pray for you every day if you did. Wouldn’t you hate it if you did not know anything about your father?” San asked.
  Lin smiled. “I guess it would be a lot like never knowing your mother.”
  “Oh, I’m sorry. . .I didn’t know. . .I guess I did sort of know but I forgot. . .the Empress died, didn’t she. . .right after you were born. I’m so sorry.” San felt terrible now. What did her feelings matter compared to his? He was infinitely more important than her. And her father was still even alive, at least she thought, she could at least still maybe meet him again. Find her father and know who she really was. And here she’d tried to make him pity her. He’ll despise me now. I guess mother was right. I don’t know how to act in front of nobility. So stupid.
  So much death in my family when I think about it. Lin thought. My mother dead, my grandparents all dead. My uncle dead, and no other relations, or just very distant relations. And Aunt Yue I’ve only seen once and I don’t know her at all. She’s a Queen so of course she can not just come visit whenever she would want to, but even so, it is strange I have such a small family in the end...how nice it would be to have a sister like this, someone to talk to and trust because she would always be on my side, because it was her side...in the end I don’t have any real friends because I’ll always be the master and they’ll always want to be the master. . .I wish she were related to me. I wish father would marry and have more kids so I could have brothers and sisters.
  “I’m so sorry.” San said again, getting on her hands and knees and bowing her head to the ground. “I’m so sorry I forgot, I didn’t mean to. Please don’t be angry. Please don’t punish mother or the nuns they told me not to come...”
  Lin looked up, astonished. “No, stop, it’s okay. I didn’t mean it like that. Look, you are getting your clothes dirty. Isn’t that silk? Isn’t it hard to clean silk? Please get up. Why ruin such pretty clothes?”
  San stood up shakily, still looking at the ground. “You are really not mad?”
  “No, why should I be? To be honest, I was just thinking how nice it would be if you really were my cousin. My family is pretty...small...in the end.”
  San stood there, confused. “I am...I am really honored...but if you are lonely, could you not just...I do not know, doesn’t everyone want to be your friend? Not like me, I’m the only kid in the convent, everyone else is an adult and they’re always mad at me, except mother, but even then she can’t be my friend she has to be a nun too like the rest of them and, well, I just really wanted to. . .to think maybe I was related to you and have another friend but of course that was just silly daydreaming but why should you be lonely you’re the prince aren’t you?”
  Lin smiled. “I am the prince. But because I’m the prince, everyone is afraid of me or hates me or wants to trick me or something. Of course the teachers and servants are all kind to me, but they aren’t friends, I can’t talk to anyone really except father, the nobility I can’t possibly be around because they might take me hostage or something. . .and, well. . .in the end. . .who’s left?” Lin shrugged. “Just because you’re powerful doesn’t mean you aren’t lonely. I think maybe it means you’re more lonely. You can’t trust anyone in the end, because they care more about power than you. Of course it will all be better once I join the army. Then I’m an equal like all the others and I’ll make lots of friends, just like father did.” Lin brightened up at the thought. Except father’s friends died in the war but that’s a terrible thought and now things are peaceful and father’s in control so my friends won’t have to die and instead we can just talk and play Go and flirt with girls who will love us because we’re part of the army that protects them and not just because I’m a prince with no skills and no real worth.
  “If I were prince, I’d just order people to be my friends.” San reasoned.
  Lin laughed. He tried to intone a deeper voice. “I order you to be my friend, San Lei Jong.”
  San smiled. “Of course Sire!” And saluted.
  “Don’t you mean cousin?” Lin asked.
  San smiled even wider. “Of course, cousin! See? I bet it’s that easy! All you have to do is ask, right?”
  “Maybe.” Lin admitted, it was a pleasant thought anyway. “About your father, I’m sure I can ask my father, but I don’t know when I would see you again.” Lin shrugged, disappointed because she seemed like a nice girl.
  “That’s all right I guess.” San swallowed her hope and was content. Silly to think she’d really get to meet and talk to the emperor. Even tea was more important than seeing her. “I got to meet you, right? If I ever do meet girls my age, they’ll all be so jealous.” She smiled at the thought.
  “I’m glad then. But then, they should be jealous of me, for getting to meet you, instead of the other way around.” Lin said, trying to make up for the insult he’d given at the beginning.
  San shook her head. “You act so old! How can you—I don’t know—be—aren’t you younger than me?”
  “I have very wise teachers. If you had them, I’m sure it would be the same.” Lin said, slanting praise off himself like always.
  “But I do have wise teachers! All the nuns are supposed to be very wise and they’ve taught me all about the sutras and the Dao and such, but I guess it doesn’t show, really, in the end. . .” San got flustered, then embarrassed.
  “Lin!” Father’s voice called from the temple entrance. “Come on, it’s about nightfall, time to come back inside.”
  “Yes father!” Lin answered immediately. He turned back to her. “I guess you should get back home too. I promise I’ll ask, you have my word.”
  “Thank you. I know you will. . .I’m sure we’ll meet again someday and then you can tell me all about it.” San said, wishing with all her might that she could see the Emperor directly and that maybe he’d recognize her somehow. Foolish childish silly idea. This is already more than you could possibly hope for.
  “Good night then.” Lin bowed.
  “Good night.” San bowed back, looked down at her dress and tried her best to wipe off the dirt. Mother would be mad. Silk was hard to clean.

Chapter 5

  Gai Yi blessed the sun for finally setting and ending the day. Home was still a couple of miles away, but at least the digging would stop. His legs would be fine so long as they gave his arms a rest. Older men were so lucky, their arms got very strong and everything became easy, but every day he was pushed to his limits, the moment the foreman noticed he was speeding up or doing well, he quietly passed down the order for him to work harder or longer, and so Gai Yi never got less tired each day. So tired and sore each day that all he wanted to do was get home and sleep. Of course he was hungry, he was always hungry, and mother or one of his sisters, probably little Fin Yi, would be waiting with rice and water and cabbage—but he was so tired that even that didn’t sound appealing, he had to eat, or tomorrow would be even worse, but it sounded like just one more chore on top of all the rest. All of the irrigation canals had to be finished before the spring monsoons and the planting, and the planting was even harder work than all the rest. There was only a very short time and everything had to be set perfectly while the fields flooded. Hundreds of acres of rice, planted stalk by stalk, by hand, the precious seeds saved from last year’s harvest waiting as though a shrine in the foreman’s stone building, to keep any water or rats out. It was the sturdiest building in the village, everything depended on it. And what made it so much worse is that the irrigation canals had been fine, there wouldn’t have been any problem, except the stupid sons of whores cowherds hadn’t kept them away from the fallow land that had been waiting years for this season and the cows had gone through and destroyed everything, all of it had to be redone in the next month or there would be no more rice and they would all starve, while the herders would laugh and have their fat cows and pigs and sheep and whatever else they wanted, and milk and butter and cream and anything imaginable. It was just a mistake, of course they’re so sorry, it was just fate, both of the boys were sick that same day and couldn’t come, but thought that each of them would cover the other, and so no one was tending the cows, so sorry, it was just the gods. Perhaps, the herders suggested smugly, one of your women has been loose or you have been breaking some oath sworn to one of the gods, and now he is punishing you. What can we do about that? It can’t be helped what happens between men and their gods. Sons of whores. They didn’t even bother to check, who cares? What harm can befall a cow? It’s so stupid, it isn’t the cows that need guarding, it’s our rice. We should be the ones herding the cows. Then it never would’ve happened, whatever the gods wanted. Then we wouldn’t have to trade what little we have for the right to use the cows to till the soil before the floods, or to lug all of our ko of rice to the nearest market where the wholesalers would buy it all. Unfair that we need them but they don’t need us. Who knows though, maybe there will be thieves, next time maybe someone will steal their cows and slaughter them and sell their meat in the cities, right before spring, right before the birthing time so there will be no mothers to take care of the next generation, and then they can worry about next year and feel this constant cramp in their bellies. Maybe next time, so sorry, it must have been the gods, but they’ve stolen away with all your cattle when you weren’t watching. Maybe wolves ate them all, no hope of finding them now, what can be done when the gods make up their minds? If the irrigation canals still stood, then he could’ve practiced his letters again. Everyone in the family thought he was lazy but he wasn’t, it was just so hard to memorize so many different characters, it wasn’t fair because they knew he worked hard on everything else, but how could they judge, they never even try to learn, so how can they know how hard it is? They think reading is magic and leave it to magicians, but it isn’t magic, it’s just hard but once I learn to read I can go to the city and I’ll be free and rich and everything will work out. In just a few more years all of this will be behind me, and if I do well enough, I can go back and save my sisters and bring them to the city too, where they can marry someone and be taken care of. Someone completely opposite from father, someone not drunk. Someone who doesn’t gamble. Someone who doesn’t only care about himself, but not even then, father cares about himself least of all, he doesn’t care how humiliated he is, or how hungry he is, or anything, because mother hides away money actually we’re all better off than father, but even so, that’s no excuse, there’s no excuse having a wife and children and then not caring one whit about them, like we don’t even exist. If all he wanted to do was drink and gamble, then he could’ve done all that before we were born, why did he have us? He just didn’t even think about it. It never even occurred to him what would happen to us. Or maybe he cared once but it was too much work caring and so he gave up and drank instead. Maybe drinking is more fun than caring about life and working all day just for the next bowl of rice that gets you to the next bowl of rice and so on. But because of him I have to work instead, of course my older brother tries to help, but he has his own wife and his own home, and it’s impossible to do it all, so it’s up to me, I have to be the father and take care of mother and our three sisters but I’m too young, I’m only 12, I just don’t have the strength for this work. Someday I’m just going to faint, right there in the field, just faint and never wake up, too hot, too thirsty, like what happens to others, someday that’ll be me and one minute I’ll be working and the next dead, and I won’t even notice it as any different from any other day, except this time I’ll faint and die and then at least I won’t have to worry about anything anymore, but it doesn’t help because it just means I worry about it now, what will happen if I die, I worry about it whenever I have the time to do so, how on earth Fin Yi will ever manage because she already weighs way less than she should, she’s eight years old but she still looks like a five year old, and mother has to feed the smallest child the most because that’s when children are weakest and when the diseases strike hardest, so no amount of begging gets Fin any more food. In fact, after the baby, I have to eat the most because if I get weak it’s all over. So the baby, then me, father of course has to eat—and then finally Fin and Rei Yi can eat, eight and 10 years old, but both such waifs, no bodies at all. And how if they never get to eat will they ever grow breasts and without breasts who will want to marry them? I hate it. I hate all of it. I wish I didn’t have to eat but I do, and Fin Yi sits there, she even cooks the food for me and talks to me and thanks me for working so hard all day, she has to sit there right next to all that food and not eat any of it, she has to watch me eat it and she must hate me so much for every bite I take but what can I do? It’s still so long until the harvest, maybe I could find a way to work for some pig meat or something on the sly. . .or maybe I could just kill a pig or a cow...surely those herders deserve it...it’s done all the time by others...of course I should just go out and kill a cow and carve it up into little bits and feed it to my sisters and then go kill another when the first runs out, and another and another, as many as we want or need, and then we could all be happy, whatever father did. It would serve them right for destroying our ditches which is our way of life, why not steal theirs? Maybe some day when I’m not so tired and haven’t worked so hard, I’ll go steal a cow. I’m not sure how to do it but I will if I have to, once I ever get a day off, some time to spare. Gai fantasized how he would bring a sled and cut all the meat into strips and load it up, higher and higher, a whole mountain of meat, and bring it home at night, salt it and put a little beef into every bowl of rice every day after that, day after day, and how happy and healthy everyone would be. It would be so easy. Just so long as he didn’t get caught. And everyone in the village would think him a hero, they wouldn’t turn on him, the damn cows were to blame for it all anyway. Absolutely risk-free.
  The sun was already set but he could see his house clearly in the darkness. That’s stupid, why did they light a candle for me? I can find my way back in the dark, what a stupid waste of a candle. I need those to study with and they’re just burning them for nothing. Don’t they have any idea how important that extra time at night is? By all the gods, as though it weren’t hard enough, they have to make it even harder. But when he opened the door, taking off his platform sandals which were essential to navigate the mud, he found that it was even worse than he’d thought. The candle wasn’t for him, father had brought a guest back with him from the tavern. Now everybody had to stay up to entertain him or bring shame to the house. Damn it father I’m tired and I need to sleep, I don’t want to handle this right now. Now I have to kick him out or else no one will get any sleep and he’ll probably eat tomorrow’s food and how will we replace that? We have to offer him anything he wants now that you’ve invited him in, the gods watched over all travelers and required they all be treated well. Have to find a polite way to kick him out and get to sleep quickly. I’m almost asleep just standing.
  “Gai my boy! Gai! Come over here and sit down. Lu Tai, meet my son, Gai Yi, this is the boy I wanted you to meet.”
  Lu Tai stood and bowed politely, Gai bowed back, trying to imitate the other’s grace. “I am Lu Tai. A follower of the four gods who rule the heavens. I confess your father beat me in a game of chance, and obliged me to read the fortunes of all his family in return.”
  “If you can tell the future, how can you lose a game of chance?” Gai Yi asked angrily. By all the gods, father, couldn’t you have at least won some money, or food, or some god damned candles to make up for the ones this visit is wasting?
  Lu Tai smiled. “It’s not that easy. To know the future, you first have to know much about the past. When you were born, under what star, what particular events happened, what comets, what eclipses, the year proceeding—when your parents were born, and so on. It is no easy thing, astrology, many years of practice and dedication to the gods is required, before they bless you with their wisdom.”
  Mother nodded. “For the past couple hours he has read our fortunes only after careful investigations. The gods are never direct but speak in signs, omens, auguries, all the priests agree on this. Some read how bones crack, others how birds fly, others watch water or fire, but the heavenly gods are the strongest and their signs the most sure. Without their astrology we could never know when it was time to plant or harvest, their calendars are truly miraculous aids for us, and are proven time and again to be exact in their predictions.”
  Gai Yi bowed again. “Forgive me, I am very tired and know very little about gods or omens. I am sorry, but it is very late, so if it would please your reverence, maybe it is best for all of us to go to sleep.”
  “No, boy! No! He won’t get off that easy. A deal’s a deal; he has to read your fortune before he can go.” Father protested, proud in his moment of triumph.
  “Really, I don’t mind. Right now I need sleep, not my fortune told.” Gai Yi said again, already knowing it was hopeless. He couldn’t defy father in front of a stranger, it would shame his entire family and they’d never be able to look anyone else in the face afterwards.
  “Sleep can wait! This is a special opportunity, boy! Now, answer the good priest’s questions, I can’t wait to see what’s in your cards. My first son’s already a respectable farmer, you know, has his own share in the crop and his own wife, I’m sure a baby will be coming any month now. I raise my sons proper, you see? So let’s see what future he has in store!” Father insisted.
  Gai Yi nodded, sitting down on the floor. Mother swept it clean every day and dusted out the hay carpets they all slept together on, there was no other furniture except a small table to serve food on that people could sit around—or Gai could spread his books over, or friends could gather and talk around. All the cooking was done at the communal oven and beyond that what else was needed? Of course Rei had to fetch all the water, it was pretty much all she did from sunrise to sunset, water for cooking, water for washing—of course everyone went to the river to bathe. Other homes may have had some altar for their ancestors, or some fine tableware, or a closet for extra clothes, or any other personal wealth they could be proud of and display to others—but other homes had a father who made money instead of drank sake all day. Nobody had an inch of wool more than what they wore. And silk was just a daydream. Two windows let the air and light in. Generally people stayed outside when they could though, indoors it became too hot and miserable until nightfall, and besides, if you stayed indoors there was only dirt to look at and no company besides yourself. Gai Yi was the only person who had any use for solitary time, struggling over his penmanship. At least the village headman allowed him to borrow the Satvas, the sacred lore, for him to copy. Actually, if he was ever good enough, they would even pay him to make copies, but for now they were content to let him practice for free. The headman had to know how to read and right, not just to properly conduct the rituals that appeased the harvest gods, but also to assess the taxes for the Emperor and keep business accounts for any wholesalers who bought up their crop to sell to the city. When the crop was good, the surplus could be sold for various useful things, iron goods, spices, silk, jewelry, needles for sewing, whatever the village couldn’t make themselves. And Gai Yi was sort of the unofficial apprentice of the headman, at least that’s what they hoped of him—Gai didn’t intend to stay in the village though, the city had unbounded promise for someone who could read or write. A merchant house could use him, he could make copies of their transactions and contracts, or he could even work for the government, so much more money in the cities than the village, so the headman would have to be disappointed.
  After the various questions were given and answered, Lu Tai inspected his palm, and gave a few prayers, Lu opened his eyes with a look of surprise. “This is odd, your fortune, it isn’t like the rest.”
  “Oh?” Gai asked, caught between curiosity and exhaustion.
  “You...you have a heavy fortune...war and death surrounds you.” Lu Tai said. “Have you any plans of joining the military?”
  “No...none that I know of.” Gai said, confused. Wasn’t the military for the nobility? How could that possibly be his future?
  “You will be in high places...in palaces and temples...” Lu Tai said again, impressed with his own words.
  Gai smiled. That was even more ridiculous.
  Lu Tai took a sharp breath. “You are not ordinary, Gai Yi. You are a child of destiny. This is very strange. I have never seen a future so powerful as this. I...I can hardly believe it myself.”
  “Perhaps I answered the questions poorly,” Gai said. “It is hard to know when exactly I was born, yes? The reading must be off, my apologies.”
  Lu Tai stood up, ignoring Gai and bowing to his father. “This child, you say he is twelve years old? Your second son? I will buy him from you.”
  “Buy him?” Mother said, astonished.
  “Buy him? This is an honest house, sir.” Father said, angry. “And we are honest folk. Honest folk! Buy him! We are honest folk!”
  Lu Tai bowed again. “My apologies, of course I did not mean as a slave. I mean as my apprentice. I wish to hire him. The future I saw requires for me to teach him—he has been practicing his letters, yes? With my help he will learn all this and much more very quickly.”
  “But what will we do without him?” Mother said quickly, her eyes wide. Rei and Fin watched quietly with their own fear.
  “You could teach me my letters?” Gai asked, despite himself.
  “Yes of course, to read and write, to do figures, all of this is required if you are to be an astrologer.” Lu Tai said, smiling, the bait taken.
  “Buy him, eh? Buy my son? Well then-!” Father harumphed, completely confused. He had some vague idea that his son’s work payed for all his rice wine, but he wasn’t sure how much it was all worth. How much money was he making? How much was he worth selling? “Well now, it would have to be an awful lot! He’s my son, you know. And he’s destined for great things.”
  “No, you can’t, we all need him.” Mother interjected, as quickly as possible. She couldn’t directly defy her husband, but if they lost Gai, it was virtually a death sentence.
  “Whatever he is making as a farmer or a laborer, I will double it, paid by the year. In fact, we will visit you with the money each year so you can even see him again. Does that sound fair?” Lu asked.
  “Double it, eh? Well, I’ll be. That’s right fair of you.” Father said.
  Gai’s hope turned to despair. No matter how much money he got, if father knew about it, all of it would be wasted the very next day. It wouldn’t last the week. Much less enough to support them all year. He couldn’t go. An incredible chance, and he couldn’t go. The gods always played games like these so they could laugh at us. It was just the way of fortune and her turning wheel.
  “I’m sorry, but that would be impossible.” Gai Yi said. “Your predictions must have been wrong, sorry for all the trouble, but I can’t leave.”
  “Nonsense, son! Nonsense! If he says it’s true, it’s true. And double the pay is right fair of you, right fair. What’s the problem then?” Father insisted. Worse and worse.
  “Your sisters will be heartbroken.” Mother plead, looking at Gai.
  Gai looked at Lu with a sense of desperation. A chance of a lifetime but I can’t take it, can’t you see? I can’t leave them alone with him. And I can’t tell you in front of father. Why don’t you understand? Didn’t you meet father at the tavern? Don’t you see that he’s a drunk, a gambler, a shiftless no-good who will waste all the money and then my mother and sisters will starve? I have to stay to watch over them. Why can’t you see that without me having to say it?
  “Gai, perhaps you’d like some fresh air to think it over.” Lu suggested, standing up and walking outside. Gai breathed in relief and followed him.
  “Alright then, I know you want to leave. What is the problem then? Do you want more money? I’m a priest, not a merchant.” Lu Tai asked.
  “I can’t go.” Gai said, his bones tired. “Father. . .can’t be trusted with money.”
  “Is that it then! I should’ve known. But all of you acted so respectful of him, I thought. . .oh well. . .I think I understand.” Lu looked at the moon silently as clouds drifted past it, too wispy to block it out, just enough to gather in the moon’s light and make a sort of drifting halo. Both of them stood silently, helpless, thinking of the father left inside.
  “Your father, is he in debt? I could have him arrested, brought away.” Lu Tai suggested.
  “I couldn’t. . .in the end he’s still my father and. . .I don’t. . .want to hurt him. It’s not his fault, it’s just. . .who he is.” Gai Yi sighed.
  Lu Tai folded his arms behind his back, thinking again. “Your older brother, he lives nearby, right?”
  Gai looked up, an ember of hope rekindling. “Yes.”
  “He could be trusted to take care of your family, he wouldn’t spend it all on himself—if the money were his?”
  “Yes.” Gai nodded. “But how can we trick father?”
  “Easy, I said twice what you were being paid. Nobody has said what you were being paid. For all he will know, what he receives is twice what you were paid.” Lu Tai said, nodding to himself. “Very well then, once a year, we will visit, and your brother will be paid the lion’s share. Are we agreed?”
  “Why are you willing to do so much for me?” Gai asked. “All of this. . .it’s all so sudden.”
  “You do not believe in your future.” Lu Tai halfway asked.
  “No.” Gai said, wishing he could say otherwise.
  “That’s all right. I do.” Lu Tai said. “The gods have shown me something I could never have dreamed of, but the gods don’t lie. Somehow, in some way, you will be the next Emperor of Liu-Yang. I must do my part to make it so.”
  Gai Yi blinked. The man wasn’t joking, and he didn’t look insane. “There must be some mistake.”
  “Mistake or not, isn’t it enough that I believe it to be true?” Lu Tai looked at him, smiling. “Isn’t that a good enough reason for me to help you?”
  “It is a mistake.” Gai Yi insisted. “You will be disappointed in me. It’s dishonest of me to accept this offer, based on your mistake.”
  “Oh, don’t get me wrong. You will still have to be my apprentice. You will pay your way in the studies you take and the help you give. My travels, they go beyond Liu-Yang, we wander as the gods take us, across all the Middle Kingdom. It is not so easy a life you’re conniving out of me.” Lu Tai smiled.
  “It is a mistake.” Gai Yi said one more time. “But I accept, so long as you know it is.”
  “Very well then. It’s a little cold out here. How about we go back inside and tell them the news?” Lu Tai suggested, putting a hand on his back to show him the way.

Chapter 6

  “When the air is cold, it sinks, when the air is hot, it rises. Fire is nothing more than heated air. This we can know because when you seal a fire away from the air, the fire dies. Therefore air is prior to fire—air is a substance, fire is a state of a substance. Those who worship fire are wrong, the heavenly gods are clearly more powerful.” Lu Tai said, sitting across from Gai Yi in a cart pulled by a peddler going in the same direction as they were. Early on Gai discovered that Lu Tai hardly ever had to pay for anything, that someone or other always recognized his robe or staff and would offer him whatever they had, if he would bless their house and intercede with his gods to help them. Not so much to make it rain—Liu-Yang’s water came more from the winter snows in Tang and Ch’i, which melted and flowed into the rivers, which then flowed all the way to the sea, along with dozens of tributaries that bled off in various channels. The fact that in the spring it also rained a good deal only made Liu-Yang that much wetter, so that many times, it was the excess, not the privation, of water that was the farmer’s worst problem. Usually people wanted healthy children, a good crop, or perhaps someone’s or another’s love. That was the limit of their desires, and it made Gai Yi feel awkward, that just a while ago all he had wanted was meat on his table, and that his own sisters were still, no doubt, the same way. There was so much to know about this world, so much to find out, so many good things to have, it was incredible how little of it he had lived on before. Incredible that anyone could live on so little for so long and be content.
  “Now we all know that the sun evaporates water and turns it into a sort of watery air. This watery air is what makes the clouds, and when enough watery air gathers together, it becomes too heavy and comes back as water to the earth, this is why the rivers can always flow downwards and never run out. Snow, sleet, hail, all of these things are the same as rain, only colder. Now, everything that is cold becomes denser, and everything that is hot becomes rarer. In other words, everything that is cold becomes heavier, everything that is hot becomes lighter, because in one case there is more of a thing, and in the other there is less of a thing, in the same amount of space. Since the cause of rain is that the watery air becomes too heavy for the other air to keep it floating, and it must fall back down as water—and because colder air condenses it and makes it heavier--it is always more likely to rain when it is cold than when it is warm. Now, if clouds are lighter and warmer, they can float over mountains, but if they are colder and heavier, they will not make it over the mountains. Since watery air is heavier than other air, most watery air will never get over a mountain. Instead the watery air will accumulate as the winds gather more and more of it to the mountains but cannot get over the mountains, until it is too heavy for the other air to support, and it will rain. Because of this, one side of the mountains will always be wet and fertile, and the other side will always be a desert. Which side will be fertile and which a desert, is determined by the winds, which will blow the watery air against one side or the other. And wind is determined by the differences in heat of the air. Because hot air rises, and because there can never be a void, colder air will slide underneath it, and other air will slide where the previous air left, and so on forever, so that the wind is always blowing to make up for the hot air which, by rising, goes so far north or south that it cools again, and then another wind is created by the cold air sinking and hot air having to rise up and replace it. Now, locally, wind, rain, and the like will seem at random, because there are too many little things to keep track of. But overall, the heat of the air is caused by its nearness to the equator, because the equator gets most of the sunlight, which is hot, and so the giant winds all blow in the same way forever, and since mountains have always been mountains, wet land will always be wet, and dry land will always be dry. Air, water, earth, all of it wishes to go down, water goes as far down as it can, even digging holes out of the earth over time, which is the cause of canyons. Earth of course falls down whenever you pick it up, and denser earth will displace lighter earth, which is why soil is on top of the earth and bedrock beneath. Even earthquakes are just this, the struggle of different portions of earth pushing each other so that they can get further down. And cold air will jostle its way down because it is heavier than the hot air, but even the hot air eventually pushes its way back down whenever it can as well, so in the end everything that exists has some weight to it, and the meaning of weight is the will to go down, and the only reason one thing is above another, is because it is lighter and so has been pushed up against its will by something else. Two things cannot occupy the same space, just as no space can be unoccupied, and in this manner the earth has been stratified—earth, water, air. Everything is made out of these three substances, which are all equally primary, because we see water turning into earth and also into air, and we see air turning into water which then turns into earth, and we see earth melting into a kind of water, and then the water evaporates into air. Now, of these processes, they are determined by cold and heat. Earth is the coolest, water the middle warmth, and air the warmest. Fire is just the hottest air. Heat earth and it melts, heat it more and it evaporates. And vice versa. Now, all heat comes from the sun, which is a giant ball of very hot air. It must be made of air because only air can be that hot, and there is no substance but earth, water, air. Because the sun is so very hot, it is the furthest from the earth, it has been pushed very far away by everything inbetween. But we know even this air wants to go down, because the light and heat of the sun is always coming down to us.”
  “But what about the moon?” Gai Yi interjected. “It’s not air, but it’s very far away.”
  Lu Tai smiled. “The moon is a strange case, just as some light rocks float on water, some very light rocks must be able to float even on air. This is proven because powerful winds can pick up rocks and various things. Now, for the moon’s earth to be suspended so high—though not so highly as the sun’s air—it must be floating on very hot air which keeps it up there. One can imagine that whenever the wind becomes too strong it could pick up these light rocks and that they would be carried up to the moon, and that, after a long time, all these light rocks on the earth were eventually carried up by the wind, and so no more exist on the Earth, but all of them float high above and make up the moon.”
  Gai Yi nodded. It was strange, but it made sense. And Lu Tai was right about so many other things, he was probably right about everything. After all, he had studied a long time under previous masters who had thought very hard about all these things.
  “Now, as for the planets and comets and stars and all these various things, they are even farther away and hotter air. The sun must be the coolest of these stars, because it is the furthest down, and all the rest are much hotter. Because air is the hottest substance, it can get infinitely hot and will always just be air, and that is why stars can be as far away as they wish. Since all of these things are very far away, we cannot feel their heat. But the gods are kind enough that they don’t make things for no reason and no use, but allow the planets and stars to give us signs, and it is our job to interpret these signs.”
  “How do the gods make signs out of the heavens when all their motions are set and the night sky is always the same?” Gai Yi asked.
  “The gods were so wise that they knew everything that would ever happen and therefore arranged the night sky to form signs since the very beginning of time to fit all the specific times that would follow. This is called fate, and even the heathens believe in it, though they call it by a different name, it is so self-evident.”
  “You mean karma?” Gai Yi asked. He’d known that the nobility had some higher religion than the rest of the people, but nothing about it.
  “Yes, karma. But the heathens are entirely ignorant about everything. They can predict the eclipses, comets, and all the rest just like us, but they never try to find the signs inside them, and so they bumble like a blind man through the future. If the future is set, then clearly it can be predicted, and clearly knowing the future would help us, therefore why don’t they learn to predict the future? They are so proud and rich they never ask about these things and that is why so many disasters befall them.”
  Gai Yi bit his cheek. He wouldn’t mind being so rich and powerful that a disaster could befall him. Only by having a lot could you lose a lot. But he kept the thought to himself.
  “Now, just as air, due to heat and cold, moves in set patterns, so too does the water—this is called the currents, and it, along with the wind, is what allows us to cross the oceans and wander about the world—“ Lu Tai continued.
  “You there, priest!” A farmhand called is the cart went by. “Please, will you come visit my home? My son came back from town and now he’s terribly sick.” Other farmers stood up from their work and hailed him as well.
  “Priest, please, my daughter is possessed by spirits, please save her!”
  “Priest, the rats have been multiplying everywhere, please, make a warding or they’ll eat all our grain.”
  “Priest, bless my wife, she’s having a baby soon, please keep her healthy!”
  The cart driver looked back, seeing if the priest wanted to go on. Lu Tai shook his head and stood up, rubbing his back. “Well, son, I guess it’s back to work now. After we make our rounds I’m sure there will be a hot meal and a stack of fresh hay to greet us.”
  Gai stood up obediently and thanked the driver. “Is it always like this?”
  “More or less. The peasants always have the same problems, always have, always will. It’s just their fate. But maybe a few of them can be helped, just like you.” Lu Tai replied.
  “I don’t think all of them can be destined to become Emperor.” Gai joked.
  “Hsst. Don’t speak of that around others. It’s treason, and so long as you don’t believe it, sacrilege besides.” Lu Tai rapped him on the head.
  “Sorry!” Gai winced. It hurt. Whatever could be said of his father, he wasn’t used to getting hit at home. But Lu Tai believed it was the perfect solution for almost anything. If he made a mistake in his lessons, his letters, his figures, if he spoke smartly or too often. Gai was so used to being the real head of the family that it was hard yielding that authority back over again. But he didn’t mind, it was a price well worth paying. He barely had to work at all, Lu Tai gave him everything, and he was learning so much so quickly. He was hungry, but not as hungry. They were usually in poor circumstances, but that was fine. Everything was better now. He didn’t even have to worry about his family because they had been paid a royal fee and now everybody could be happy so he could be too.
  “Please, sir, if you could help my son. There must be some mistake, he’s a good lad, he would never blaspheme the gods. Can’t you intercede for us?” The first farmer was also first to the cart. “It will only take a little while, there must have been a mistake, see, the gods must have missed by a house or something, he’s done nothing wrong. He’s only fourteen, chaste, sober, and hard working. It’s costing so much to take care of him, and we rely on him besides, please, we’d fall apart if he...if we lost him.” The farmer said, mopping his brow.
  Only fourteen and taking care of his family. Gai Yi winced. I could’ve been him. “Please father, let’s help him.” Gai asked. Lu Tai had adopted him, so the words were only natural. Besides, it made for far less questions from strangers if it was kept simple like this.
  “Very well then, take me to him.” Lu Tai sighed. The same story so often. The reason why so many daughters were killed at birth, the farmers always needed sons and more sons to work the land, and there never seemed to be enough to take care of the girls left at home even then. The women would help as much as they could, but what with sewing clothes, tending the vegetable gardens, cleaning, fetching water, nursing the babies, watching the children, cooking the morning and evening meals, and taking care of the sick or injured—all of it so necessary but none of it producing anything—they were always that extra burden that broke the father’s back. Everyone loved their wives and daughters, but in a sense they were also hated. Since the women relied on the men, they were clearly inferior to the men, and that meant they should be obedient, quiet, and respectful. If they weren’t, all the other men and even women would make fun of the unlucky husband, which meant invariably he would have to beat his wife to prove himself to the village a true man. Then he’d always feel guilty, because he did love her, which would make him even angrier because she made him do it, causing the cycle to just repeat forever. And since the men were so often away from home, the women had to stay at home, for fear of cuckolding, and any slightest rumor of indecency would drive men into a frenzy. The babies came out of the mothers, so that part was assured, but for men they could never be sure, and like a worm it ate at them day and night. For the daughters, it was different but also the same. Since men were worth more than women, when a boy and a girl left their respective homes, the father of the girl had to give over a dowry to make up for the unequal trade, and so every daughter you had, that was three cows, or a ko of rice, or an acre of your land, or some terrible price, the better the husband, the higher the price—some terrible price you had nightmares over because if you couldn’t scrape together the dowry, you would have to marry her off to the known drunkards, sleazes, and abusers—or send her off to town where she’d invariably become a whore—or take care of her for the rest of your life. And the rumors that went around unmarried older women were so terrible it was almost better to kill her than to live with that constant shame. They were either witches, harlots, or both. Women jealous of their men’s affections--because without them, so also went the men’s support, for herself and her children--hated unwed girls like vipers, because invariably they were younger, prettier, and easier to get than other wives. Wherever he went, it was always the same, just more or less of it, one way or another. Gai Yi would have to harden his heart quickly, or it would overwhelm him. The traveler’s horizon included all the suffering in the world.
  “Thank you sir, I’m sure it will clear right up. He’s always been faithful to the gods.” The peasant bowed deeply, pointing and leading the way back to the village. A long walk, but Lu Tai was used to them.
  “Doesn’t your village have a local priest, headman, or something?” Lu asked. “Why hasn’t he been treated already?”
  The peasant bit his lip. “The local priest has tried, but nothing has changed. The gods do not listen to our priest. The rats grow large on our crops, and the priest can’t make them go away. Now my son is sick, but the priest cannot cure him. Perhaps the priest is to blame for all of this. It’s certainly not my son’s fault. He’s always been faithful.”
  “Of course.” Lu Tai said, placating the farmer. It wasn’t like the son’s virtue was in dispute. The gods were jokers, giving out fortune to good and bad alike. If it were so simple, if good things only ever happened to good people, then of course there would only be good people, the rest would die or quickly change their view of things. Why, the barbarians believed in entirely different gods, and yet they made up the large population of the world. Perhaps the gods warred with each other, plaguing one another’s people or causing droughts so that more rain would fall on their land—or perhaps the gods cared very little about most people, and only intervened when someone special, people who were on the path to godhood themselves, was born into the world. Or perhaps there were gods even of rats, gods or devils or whatever they were, perhaps gods of even death, war, hate, terror, lust, famine, all the evils of the world, and those gods fought tirelessly to spread their own essence over the earth, and it was all the good gods, the ancestors of the dead, the heavenly gods, the spirits of the rivers and mountains, the gods of the harvest, marriage, and all good things, perhaps it was all they could do to preserve even the ones that do live. In any event, there was enough chaos in the world that it was clear the heathens, the believers in one God that controlled everything, were ludicrously wrong. Such a god would have to be insane, that was the only explanation they could tender for this earth.
  Soon enough they reached the peasant’s small hut. Lu Tai mouthed a prayer and entered, Gai Yi following behind. His job for now was simply to witness everything Lu did. There was so much to learn that he would only mess up whatever ritual Lu Tai was doing, if he tried to help.
  The wife bowed and stepped aside. “Please, if there’s anything you can do. He grows sicker and sicker. Nothing I do helps.”
  “Of course.” Lu repeated, going to the far side and kneeling down beside the boy. He had been expecting the runs, if the water wasn’t clean enough, or the farmer’s pox, because for some reason the herders didn’t get it, or the bloody cough. Perhaps the high fever people got when they didn’t clean out their hay beds enough. So many different illnesses. He might have been able to help with those. This was something he’d never seen before. Huge black swellings like extra limbs were pushing out from the boy, the smell was absolutely terrible, and the boy groaned senselessly in pain.
  “How long has he been like this?” Lu Tai asked, his eyes wide.
  “Ever since he came back from town, he went to buy some spice to preserve our meat with.” The peasant answered, mopping his brow and looking at his son with dread.
  “How many days?” Lu Tai asked again, taking off the blanket and looking at the boy’s body, the black swellings all the way down his legs.
  “Just. . .a week. . .just a week ago, I think. There must be some mistake—“ The father said again.
  “Of course.” Lu Tai cut him off. “This spice, where did you put it?”
  The mother looked up. “We gave it away, we traded it for some eggs because we’ve been so busy taking care of him we were running out of food. . .”
  “Damnation.” Lu Tai muttered. Perhaps there was a curse in the spice, that he could burn off. But now someone else had it, working the same poison no doubt. Lu Tai drew a circle around the boy to draw the attention of the heavenly gods, praying for them to spare this child’s life. But inside he was horrified. He had never seen this before. He had no idea what was causing it, or what could possibly cure it. The boy was so sick it was impossible he was still alive.
  “Will he live?” The mother asked, watching with a tiny shred of hope.
  “That is for the gods to decide, I can only ask.” Lu Tai said. “Should he die, it is best that you burn all your beds. In fact, burn the entire house, burn all your clothes, burn it all. And go somewhere far away, your son is cursed, and this place with it. Everything in this house may carry some part of this curse, and wherever else this spice goes, perhaps all of it is cursed too. If anyone else gets sick, tell them to burn it out, that is the only way to stop these things.”
  The parents nodded, looking at their three other children beside them with dawning fear.
  Lu Tai turned and saw Gai Yi staring at the body. “Gai, I want you to go to the river and take a bath. You’re all dusty from the road.”
  Gai nodded, wrenched his eyes away. How could such a thing exist? The smell was so terrible. His skin was sweating just trying to get it off. The moment he left the hut he felt better, and the further away he went, the better he felt, until he was running towards the river, desperate to wash the smell away.
  
  Lu Tai watched him leave then turned back to the parents. “I must tend to the others now. Remember, cleanse it all with fire. It can all be replaced. Save nothing, not even your silk.” He would take a bath as soon as possible as well, it was the first defense against these malaises, for whatever reason. And Gai should not have had to see that. Lu Tai’s skin was itching to get out of the hut, the air outside felt like a rebirth, the smell had been so bad. The family had obviously gotten used to it, they probably couldn’t even tell the difference, but for him, it had been almost unbearable. Or maybe they noticed it too, but didn’t dare mention it, because it would confirm what was already so obvious, their son was dying. He would be dead any day now. And as these things went, perhaps they were next. And now perhaps me. Lu Tai shook the thought away. I didn’t’ touch him. And we were only there for a couple minutes. It couldn’t spread that fast. Whatever demon inside him. It couldn’t spread that fast because the rest of the family still looks healthy. But it still scared him. The other diseases always came with something, bad air, bad water, bad food, bad something, that you could avoid. But this, there was no telling. The poison could be anywhere, and Lu Tai didn’t know if he had avoided it or not.
  As he was walking towards the pregnant mother’s hut, a pack of rats were fighting over the garbage that every house accumulated and then threw out far from their homes, finding that sufficient. Far too many. Half of them different from the ones he was used to seeing. Gray and larger than normal. “These rats, where did they come from?” Lu Tai asked.
  “I don’t know.” The husband said, squinting at them. “There weren’t any like those when I was young. . .but now they’re everywhere. They kill the other rats, we find their corpses all over. They just appeared one day, and our headman can’t do anything about them. They eat all our seeds the moment we plant them.”
  “So they’ve been here for years?” Lu asked.
  “Yes, five years at least.” The man answered, shrugging.
  Scratch that then. Lu Tai discarded the vague thought and turned back to the job at hand. After this he was taking a bath, then they were leaving this village, however dark it may be. He didn’t know where the poison was, and he wasn’t staying to find out. They could eat tomorrow.

Chapter 7

  “My lord,” Shen Lao bowed. “I’ve come to the capital to present a petition of all the nobility.”
  “You are welcome, Shen Lao.” Hei Ming Jong greeted. “I hope you have not made such a long journey over the towers, because they stay.”
  Shen Lao bowed again. “Not at all, lord. How can Tang forts threaten us when your own sister is the queen of Tang? The alliance of Liu-Yang and Tang has kept the peace these ten years, which is a very long time, in this fragmented age.”
  Hei looked at the nobleman again, puzzled. The one major issue ever since he had ascended the throne had been those stupid river forts which ensured joint ownership of the Yang between the two countries it flowed across. The source was in Tang, the mouth in Liu-Yang. Both nations relied heavily on trade, and that river was the cheapest, most efficient way to transport their goods to anywhere in the world. Both nations’ capitals were built as inland ports embracing both sides of the river, and both were ready to fight to the death before that trade route was cut off from them. As messy as ‘sharing’ sovereignty was—not only in Liu-Yang but also among the warmongers in Tang—it was the only viable solution, and most of all, it had proved itself these past ten years as having actually worked. Once Tang owned all the Middle Kingdom, and Yangching, as it was called then, was the capital of the southeastern district, the midway point between the sea and the capital of the world. No one really knew when the Tang Dynasty ended, because the Tang dynasty was still going. The kings of Tang were the direct descendants of the former emperors, Manching was still the capital of Tang—but around two hundred years ago, the old system had broken apart, where officials were appointed shifting administrative districts all over the country, always far away from home, and never for more than two years. Emperors seeking to expand the Middle Kingdom into the southern peninsula while simultaneously defending against pirates from the east, and riders from the north, became so desperate for wealth that they began to sell off positions in perpetuity, granting the right to inheritance. In return, the officials were required to send vast sums of wealth and armies to throw into the wars—as always and forever, so long as the Middle Kingdom was rich and the barbarians were poor, the barbarians would invade. At first, when people through custom were still used to obeying the Emperor and were wary to be the first to overtly try their luck, everything seemed fine. But gradually, the second or third generation of these permanent districts saw themselves as rulers, giving only lip service to the Emperor. The Emperor didn’t dare to demand more, for fear of instead getting even less, until, after a crushing defeat against the Southern Barbarians, officials all across the Middle Kingdom announced Tang had lost the mandate of heaven and that they would send no further tribute nor men to the Emperor. This was when most historians dated the end of the Tang dynasty, now over 100 years ago. But even that was in doubt, because at first the Tang emperor had many adherents all across the land, from habit, loyalty, or hope of a restoration of their old fortunes, and the Emperors of course continued to lay claim to the whole Middle Kingdom. The breakaway states were so busy attacking each other to carve out their own new kingdoms, that Tang was still the dominant state for another fifty years. Of course the alternate argument could be made, that the Tang dynasty fell long before the first rebellion, because they lost the power to control their subjects and were entirely ignored when it came to laws, taxes, or anything but religious ceremonies. At some point even the Tang Emperors abandoned any claim to their own dynasty and concentrated on keeping their deepest heartland, Manching and its surroundings from their newly made aggressive neighbors. That Tang had hoped to expand once again to secure the best and most fertile soil, along with the deepest and widest river in the Middle Kingdom, only made sense, and in a sense it was still all rightfully theirs. Hei Ming Jong shook his head. His grandfather had been the original Jong, and they were outright usurpers, he had been a great general who had rebelled against the Fu family, who had themselves rebelled against the Tang. His son now had the blood of both lines, Jong and Fu, which made his claim strongest of all—except Tang could still claim all of them were illegitimate and that only Tang deserved to rule—the fact that now the Jong and the Huang lines were united under Yue’s sons only made it more complicated. Both could claim not one but two bloodlines that rightfully ruled Liu-Yang. Thank God my sister is not one of those viperous women whose only goal in life is to advance the position of their children, thank God we love each other more than all the Middle Kingdom combined, or there would be a succession war that would dwarf the blood shed in the one ten years ago, because this time both sides would be Liuyans. Perhaps the only solution will be to marry my Lin off to Yue’s daughter, what is her name? Fimiko. Fimiko Lorelai Huang. Full blooded cousins, but it can’t be helped, not when the marriage could prevent a war.
  “...If you will just read the petition, you’ll see how reasonable and just the requests are, especially since they ask nothing new but simply the restoration of the old ways that have defended our Empire for so long.” Shen Lao licked his lips nervously, noticing the Emperor hadn’t been paying him the slightest attention. Was he so confident? Or did he just not realize the veiled threat that was being made? “My lord! Please!” He said as loudly as he dared, offering the scroll yet again.
  Hei blinked. “Oh, I thought since we had agreed about the towers, there was nothing left.” Of course he hadn’t thought that, but he had hoped. “Very well then, give me your petition. Am I to believe that you will put your newfound opinion concerning the towers in writing and, along with all the other signers of this petition, recognize the treaty we have made and both sides have honored for the last ten years?”
  Shen Lao bowed again. “Of course sire.”
  Hei raised his eyebrows. This petition had to be something dramatic, if such a concession was offered in return for it. He read through it quickly, looking for a moment at the long list of nobles, many whose names he recognized, many he didn’t, clearly too minor to be worth his notice. “Do I gather the nobility is unhappy with the training of our army?” Hei asked, putting the petition back down.
  “Yes, sire, if you wish to put it that way.” Shen Lao said, half bowing again.
  “Your son, he is slated to join the army this year, is he not?” Hei asked.
  “Yes, sire. I’m honored you take such notice of my family.”
  “Of course, you are one of my ablest deputies, and I have heard that your son promises to be a great leader of men.” Hei said. In Go especially, the masters he played against spoke with delight about the Lao family prodigy who had already invented moves never used successfully before in the openings. Of course the boy still lost, there was no way a child had the patience or wisdom to play a perfect game of Go with the placement of every stone, but some masters had with delight taken the very same moves and done far more with them than the child had managed to himself. All of them agreed that if he kept training, when he was older, he would be 9-dan, the very highest rank. At best Hei could have been 8-dan, and what with having to rule the Empire, he hadn’t had enough time to become even that good.
  “I’m honored.” Shen Lao answered again.
  “Well then, why don’t we hold off on this matter for now? Your son, he will be the test between my method and yours. If you find that he has become an able warrior and general, will you concede that the method is satisfactory?” Hei Ming Jong asked.
  “My apologies, sire, but I must believe that any method at all would reveal my son to be an able general.” Shen Lao said, feeling cornered.
  “My apologies then, for not making myself clear. Supposing your son emerges as a leader fit to become my general of the Right, will you be content with the training that makes him so?” Hei Ming Jong repeated just as politely.
  Shen Lao looked at his opponent in the face, seeing the trap that had been laid for him. It was a bribe, for him to turn against the rest of the nobility. Since he was the ringleader, if he changed sides, the whole issue would fall apart. But even if he didn’t accept the bribe, Hei Ming Jong would probably appoint his son General anyway. Not only did Fae Lao merit the position, but by giving it to him, the rest of the nobility would believe he had been bribed, he would be discredited, and the issue would fall apart anyway. It was the perfect move. And to top it off, Hei had also gotten him and the rest of the nobility to permanently accept the Tang fortifications lining the river. He had gotten everything and given nothing at all. And for the first time Shen Lao realized that the Emperor was not only a good ruler, the Emperor was a better ruler than him. That he had been soundly, thoroughly, and effortlessly beaten. That the speech that had immediately become a legend that Lu Huang had given to the Ch’i emperor, that Hei could never be beaten, that he was a thousand times better than anyone else—that it was true. The petition had never had a chance. Best, then, to accept the pretense that preserved his face, and not admit there had been any hint of a bribe at all.
  “A test then. If my son proves acceptable, then I can only admit to your greater wisdom on this issue.” Shen Lao bowed again.
  “My thanks, in that case, we can both hope that your son doesn’t disappoint you. I shall require your acceptance of the towers in writing by this evening. Please make yourself comfortable until you wish to make your journey home.” Hei Ming Jong waved his hand, and the audience was adjourned.

  “I have a question, father, how can there be more or less of a thing in the same space unless there is a void? But you said earlier that there is no such thing as a void, that nature always fills in a void the moment it attempts to form. But if everything is already filled up, how can you put more into it? So wouldn’t there have to be a void, that we can squeeze stuff into?” Gai Yi asked, the two of them walking for lack of any other travelers on the road. They had left the other village quickly and fallen asleep on leaves on the side of the road. They had no reason to fear thieves because they had nothing worth stealing.
  “Yes and no,” Lu Tai said, obviously pondering the question himself. “Void means a total absence of anything, but things can still be relatively more or less filling. Everything is always pushing at each other, in the wish to go down, so that whenever a body moves out of the way, other bodies push into their place. Just like in a large crowd, where everybody is pushing towards the entertainers, to get as good a view as possible, if anyone moves in any direction, others will replace him, by either pushing that person out of the way, or being pushed into the way by others behind him. So it is not, in fact, that things move merely because they wish to forestall a vacuum, it is because they are all pushing that no vacuum has a chance to form. The effect of motion, not the cause.”
  “I still don’t understand. Either something exists or it doesn’t, right? If it exists, it absolutely fills up the space it does, right? If the space is absolutely filled, how can it be relatively more or less filled?” Gai Yi insisted.
  “Hmm.” Lu Tai thought again, both of them walking without any knowledge of where they were going or when their next meal would come. “I don’t believe a thing can be absolutely filled, if that were true, it would become immovable, because it would weigh an infinite amount. Or, if there is such a thing as an absolutely filled space, it could only be at the center of the earth, because that alone is motionless in the universe. However, the reason for that is not its infinite weight, but, we believe, the fact that it is being pushed at equally on all sides, the center of the universe is precisely the center because it is the average of all the forces of the universe acting against it. Now, as to the rest of the universe, clearly they do not weigh an infinite amount, or they would be motionless, but motion can be seen in everything. You see, it is evident, that there is neither infinite density nor infinite rarity, which is a void, because we see instead this pushing match between all things, and in that case, all things must be relatively able to push and be pushed by each other.”
  “But what Is there, if not the body, and if not void, that allows the body to get denser or rarer? There must be something everywhere or there will be void somewhere, if there is something taking up the space, then the space is taken up, right? If you can put more into the space, then obviously the space wasn’t taken up, so there must be some void even in that something, and so on.” Gai Yi said.
  “Listen to yourself!” Lu Tai laughed. “If not body, and not void, what is there?” Lu Tai picked up a rock. “This is body, but not ‘absolute body’, as you would say.” Lu Tai dropped the rock. “What we just saw was the rock pushing all the lighter bodies out of the way, until the earth stopped it, which weighed as much.” Lu Tai picked the rock back up. He threw it as high as he could into the air and it came down somewhere in the trees. “How did the rock go up? Isn’t that impossible?”
  “You threw it.” Gai Yi answered. “You made it go up.”
  “Even though it was heavier than the air?” Lu Tai asked, sounding confused.
  “But you pushed it harder then it could push down.” Gai Yi said
  “With what? Here is my hand, still connected to my body. My body had nothing to do with its body and it still went up.” Lu Tai protested.
  “With force—“ Gai Yi said, and stopped.
  “There you have it, boy. What is the something that isn’t body and isn’t void, that fills everything inbetween?”
  “Force.”
  “How is it that bodies are separated and rarefied?”
  “. . .with heat. Heat makes the earth melt and the water evaporate.”
  “What, then, is heat?”
  “The force that fills up the rest of the space! That’s why air is the hottest!”
  “There you have it. When things ‘fill up’ or ‘empty out’, something isn’t turning into nothing, nor nothing turning into something. A new balance is made, one thing acquires more body, another more force. The sun is very light, it floats far above us, and yet it’s so hot it can set things on fire and so bright it blinds us to look at it. Do you think that kind of power is free? Or coincidental? No, the sun is only made of shreds of air, very thin shreds, with heat connecting all the shreds together.”
  “But if you add a body to a fire, doesn’t the fire get hotter?” Gai asked.
  “That depends. If you add a stone to the fire, doesn’t that weaken the fire, while heating the stone? If you add warmer things, lighter things, then the heat inside of them adds to the heat of the fire, and the result is a lot of heat being made and in return, whatever log or other body you put in the fire, is only ash or entirely gone. But if you add colder, heavier things, like dirt, the fire dies, and all you’ve managed is to make warmer dirt for a while.”
  “I guess so.” Gai Yi said, giving it up. No matter how hard he tried, Lu Tai always had the answer. It was like magic.
  “You are getting the hang of it, though. “Something exists or it doesn’t, right?” That is the first principle of all thought, that something cannot both exist and not exist at the same time—that there is no such thing as a contradiction. There are two ways to prove something false—it can either contradict itself, or contradict reality. Earlier, you were trying to show that the argument was contradicting itself, that there was empty space but no void, but words are tricky, slippery things, and it is easy to find contradictions in names but not in fact. People play all sorts of games with that: “Illness is an absence of health, right?” “Right.” “Then how can you be ill, if illness is an absence, and not a presence?” That’s why it is always better to see if something contradicts reality first, and itself only second. Many people have contradicted themselves by first stating something which is false, then true, or first true, then false—and yet both the false and true is then discarded, simply because there was a contradiction. When if you had looked to reality, you could have proven the false only contradictory, and gained the truth untarnished for the both of you.”
  “But isn’t that the whole point, knowing reality? I mean, it’s because we don’t know reality that we have to argue about it.” Gai Yi asked.
  Lu Tai shook his head. “You must enjoy these word games. We know portions of reality, the point is to find the other portions we don’t know by proving one necessitates the other, through reason. Therefore nobody argues over the reality we all know—that we exist, for instance, or that the universe exists, because we clearly interact with it, and that we have certain properties, because we feel them, or that the universe has certain properties, because we see them. What we learn is why such and such is the way it is, and not something else. We are students of necessity, of fate—the will of the gods. Any tree can sense there is a sun, but only we can know why the sun is the sun, and could not be anything else. Once we find the reason for a thing, we are infinitely wiser than the person who finds the thing. Because the thing may change, or fall out of sight—but the reason remains forever. The beauty of reason is truly phenomenal, because by knowing just one thing, just one, truly and wholly, everything else can be reasoned out, can be found necessary for this one thing to exist, because otherwise it would not exist. The universe is without contradiction, therefore, all of it must be one, and any part of it must contain all of it, because only in this exact universe could this exact thing exist, and this exact thing can only exist in this exact universe. The reason behind anything is the same reason behind everything, because there is no such thing as chance, but only necessity, because if there were chance, if there were the possibility that the same thing could happen two ways, there would eventually be a contradiction, such as the sun turning into the moon, or it would go backwards instead of forwards in the sky, or it would cool the earth instead of heat it. If mere chance causes the patterns we see before us day by day, then how are they preserved? There are patterns, we can see them, therefore something is preserving them, and that means they must be, because they are made to be that way and no other. Because of that, because we know all things occur by necessity and not at random, by knowing the little portion of reality we do know, we can find the absolute truth about all the rest, if we just think carefully enough, and look closely enough, at that which we do know.”
  “That’s why you can tell the future by looking at the motion of the stars?” Gai asked.
  “Of course. Everything is connected.” Lu Tai said, smiling that Gai had understood. “Ah, it looks like a cart is coming, see the dust?” Lu Tai couldn’t resist. “There cannot be dust without a cart, nor a cart which does not kick up dust. Therefore by just seeing the dust, I know there is a cart. And that means I can go back to sleep, wake up, and eat, and for just a while not be bothered by your questions which are all word traps and meant to discredit me.”
  “I’d never make fun of you.” Gai Yi protested.
  “Only because your word traps never work,” Lu Tai laughed. “But have it your way, maybe you’re just so foolish all your questions are just semantics and you can’t think of any better ones.”
  Gai Yi opened his mouth again, closed it, his eyes widening.
  The cart was full of dead bodies. They were all covered by black bulbs.

Chapter 8

  San Lei Jong sat on the bank overlooking the creek. She was there to fetch water, but the water wasn’t going anywhere, she would fetch it sooner or later. It was nice, getting older, because she was able to carry more and more in a single trip, balancing the jar on her head with one hand. Which meant in the same time she was assigned to do a task, more and more of it became leisure instead of work. No need for the sisters to find out she could do it faster than before, though. They’d just end up assigning her more work if they did. She’d probably have to fetch twice as much water or something. The need for water was unrelenting, and not standing water, which was dirty and poisoned, it had to be flowing water. Every summer when the rice fields were flooded and the whole landscape became a series of ponds marked off by ridges which denoted each farmer’s plot that they walked along to take care of their rice, the mosquitoes multiplied and people got sick and died. It couldn’t be helped though, without water the rice would not grow, without rice we’d all die anyway. San chewed on a reed, watching the water flow and the sun shine. Spring already, the rains would be coming any day now, and the land would glint like a thousand mirrors against the sun. The nuns didn’t farm the rice, the labor was too hard and demanded too much time, instead they hired farmers to do it for them, in return they got a share of the crop, best of all it was tax free, as feeding the Church was already paying the government, because then the government didn’t have to feed them. There were millions of farmers out there who didn’t own their own land, oxen and plows were too expensive to own, and so it ended up that all the other farmers became indebted to whoever could rent them out, that debt eventually led to a foreclosure of their land, and that gave rise to the system of sharecroppers and nobles, which was natural and inevitable. There was always an interchange, however, of prosperous farmers managing to buy their own land, or wasteful nobility managing to become penniless. Penniless nobility always ended up in the army, though, not farmers. They still had their pride. Only now the military payed its soldiers with a plot of land, so they would end up being farmers anyway. Free farmers, at least. She guessed the nobles might be able to accept that.
  Even though she hadn’t seen the rest of the country, she knew all about it. All the sisters, her mother especially, were intent on her having the best education possible. She could read and write, like all the sisters. One of their jobs, of course, was to copy the sutras. The wet weather corrupted the paper very quickly, so it was always having to be replaced. Not like Ch’i, which was high up and mainly dry. Their capital had the greatest library in the world, and all the greatest scholars went there to live and study. That’s why it was Daoyan, the city of God. The Church made all of its doctrinal decisions from their. Of course the Emperor was the last word on their religion, but usually all the Middle Kingdom tried to cooperate with each other. Only one hundred years ago Tang had ruled it all and the Church was of course united, and everyone knew someday it would be united again, and then the Church would have to iron out whatever wrinkles had developed between the various kingdoms in the meantime. Most everyone still believed in their myriad of gods, even worshipping disgusting things like death or hatred or revenge like they were gods, with their various insane customs, like sacrificing what little they had to their gods for good fortune which never came, or having ritual sex to encourage the fertility of the land, or for the rain to come, or for their herds to multiply, or just anything they could think up. That meant the Church had no time fighting against itself, everyone rich or smart or powerful believed in the Dao, and that meant they were all on the same side, as far as the Church went. Even though Ch’i and Liu-Yang hated each other now, Daoyan was still Daoyan. If the peasants were ever going to be happy, if true harmony was ever going to exist between the different classes, they had to be converted to the faith. There would be time enough to debate what exactly that faith was, after the real work had been done. Most of the Middle Kingdom were no better than barbarians, as things stood. And so long as it stayed that way, there was no telling but the people might side with the barbarians, and kill us all, or revolt against us and the barbarians take advantage of the revolt, or just anything. Until they understood karma how could they be anything but evil? Until they knew why the good was good, why there was any reason to be good, how could they do anything but evil? It was dangerous, this great divide between the elect and the masses, like the uroborus biting its own tail, or a scorpion stinging its own head. They had to work together if anyone was going to live.
  But I wonder if he ever asked? She lay down and watched the clouds. It’s been almost two years. He never came back. Maybe he asked and just never found time to come back and tell me. He’s just a kid after all, he probably can’t go where he wants. But shouldn’t the Emperor want to come back, if we are related? Wouldn’t he want to see me himself? He must have asked and it turns out we’re not related. That’s the only reasonable conclusion. That or he never asked, even though he promised. What’s a prince’s promise to a little girl? Nothing. It’s not like I can demand or expect anything from someone like him. He could have just forgotten about it entirely. Except he wouldn’t. She knew he had asked. He had been a good person, and everyone knew his father was a great Emperor, that he had saved Liu-Yang and brought it ten years of peace, such a long time. Even though it wasn’t exactly peace, they were always fighting pirates, but peace with Pi and Ch’i, which had seemed impossible. But they didn’t dare to attack Liu-Yang so long as Hei Ming Jong would be the opposing general. That’s why they don’t attack, even if they hate us. They can’t attack because our Emperor is the greatest general in the world and they would just be destroyed. Not just that though, the Emperor loved his wife so much he never remarried, even though any girl would love to have him, even princesses from the other kingdoms. Even though thousands of girls would lay with him just for a night, without any requests at all, still he remained celibate just like a priest. The priests of the temple, when she talked to them, all agreed that he was the most godly Emperor they remembered, a fervent student of the sutras who never missed a sermon if he could help it. He never drank, gambled, or even held giant feasts, hunts, or other excesses like parades or contests. He wore silk, of course, but mainly just black with little embellishment, and disdained jewels, perfumes, and the like as women’s trifles. With such a father the Emperor’s son had to be good too, he wouldn’t do anything so petty or unfair as betray a promise when it was so easy to fulfill it. No, the answer must have been that I’m not related, that the Emperor doesn’t know my father, that I’m just some ‘Jong’ out there and mother won’t tell me about him because it’s too shameful or something. Maybe he was a thief, maybe he’s in jail for life and that’s why he’s never visited, never wanted to see his daughter’s face. Maybe he’s dead. She sighed. The same thoughts so often. But it was unfair, not having a father, or any siblings, or even any friends. Always alone in this adult world without any boys at all, like they were some exotic foreign species, she could only hope to see once or twice in her life. They always lectured her on how to attract boys, but how could she possibly, if she had no idea what they were even like? Without any father or brothers, how could she know how they thought? What they meant when they said something? When it would be okay to hug them or touch them? It wasn’t fair. What if she messed up and led some boy on when she didn’t mean to, or pushed some boy away when she didn’t mean to, and the one boy she could ever love was lost and she’d be stuck a nun forever? I don’t want to be a nun, I’ve been a nun all my life and it’s already boring. Fourteen now and I’ve barely talked to a boy. Girls my age are already getting married, at least they’ve met someone by now. Danced with one. Kissed one. San traced out her reflection in the water. I don’t even know if I’m pretty. No boy has come around to tell me one way or the other. Whatever mother says doesn’t count. I don’t even know a boy’s name. Lin Su Jong. But it’s not like I’ll ever see him again. Not if it hasn’t happened already. Still, she was still young. Girls were hardly ever married this young, mostly at sixteen, eighteen, or even twenty, though that was stretching things. It just mattered whether a suitable match could be found and when. She could wait, she didn’t mind waiting, having her own child now sounded daunting, when she had been a kid so recently, was still thought a kid by everyone around her. But she already knew everything there was to know here. The only way to do anything but wait was to start trying out something else. Like go to town and see the ships flowing in and out, white sails everywhere carrying the commerce of a dozen nations, see the merchants selling all their kinds of goods, all the different fish they had caught, or silk from Ch’in, or rubber from the eastern islands, or iron or silver or gold or gems from Mae-Dong, or porcelain from Weh, the absolute masters of those thin beautiful vases, pots, and dishes. Or lanterns from Tang that could control how much oil they burned at any one time, or compasses, or matches, or fireworks, or astrolabes that could tell you your position at sea, or clocks, sewing needles, or just anything. Since Tang only had to float the stuff down the river, the cost of transportation was nearly zero, so whatever Tang made was cheap and plentiful in Liu-Yang, in fact much of what Tang made was designed for Liuyans, their own fleet only going up and down the river, compasses and telescopes and the like were made expressly for our own mariners. In return Liu-Yang of course sold rice. Rice and now spice. Tang could buy their rice from Pi, but the nearness of Liu-Yang meant it was much cheaper here. The spice was new, though, not just a luxury but a wonderful preservative that even the poorest people needed. And so long as Tang kept coming up with new wonderful random things, spice flowed like a torrent from the Liuyan ports up the river to Manching. Sometimes it didn’t even bother to disembark, the product was payed for upfront, and the ocean vessel just loaded its cargo onto the Tang river vessel, and off it went. So much in the cities, and all of it moving around like it just had to get somewhere and there couldn’t be a moment’s rest or delay. It was not for her, she liked relaxing and thinking and not worrying about anything, but it would still be neat to see. Everything is changing and moving and growing, and here I am just on the sidelines. Forgotten to the world. Like the sky, it doesn’t even know I’m watching, it doesn’t even know how beautiful I think it is, or that I love it.
  “San, are you there? San?” A voice called, strangely tense.
  San stood up, brushing at her clothes. Had she waited too long? She guessed she was in for another lecture and more chores. Can’t be helped, she sighed. Had to happen sooner or later. “Yes, sister Qi? I’m here.” San quickly picked up her jar to show she had been working.
  “San, bring the water up to the church. There’s something we have to tell you.” Sister Qi gathered herself and delivered the words. “It’s your mother, San, she’s sick.”

  “Where is it coming from?” Hei Ming Jong asked. “This plague, where did it start? Can we quarantine it?”
  The scribes stood at attention, looking through their records. “The first cases seem to have been in Jae-Dong, sire. But it’s spreading everywhere, and not just in a circle, but in strange leaps and hops. Like. . .”
  “Like it’s following the rivers.” Another finished. “Jae-Dong is a port off the Liu river. Every city inland has it now too. And all the farming communities inbetween. Soon enough it will cover the whole of the north.”
  “I don’t understand, why just the river? Has the river been poisoned?”
  “Impossible, the Liu river is too big, billions and billions of gallons of water continuously flowing to the ocean, to poison that much water, not all the poison ever made in the world could do that.” A scribe rejected.
  “Is there a sickness in the water? Like the sickness of still ponds?” Hei asked.
  “How can that be? The river is always moving. Besides, this plague is different, entirely new. It can’t be the same.”
  “The wells, has anyone gotten sick based on drinking from the same wells, can the underground water have a sickness?” Hei asked, throwing out ideas.
  “It can’t be the wells, there are many villages that get their water directly from streams, but they have the plague too now.”
  “Does it travel from a man to a woman?” Hei asked. “You say it came from a port, their are always whores at all the ports, for the men who have been away too long, could it have come from them?”
  The scribes shook their heads again. “Children, even babies, the elderly, it strikes them even harder than us. . .if there can be such a thing as harder. . .it can’t be from men and women.”
  “It’s new, it’s entirely different.” One man said, a fear in his eye. “I’ve seen it, sire, black swellings like extra limbs coming out in every direction, the terrible smell, whole villages sick with it, nobody able to even get water or clean up their own filth, everyone just lying there dying, flies and birds feeding on the corpses. It’s too horrible for words. It’s not just a plague, it’s not like the rest, where it’s from the water, or the air, or from women, or from something. It’s everywhere, it’s anywhere, it kills everyone. It’s the plague. The black plague. Soon enough it will come for us too. Liu-Yang is also a port, even if it’s an inland port. It will come for all of us. I might have it right now.”
  The other scribes stepped back unintentionally, a circle opening up around him instantly. “Impossible. Ridiculous. He’s gone mad.” They muttered. One or two stepped back in place to show they weren’t afraid. Others didn’t.
  Hei Ming Jong watched the man’s eyes. In his thirties, just like me. A young man who has already achieved his goals and now hopes to enjoy them. Scared, for himself, and his family. Haunted, just like me. Just like my memories are haunted. Haunted by what he saw. But not mad. He’s telling me the truth. The truth these others won’t say. That they don’t know what to do, that they don’t know why it’s happening, that it’s going everywhere, hitting anyone, without distinction. Hei Ming Jong shivered. Why me? Why is this happening to us, now? How many will die before this ends? Or maybe, or maybe we’ll just all die? If there’s no stopping it, if it hits everyone, if there’s no cure. . .maybe it’ll just kill everyone. Maybe I’ll just sit here and watch my entire Empire die and then I’ll die too, and God will write the last chapter of humanity. But that can’t be. We can’t all die. How will we be reborn if we all die?
  “The plague, this black plague, is it all here? All in Liu-Yang?” Hei asked, trying to find some limit to its power.
  “. . .no.” One scribe said after searching through his reports. “The priest here. . .he was traveling to Daoyan to study, he sent us this via the churches, he says. . . ‘bodies covered in black bulbs are being buried daily. They say it started in the cities, and spread back through the farms. They say one day it wasn’t anywhere and the next it was just there, spreading faster than they could quarantine it, jumping out in places at random. It must be true of Pi too, then. . .maybe everywhere. But the date, it’s later than our first cases, it’s been here for at least four months now.”
  “So Jae-Dong was the first case, and now it’s spreading up the Liu river, all the way into Ch’i. But not slowly across the border, but suddenly at the city, not progressively outward, but with jumps.” Hei concluded. Trying to find a connection, a source, a pattern. There had to be a pattern somewhere. Nothing happened by chance. There was no such thing as miracles, everything was connected to everything else, harmoniously, symmetrically, as the Dao wished it. A single cause led to a single effect, the same cause to the same effect, everywhere. The effect was a plague traveling upriver, starting at the cities. The cause, then? If not the river, something else traveling upriver, starting at the cities. The sailors? Or the cargo? What was the seed?
  “The sailors, do they have the plague more than the others? Did they have it sooner?”
  “Some sailors do, some don’t. The traders always seem to leave right before the plague hits. It never quite catches up to them.” One said.
  “So it must be the cargo. Are we agreed? The cargo is the only thing traveling the river, other than the people, other than the water itself. The cargo carries the plague.” Hei said.
  Some nodded, others shook their heads, unsure. “If it’s the cargo, that would explain the cities, sire, but what about the farms? What are they buying? It has to be the people.”
  “But we just agreed it can’t be the people, because the sailors aren’t getting it.” Hei said, frustrated.
  “It can’t be the people or the cargo.” The same scribe as earlier said. “It’s an act of God. God’s come to kill us all.”
  “Everything is an act of God, son.” Hei said, taking pity on the man. So much like me. I was once a scribe too. I might have grown up to be him. “And then again nothing is, because God is the nature of nature, and nature acts through itself. There is a plague, very well, since it began, it must also end, nothing that has not existed, can come to be, and yet be itself indestructible. Anything that can change will change again, that is karma. Absolutes are eternal and always, without beginning or end. God is the absolute, this plague is a thing of flux, so how can it be of God? Something is causing this plague. If we find it, we can stop it. I will not just sit here and watch my people die. Go out and find more, talk to people who saw it, go to Jae-Dong and ask about the very first people who got it, come back in a week, and tell me whatever you can. We must find the source of this plague and quickly. And for God’s sake don’t let any ships from the Liu river enter the Yang river. They are forbidden. Whether it’s the people or the cargo, it has to be stopped.” Hei dismissed the men, not knowing much more than he had before.
For months, maybe even a year, it had been killing his people and he hadn’t even known. Nobody had known. So many people dying in the cities of one disease or another, nobody took notice. And most villagers never leaving their village, so who knew what particularly was going on in one or the other? So much time wasted, time given to the black plague to spread out and hide itself, to move quickly and escape any net he could cast. Because we didn’t even know we were at war. Just like ten years ago. Defeated before we even knew who we were fighting. Just like ten years ago but I don’t know how to fight back this time. This time I can’t help at all. And just like ten years ago millions of people are going to die, only this time I don’t know how to save them. This time they really will die. Millions. We don’t even know how many. Maybe everyone. Maybe all twenty million. Or maybe all the Middle Kingdom. Or all the world. If we can’t stop it what will? God is indifferent, whether we live or die is indifferent, only the absolutes are maintained, not us, we are just a thing of flux, just like this plague. Between the plague and us God sees no difference, the Dao isn’t on anyone’s side. There is no reason for us all not to die, we can always be reborn later. Cycles can be completed in any number of ways. Maybe this will be the way the world ends, and it will have to begin all over again. Maybe I was born in time to see the end of the world.
A scribe came running back, one he had just dismissed. “What is it?” Hei asked.
The scribe waved a scribble on a sheet of paper. “Sire, my apologies, but this was delivered to me just now, my assistant got it but too late for the meeting, so he gave it to me now. I thought you should know, it’s too late, sire. It’s too late to ban the ships from the Liu river. The plague, the black plague, this is the first report that it’s right here. Liu-Yang has it, sire, Liu-Yang itself.”

Chapter 9

  Gai Yi sweated over the questions with the greatest intensity his mind had ever borne, trying desperately to remember the answers to the ones he knew, and to figure out the answers to the ones he didn’t know. Or at the very least put some answer down that made enough sense that he hoped it would be given some sort of credit. Hundreds of other boys were also taking the test, the entrance exam that would allow you to become a scribe if you passed, and would not allow you to become a scribe if you failed. There were no other considerations when it came to becoming an official for the government, either you were qualified or you were not, and the standards for qualification were so high that only the best and brightest ever made it. Generally only rich merchants or the nobility ever had the time to educate their children sufficiently to take the test, but in principle, it was open to anyone who wished to take it. Gai Yi was testing that principle. To land a high-paying, easy job that didn’t involve his muscles but only writing things down or thinking things out—what more could you possibly hope for? All his years, learning to read and write, and then learning under Lu Tai, were for this moment, for the chance to pass this test. He had done okay in the history section, having read a great deal of fables about the Three Dynasties, because those had always been the most interesting stories he could find. The classics had been a complete disaster, though, so many quotes from things he had never read or heard of, he suspected the sutras or commentaries on them or who knows what, and having to explain what they meant and why they were true, when he didn’t even believe them—absolute disaster. Mathematics had been back on safe ground, listing the various properties of geometric figures and proving why they were that way, and applying them to the prediction of moving objects, all of that had been drilled into him by Lu Tai so that he could study astrology. He had been excited when the next section had been astronomy, but it turned out the two were not the same, and now he was desperately stretching what he knew of one to answer what they were asking about the other. If he did well on math, terribly on the classics, okay on the history, then this section was make or break. This would decide it all. He couldn’t afford to do anything but well here, this was the last section. He had to have the knowledge in his memory somewhere, didn’t he know all the constellations and all their motions and all the planets and all their motions and everything? He had to know astronomy too, he just didn’t know that he knew it.
  “What is the cause of the seasons? How is this known? What is the cause of solar and lunar eclipses? How is this known? What is the cause of the phases of the moon? How is this known? What is the size of the earth, the moon, and the sun, and how is this known? How far away from the earth is the moon, the sun, and the stars, and how can this be proven?”

  Gai stared at the question and broke it down bit by bit. He started to write. “The seasons are caused by the difference in heat our hemisphere receives from the sun due to the tilt of the Earth’s axis in relation to the sun., which is 23 degrees. This is known from measurements of the sun’s noontime elevation in degrees over the horizon taken at the winter and summer solstice. During the summer, our northern hemisphere is pointed towards the Sun, during the winter, the Sun is on the other side, and our hemisphere is pointed away from the Sun, whereas the southern hemisphere is pointed towards it.”
  “Solar and lunar eclipses are due to the fact that the sun and the moon subtend the same ½ degree angle in the sky, therefore they can happen to cross each other. During a solar eclipse, the Moon is exactly inbetween the Sun’s light and the Earth. This only happens occasionally because the moon’s path across the sky is at a different angle from the sun’s, and also because the moon is smaller than the sun, therefore the moon’s shadow (which is the solar eclipse), only covers a small portion of the Earth at any moment, so from any one place, it is not often seen, or imperfectly seen. During a Lunar eclipse, the Earth is exactly inbetween the Moon and the Sun. The Moon is always full because the side of the Moon pointed towards the Sun is the side that reflects the sun’s light, and in this case of Moon-Earth-Sun, clearly the same side is also pointed towards the Earth that is pointed towards the Sun. However, Earth’s shadow can prevent any light from the sun to reach the Moon and therefore it is eclipsed. This is more common because the Earth is larger than the moon and therefore its shadow covers a wider region of the space the Moon could potentially be in.”
  “The phases of the Moon are due to this same fact, that the moon’s light is reflected from the Sun’s. Knowing this, it is self-evident that based on the relative position the Moon has to the Earth and the Sun, it will reflect varying amounts of sunlight from the Sun to the Earth. If Earth-Moon-Sun, the side of the Moon facing the Sun is the opposite side that is facing the Earth, therefore it is a new moon. If Moon-Earth-Sun, then the side facing the Earth is the exact side facing the Sun, therefore a full moon. If the moon is at a right angle of a Sun-Moon-Earth triangle facing north it is a third quarter moon, if the moon is at a right angle of a Sun-Moon-Earth triangle facing south it is a first quarter moon.”
  Now the questions were getting harder though. And he wasn’t sure if he had fulfilled the ‘how is this known’ requirements of the questions above. His answer to that part in his mind was always, ‘it’s obvious.’ But he didn’t think they wanted him to write that down, so he decided to just not write anything down and hope what he said was enough.
  “The size of the Earth, in direct measurement, can be deduced from the angle of the light from the sun on different portions of the Earth.” Gai Yi paused, trying to remember. “The difference in angular elevation of the sun at the horizon recorded from the top of Weh, and from the bottom of Liu-Yang, is approximately 20 degrees. Since the Earth is a sphere, we gain the first proportion, 20/360, and, knowing the distance from Weh to Liu-Yang, which is 1500 miles, we gain the second proportion, so that 20/360=1500/x. Cross multiply and you gain 20x=360*1500. Simplify and X=27,000 miles. This is the circumference of the Earth. Judging by the shadow the Earth casts on the Moon during a lunar eclipse, it is 1/3 the size of the Earth. Now, judging by the shadow the Moon casts on the Earth, which is ½ of a degree, and knowing the circumference of the Moon, which is judged to be 9,000 miles in circumference, or 2866 miles in diameter, we can use the small angle equation to find the distance from the Earth to the moon. The number of arc seconds in a radian is 206,000, the number in ½ of a degree is 1800. This gives us all the numbers in the equation save the one we seek. Therefore, Dearth-to-moon = (206,000*2,866)/ 1800 This comes out to be 330,000 miles. Now, based on the angle of the light which strikes the moon, we can find the distance from the Earth to the sun.” Gai paused and chewed on his quill, looking at the clock. Would he be able to answer all the questions? Crunching all these numbers was taking time, as was setting up and remembering the equations and the thought process. Okay, concentrate, you know how to get this distance, just take it step by step. “Now, since we can have a right triangle of Sun-Moon-Earth, such as when the sun rises with the moon at the meridian, such that the Moon forms the 90 degree crux, and we know the distance from the Earth to the Moon, and the angle the Earth forms in relation to the Sun and Moon, at around 85 degrees, we can form a simple proportion. The angle of the Sun in relation to the moon and earth must be 5 degrees, because the angles of a triangle equal two right angles. Now, if 5 degrees is to the shortest leg, the distance between the Earth and Moon, which is 330,000, then the distance from earth to the sun, which is across from the 90 degrees, is: 5/330000 = 90/x. Cross multiply, and you have 5x=330000*90. Simplify, and x= 6,000,000 miles away. Since the sun also subtends ½ degree of the sky, for it to be 18 times as far away, it must also be 18 times as large. Therefore the sun is 18 * 9,000=162,000 miles in circumference, or six times as large as the Earth.”
  Gai Yi stared at the last question. He looked at the clock. He had absolutely no idea, so made a wild guess that it was just a trick question. He certainly didn’t know of any way to measure the distance to the stars. “There is no way to know the distance from the earth to any star.” There. He used what time was left to double check his math and make sure all of it fit what he generally thought was around true.
  “Time! Put down your quills. We will now be collecting your papers. In one week your name will be posted with either ‘accepted’ or ‘rejected’ at the front office, thank you for your participation and good luck.” The scribe said, as two assistants hardly older than Gai went around the desks collecting the papers. They had also been watching for any signs of cheating, but Gai had been concentrating too hard to even notice them doing that. He didn’t even know what percentage had to be right to pass. Maybe you had to answer all the questions correctly? Maybe just not knowing the classics threw all the rest out? And for all he knew his history and astronomy was wrong too. The only thing he could be sure of was his math. Such a slender thread.

  “How did you do?” Lu Tai asked as he stepped back into the light. The man had bought some rice cakes and fish and they were still hot. Gai Yi blessed him and took up the food ravenously. He felt like he had run ten miles.
  “It was great. They asked if the world was flat or round, I told them round, and I’m in!” Gai Yi said in mock cheer.
  Lu Tai laughed. “That bad, huh?”
  Gai sat down. “Absolutely terrible. All of the questions were too hard, and I had no idea what they were quoting from, they were asking about all these Classical authors about law and government and virtue and God and I just had no idea what to say. I totally flunked. All I managed was the math section.”
  “Well, what did you expect? If you work for the government, you work for the heathens.” Lu Tai sighed. “I was afraid they’d ask something like that. It doesn’t help knowing the truth, when the test is over their truth.”
  “I guess it was a long shot. I guess that’s why only the nobility even bothers with this stuff. But gods, father, if all the nobility can answer these questions, then...then they deserve to rule Liu-Yang. I was floundering the whole time, and I thought I knew so much more than everyone else!”
  “In a way the scribes that make up the bureaucracy are even more powerful than the nobility. They control the cities, which are the centers of wealth, and report directly to the Emperor. They keep the treasury and check all the merchant’s accounts, they keep the law and judge in all the Imperial Courts, they even keep the court history so everything we know about the past is through their analysis. Not just any noble can be a scribe. It takes a truly intelligent and hard working individual with an affinity for numbers and letters—reading and writing is hard enough all on its own. Most of the nobility choose the military instead, relying on their strength and courage for the sake of honor and glory.”
  “So in the end the nobility gets all the flashy recognition, but really the scribes rule Liu-Yang.” Gai Yi said.
  “But the scribes answer to the Emperor.” Lu Tai reminded him.
  “Right, so, the Emperor rules Liu-Yang.” Gai Yi concluded, starting on his fish. “Damn, I’m saying some really stupidly obvious crap, aren’t I?”
  Lu Tai hit him. “You can curse when you’re older. And yes, I’m pretty sure your brain is no longer working. I’ll give it a day and if it doesn’t restart I’ll consign you to the Church’s asylum.”
  Gai rubbed his head. Well, he sort of deserved that one. “We have to come back here in a week to know the results. They’ll have either ‘accepted’ or ‘rejected.’ So do you think we could just hang around town until then? Can we afford it?”
  “Oh, sure, there are plenty here who will give us free room and board, if I just give them some charms against the plague or what have you.” Lu Tai said.
  “Can you cure the plague?” Gai asked.
  “Do we have it?” Lu Tai asked, widening his eyes with innocence.
  “No.”
  “Then the gods must like us a little, don’t they?” Lu Tai asked.
  “Yes.”
  “Then if I ask the gods to help others, then they must want to help a little, just to please us, right?” Lu Tai asked.
  “I guess so.” Gai Yi admitted.
  “I don’t cure anyone, I just ask. The gods take it from there. But if we can’t ask the gods for what we need, then why even have them? I believe I’m asking someone, and someone must be listening.” Lu Tai said. “Or else why would we even exist? Someone’s watching out for us. Why else are we the best species on earth? Why else do we rule the world? Why do we hunt the lion and bear for sport, eat cows and rice that spend all their energies making themselves fat, and find little worms that spin out the thinnest glossiest fibers perfect for our wearing? Why else is iron so close to the surface, even though it is heavier than the other rocks and should have sunk far to the center? As though designed for us to forge into hard, dense tools? The gods are giving us stuff all the time, if only it’s the rain, the sun’s heat, and the air we breathe. That’s still quite a lot right there. And I think they’re giving us all sorts of other stuff too, if you just stop and think about it, how very little work we put into the stuff we have, and how much work other things, nature, or plants, or animals, put into the work before us, so we only have to top off the work of ages and think ourselves so productive.”
  “You’re right, I’m sorry. I know you aren’t pretending. It’s just that so many are dying anyway. I feel sorry for them. They are so desperate and it’s like we’re taking advantage of that desperation.” Gai Yi said.
  “Your problem, Gai Yi, is you’re always wanting to take care of others, instead of yourself. Suppose we don’t give anyone any amulets. What will you eat? Where will you sleep? And besides, even if we don’t do them any good at all, if it makes them feel safer and better, so that they can go about their lives, isn’t even that a service? Isn’t that what they’re really buying the amulets for?” Lu Tai asked.
  “All these amulets, and yet the black marks multiply. Now almost every house has that black brush of paint, every single one of them has somebody sick inside. And this city is so huge. There must be a hundred thousand sick people just in this city.” Gai Yi shivered, feeling like the air was full of the poison emanating from all the houses. He threw his fish bones into a garbage heap in an alleyway as they walked towards a place to stay. Gray rats swarmed over it immediately to pick the meat clean. Good luck. Gai wished them. He’d been pretty thorough.
  “Think of it this way, if everyone else who took the test gets the plague and dies, you’re sure to be accepted after all.” Lu Tai said. Gai Yi laughed. It was somehow funny. So many people dying, like the whole world was dying. What else to do but laugh? He wasn’t dead yet. He had to go on living. For whatever future there would be when the plague ended. It had to end eventually, surely. The gods wouldn’t allow this to go on forever, to kill everyone. They’ll save us eventually, they have to. Didn’t they make us? So why kill us all? Surely some of us still deserve to live. To have a future. The world couldn’t just end.

Chapter 10

  She lived a godly life, San. She’ll be reborn in better times than these.”
  “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you until you’re ready to take your vows, you’ve always been our daughter, in place of the children we could not have. You’re precious to all of us.”
  “We all die and we all live again, as many lives as can be lived in eternity, without beginning or end. You will meet again, and again, and again, as many times as you could possibly wish, you’ll be her daughter and she will be your mother, that is the way of things. Just like the sun rises and sets and rises again, or the water flows down, then evaporates back up, then rains and flows back down again to the sea, God moves in circles, there is an eternal recurrence of things, this is only a temporary split, no different from when you left to get water and didn’t see her until you returned.”
  “Nothing is ever lost, San, remember that. Nothing is ever created or destroyed, it only changes states. Life and death are just states of existence, our substance is immortal.”
  “Everything in the present contains the past, San. Remember, the universe is symmetry and harmony, there is no effect which was not caused, the present contains the whole of the past, because only that one single past could possibly account for this one single present—your mother, like all the past, is still in the present then. Because you are here, because of the lives she touched, because of the very flowers she grew or plucked, all the universe, from her very breath alone, has in some way been touched by your mother and in some way exists because of her. So wherever you look, there is your mother, you need not miss her.”
  Sister Jun put her hand on San’s shoulder, which suddenly looked smaller and frailer than it had been just a week before. Like her collarbone was ready to snap if anyone pushed on it too hard. The shoulder shook with tears that slowly reached the eyes and fell to the newly-moved dirt.
  “I’m all alone now.” San whispered. “She was all I ever had.”
  “You’re not alone, San. We all love you.” Sister Jun said, not knowing it was true until she said it. They all couldn’t stand her, she was so rebellious, so unhelpful, so rude, so rambunctious, she was the perennial curse and bother of the whole sisterhood. But I guess we loved her a little more than we complained. Because in the end we put up with it.
  San trembled harder. “I’m scared.”
  “We all are. We’ll get through it.” Sister Jun said. The poison could be anywhere. In the food they ate, the water they drank, the air they breathed, even when they had touched Da Zhou to care for her, and burying her body, maybe they had caught the poison too. It could be lurking inside them even now, burrowing away until it became obvious on the outside. The plague was terrifying. It was a painful, ugly, terrible way to die. And it was among them now; it would kill as many as it wished, because there was no way to avoid it, and no way to cure it. Didn’t they share in all the activities, all the belongings, of their sister who did get it? Then couldn’t it just as easily be any of them? There was just blind hope that it would pass them by, like it seemed to do. It killed some and passed others by, even in the same home, the same family, with never any sense to why some died and others lived.
  “I’m scared of being alone.” San repeated. “I was lonely even with you, what am I supposed to do without you? Why did you have to die? Why do I have to be alone?” San wailed, dropping to her knees and clutching at the earth as though ready to dig it back up to see her mother again. She was quiet, because she didn’t want to get everyone’s attention and act shamefully, but her whole body shook like a caged tiger.
  Some of the sisters turned back, worried, wondering what they could do. They had already tried their best, though, it was up to San now. Sister Jun stood over the little girl helplessly, watching and hoping it would somehow pass over.
  San clutched the earth between her palms with all her strength, her thoughts and feelings passing through her a blistering pace, stronger than she’d ever thought possible. It’s not fair. I needed you. You can’t die when I still need you so much. Her hands shook with the effort, the bones hurting from the pressure, but it was all she could do to control the pain and channel it out from herself. The tears just weren’t enough. She had heard everything they said, but it was so far away, so unreal, none of the words connected or made any sense or meant anything. The emptiness was real. The emptiness and the fear and the helplessness and the week of watching her mother rot away and go crazy with the pain so she hadn’t even been able to talk to San before she died, hadn’t been able to say anything or understand anything she was told. One day she was alive and the next she was dead. It didn’t make any sense. The only real thing left was this pain in her bones, the earth in her hands. That was the only thing that still made sense to her.

  Gai Yi stared at the result with consternation. It didn’t make any sense. Everyone else had either ‘accepted’ or ‘rejected.’ His listing was instead a command. “See the office at once.” Was he under arrest? Did they realize he was a peasant and wanted to make an example of him? Had he done anything wrong? Did they think he cheated?
  “Well, come on, what’s the result?” Lu Tai asked from a bit away, having wished to give the boy the privacy to know the result first.
  Gai Yi turned around, gesturing. “I don’t know. They tell me to see the office at once.”
  “Then you’d better go see them,” Lu Tai said.
  “You don’t think they’ll arrest me?” Gai Yi asked.
  “What happens, happens. If you fail, is that so much different from being thrown in jail? Since you can’t do what you want either way? You might as well try to succeed in life, before you go back to moving dirt again, hadn’t you?” Lu Tai asked.
  “Well, when you put it that way.” Gai Yi glared at the lack of sympathy. “I’m going then. Heavenly gods, if you want to help me, now would be a good time.” Gai prayed, drawing a circle around his heart to draw their notice.
  Lu Tai smiled. Whatever happened, it ended up with Gai becoming emperor, so long as Gai kept pushing for that future. Even though Gai’s only thought was to carving out his little happiness in the world, a scribe was a position of power. It was a stepping stone to the future, the future he knew would somehow come to be. Hadn’t the first part of the prophecy already come true? Wasn’t he surrounded by death and darkness? Now he would be walking in palaces. The scribes worked in the palaces, the chief among them reported directly to the emperor. The prophecy promised it would come right, so whatever the note meant, it would somehow lead to Gai passing. Faith would give him the power to keep reaching for that next step, and the next step would always reach down that little bit for him to catch a hold of it. That was his fate.
  Gai walked through the building, not sure who he needed to talk to, or where he was supposed to go. He thought the best thing would be to return to the testing room, maybe the scribe there would recognize him. He was intercepted before he made it, though.
  “You, boy, this isn’t some parade ground, what’s your business here?”
  Gai Yi bowed as politely as he could. “I was told to ‘come to the office’, but I don’t know where that is. Can you help me?”
  “Sure, go back the way you came, take a right, there will be a big desk there, with people, and a sign, it says ‘office.’” The guy pointed vaguely and walked briskly on. Everyone in the city was like that. Always moving and never enough time, as though disaster lay around every corner. Gai Yi couldn’t get used to it. Didn’t want to get used to it. If he was a scribe, he’d walk slowly and talk slowly and people could just wait. The sun wasn’t going to explode or go out if they took a half second longer to be polite to each other.
  There was the office, with the sign and the big desk, like he’d been told. He felt stupid not seeing it when he came in. But oh well. “I was told to come here, I took the entrance exams last week?”
  “Your name?” The man asked, not much older than him. Clearly becoming a scribe meant many years of being a clerk, an attendant, a flunkey, or whatever. Not so glamorous as he had hoped. He probably wouldn’t be doing anything important for years, the pay wasn’t likely to be so grand either. Of course far more than as a farmer, but then the city cost so much more, that the pay was an illusion. Can’t be helped. No matter how much you knew, you still had to learn the job itself, and he didn’t even know that much to begin with.
  “Gai Yi.” He said.
  The man searched through his records. “Han Zhao will be with you shortly.” He took the slip of paper and escaped into the back room. Probably handing it off to another person, who would go find the actual scribe. Passing looked less and less exciting. Gai Yi found a seat and folded his hands, composing himself. They didn’t seem the least interested in him, so it wasn’t likely they were going to tackle him and haul him away to prison. But then why was he here? Did he pass or not?
  “Gai Yi, I am Han Zhou.” The man gave him the slightest nod. Gai Yi stood up quickly and bowed. “Please, follow me.” The man walked out of the reception area and into a small room, sitting down again. A man came in quietly and poured tea for the two of them. Gai Yi nodded in thanks to him and took a sip politely. Passing meant he had to pour tea for the real scribes? These were the smartest and most educated people in the country?
  Han Zhou took a long drink, taking out the test in question. “Your test was very interesting. You scored the highest, out of all the applicants, in the math section. In fact, you got every single question right. Even the two questions designed to be too hard for anyone to answer at your level. Generally to see how well you go about trying to solve it, a good measure of your thinking skills and adaptability. Also to see if you’re cheating, and know the answer without any effort, which is impossible. But you worked them out. You may well be a genius. How old are you?”
  “Fourteen, sir.” Gai Yi said. But a very old fourteen. I’m older than it sounds.
  “Marvelous. You didn’t cheat, did you?”
  “No, sir.” Gai Yi said.
  “I didn’t think so. Well, then I guess you’re a genius. Which is why you’re here. We have a sort of dilemma. You failed the test, see. Rather miserably.”
  Gai Yi bowed, not knowing what to say.
  “The astronomy section, I’m curious, why did you say the stars were impossible to measure?” Han asked.
  Gai Yi licked his lips. “All the other information, we know that by looking at the interaction of the earth, sun, and moon. You need all three to know anything about any of them. The stars and the earth, that’s only a two part system, it would require a third body to get any information out of their relationship.”
  “Ha, but didn’t you know, there is a third body? The earth in spring and the earth in the fall are on opposite sides of the sun, and we know the distance from earth to sun, so we know the distance doubled is the length between spring-earth and fall-earth, then we take the angle of spring earth to star X, and fall earth to star X, and we have two angles and a length. That’s enough to find the whole triangle, is it not? Through the same proportion you used to find the distance to the sun?” Han Zhao asked.
  “. . .I wasn’t aware the earth moved around the sun.” Gai Yi said. “I believe the sun orbits around the earth, along with everything else.”
  “A heathen belief. The use of parallax to determine the distance to the stars has been in use for centuries now. The earth clearly revolves around the sun.”
  “I’m sorry, but how is that clear? The only time we feel the earth move is an earthquake, and that’s earth moving down, not around.” Gai Yi complained.
  “Ha, well then, if you were in a cabin on a boat, with no windows, a very smooth river boat, very gentle and slow current, you would be moving, yes? But you would not feel the movement in the least. The only motion you would know is walking around the cabin, because you and the boat are moving in exactly the same way, you are motionless relative to each other. But go outside, open a window, you see the river and the scenery passing by, and you discover that you were moving all along.” Han Zhao said.
  “I hadn’t thought of that.” Gai Yi admitted. “But still, couldn’t the explanation be simpler, just, we don’t feel it moving because it isn’t moving?”
  “Let me ask you a question then. If everything revolves around the sun, why do the closest things and the furthest things all revolve around the earth at the same rate? The stars must be moving at unimaginable speeds in this case, and each star at a different speed from the next, though they share the same nature.” Han Zhao said.
  “It’s obvious. Spin anything, the edge moves fastest and as you approach the center you spin slower, so long as the object is connected, the center will be motionless, and as you go further out, the angular momentum increases proportionately. Just look at a catapult, at the very top, where the rock is loaded, it moves very rapidly, at the bottom, where the arm is connected to the body, it moves less rapidly, the top is forced to move more rapidly to stay connected to the rest of its parts, which, though moving more slowly, make the same angle turn.” Gai Yi said.
  “Ha, I suppose you’re right. If it were one single body spinning. But if that were true, what connects all these stars to the earth?”
  “Force. The downward principle.” Gai Yi said.
  “Ha, now I think I see. You know none of the classics, you excel in math, your astronomy is solid. But you hold the opposite of the accepted astronomer’s position on the most important issue. You are an astrologer, are you not?”
  “Yes, sir.” Gai Yi said.
  “Well, well. I just wanted to clear that up. It’s as I thought. You could never be a scribe.” Han Zhao said.
  Gai Yi bowed, his throat sinking into his stomach. That was that, then. End of the line. Well, perhaps a merchant house would accept him. All they needed was math anyway, to keep the accounts.
  “I wanted to give you the opportunity, however, to do something your talents are better suited for. It seemed like such a waste, seeing as how you scored the best in mathematics in years. Have you ever thought of joining the army? You would make a fine artillery officer. Or even an engineer. Even as a teacher of artillery range finding to others, you would be excellent. The honor is just as high as a scribe’s position, the life is more active, and the opportunity for advancement is right around the corner, the moment Pi or Ch’i plans on invading. And with this plague sweeping through Liu-Yang, they might just think this is their moment to get revenge.” Han Zhao said.
  “They would do that? Go to war even while their people were dying?” Gai Yi was stunned. “Don’t we all have more important things to worry about?”
  “Oh, I don’t know. People die, people are born. When the plague ends, that space will need refilling, and if the borders are redrawn, why, your people will be the ones who get to refill it. Not bad, not bad at all.” Han Zhao said, replacing the paper in its folder and taking another draught of tea. “So what will it be, astrologer? We may not believe the same things, but when it comes to Liu-Yang or Ch’i, you’ll choose Liu-Yang, won’t you?”
  Gai Yi was flustered, unprepared. The military? It hadn’t even occurred to him. An officer though. That was infinitely better than being some clerk or attendant for the next five years. And if the military accepted him without him having to convert to their Dao and karma nonsense. . .wouldn’t that be better anyway? Better than a merchant’s accountant though? A merchant’s accountant could never become Emperor, though. Gai Yi instinctively knew what Lu Tai would want him to choose. And he owed it to Lu Tai, if at all possible, to do what pleased both of them. Unfair to use the knowledge he gained in a way his teacher never meant for him. If he came back outside saying he’d joined the military, Lu Tai would be content. The debt will have been paid. Gai Yi nodded inside himself. Fair was fair.
  “An officer, then. I won’t be a regular soldier?” Gai Yi asked.
  Han Zhao smiled. “You’ll be in the officer’s training squad, all the most promising youths join it, you’ll learn with them until you’re ready to take the field. From there you can become whatever you want, only your excellence determines who gets through and who doesn’t. This is a unique opportunity for you, Gai Yi. The last commoner who became a general was Lu Huang—you know of him, don’t you? The Lu Huang who defied the king of Ch’i after his last stand that gave our Emperor time to retreat with the rest of the army intact? You will be surrounded most likely by nobles, but following in that man’s footsteps, that lends a particular nobility of its own, don’t you think?”
  Gai Yi of course knew the story. That, beaten, Ch’i had taunted him, but his only response was that Ch’i may be able to beat him, but they could never beat Hei Ming Jong, because Hei Ming Jong was infinitely better than he was. That in the end Ch’i would lose and Liu-Yang would be free. He had instinctively felt that it was the best way to die he had ever heard. The best last words he could have possibly spoken. Like everyone, he had admired Lu Huang as a hero of the war. Just like Shea Lu Pao, Pe Su Huang, and the Emperor himself. He had only just been born when the war had been fought, he had no memory of it. But he had grown up with the excitement, relief, and pride that had followed from it. He had just never imagined being anything like one of them. Those were people who got in the stories. Those were the people that books were written about. All he wanted was enough to take care of himself and those he cared about. His life could never be like theirs. Even now he just wanted to make others happy, so long as he could be happy too. He wasn’t going to be the next Lu Huang. Or the next Hei Ming Jong. These ambitions were just too much for a sensible person. But he could make a fine artillery officer, if that was his fate. That would suffice.
  Gai Yi bowed. “Sign me up.”

  Lin Su Jong coughed, feeling terribly weak as he stared into the mirror. It was tiny, just a dot, but he knew what it meant. He lay in the bath wondering what to do now. A fleeting thought passed through him. I don’t want to die. Not yet. I still had so much left to do. But oh well. Karma. This is my reality now. What can I do? If I die, father will be all alone. I was supposed to make up for everyone else, if I die too, what is left? That’s too cruel. Father doesn’t deserve this. How on earth will I tell him? But I have to tell him soon. They say the pain drives you insane and then I won’t be able to say anything. I need to say all I want to say now, then. Before it takes me over.
  A tear leaked out of the boy in the mirror. Still so young. Only ten years old. The only son and heir to the throne. It didn’t make any sense. Nobody who had the plague had come anywhere near him. They had all been so careful, cleaned everything, eaten only fresh vegetables and fish. . .Why me? Why did it have to find me anyway? Two more tears dripped into his scented bathwater. I’m not ready to die.

Chapter 11

  “By God cure him.” Hei Ming Jong said, a calm frenzy in his voice. “Do something. The plague, he only has one week! You can have anything you want, you have infinite resources at your disposal, so cure him!”
  The archbishop stood there, attendants watching quietly all around the court. He didn’t know what to say. It was that same dangerous look. The one he’d seen twice before. When he lost his first wife. And when he lost his second. It was that same look of the sword without a sheathe. And it was aimed at him.
  “I’m not God.” The Archbishop finally said.
  “Yes you are! Yes you God damn are! We’re all God, the sutras say God is the entire universe, and we’re God damned in the universe, aren’t we? So don’t me give me any God damn excuses, anything God can do, we can do, it’s the same rules for all of us, symmetry and harmony, the same God damn rules, we can do anything God can do! So God damned don’t say we can’t!” Hei Ming Jong said.
  The archbishop bowed his head. Speaking in his own defense would only make the emperor angrier. Better to say nothing and accept what came instead of getting executed right here.
  “If you can’t cure him, what are you worth?” Hei demanded. “What the hell are all the clergy worth, all the temples, what are all your prayers for? You can’t do anything! The plague doesn’t give a damn about your prayers.” Hei gritted his teeth in rage.
  “God is indifferent to the world of flux. God gives us the Absolute, for us to accept or reject, and become holy as God is holy, or a meaningless trifle as all the world is, this world of illusion and doubt.” The archbishop said, carefully, slowly, almost quoting word for word. He looked at the Emperor in the eye, proudly, defiantly, not wishing to defend himself, but unwilling to see his calling go undefended.
  Hei Ming Jong glared at the archbishop, trying to keep that calm he needed to act effectively with, to channel his energy into something that could help him. What mattered right now wasn’t how he felt, what mattered is finding out some way, any way, to save his child. That was the duty he had assumed the day he created Lin Su Jong, the day he named him, the day he had begun to raise him. That was the purpose of his life, above all others, above even the empire itself. With his mother dead, it was to him and him alone, to give Lin the life he had promised him, by the very act of giving him life. So long as he was still alive there had to be a way. The plague was created, it can be destroyed. It was not there before, so it can go away again. There is a way. If I can just find it.
  “So be it. God is indifferent to Man. Then Man shall be indifferent to God. If my boy dies, I will not forgive the Dao. There is no excuse, there is no reason, there is no justification, for my son to die. The harmony that kills my child is a sick harmony. The symmetry that sacrifices my son is a twisted symmetry. And the will that is willing to wipe us all off the earth and replace us with nothing, is not God but the Devil, our enemy and Destroyer. God has created this plague, from the beginning of eternity, this plague was fated, not just this one, but infinite plagues, every plague imaginable, over and over and over again. This is God’s design. This is God’s plan. Well God damn this plan, its only product is suffering. Eternal suffering for us all, without beginning or end, without hope or relief, without even the chance of change, all of it fated! All of it already decided! You know what, if this is the will of the universe, then fuck this universe. Fuck God. It’s just some sick twisted hell that gives you just enough that you’re never quite willing to stop so the game can go on. It’s just some God damned carrot hanging in front of our eyes we can never quite reach. Well I’m done. All my fucking carrots have been stolen from me. All my carrots have fucking died, I don’t have to worship the maker of them anymore. Everything God makes God also destroys, so why the fuck should I be grateful? If God kills my son, God kills me. I have nothing left for the Dao to take. And if God intends to kill me, well, I intend to kill God first. I am a warrior. I will not just lay down and die. I will kill God, archbishop. I will kill the sutras you quote so well. I will kill the churches. I will kill the priests. I will kill the prayers. I will kill the very word God itself. And when I’m done I will scatter the dust to the winds and salt the very earth so God will never live again. That will be my mission as Emperor for the rest of my life. And I am thirty two years old, archbishop. I will be alive for a very long time. So I suggest, if you’d prefer that not to happen, you fucking find a cure for my son. You are our doctors. You run the hospitals. Your nuns watch over our births, your priests watch over our funerals, this is your field. Cure this plague. Or I will bury you.”

  Fae Lao rode into the camp with three personal retainers. They quickly unloaded his baggage and set up his tent. Fae Lao took the horses and led them to the water hole and the hitching rack. Other people were arriving or leaving, children alone or with their parents or with others. Officers come to look after their new recruits, direct traffic and how the camps would be set up, cooks preparing dinner for the evening, fletchers, carpenters, blacksmiths, coopers, wagoneers, stablemen, everybody needed to keep the army equipped and supplied. Everything looked well organized and efficient. Not like a peasant army. Not like my father feared it would be. Or perhaps exactly what my father feared it would be. A viable source of competition. An army that can replace us, even while making use of us. Perhaps father fears the nobility is helping train its own destroyers. Leading the men who will side with the Emperor against us. The emperor and the nobility always fight. The Jongs were once nobles who replaced the Fu. It was the will to power. But if the emperor gains armies personally loyal to him and not through us, how can we win? No matter. If I lead my army, they will be loyal to me. I will make them loyal. My excellence will demand their loyalty just as plants grow so that they can reach the sun. So long as we are noble we will always be the nobility. You cannot take that away from us.
  “Fae Lao! Glad to see you’ve arrived safely.” An officer came to shake his hand. “This plague strikes where it likes, I hope your family is well.”
  “They are well, sir.” Fae Lao said, a slight smile of relief touching his lips. “My father can be frightening, most likely the plague took one look at our house and thought better of entering it.”
  “Ha! So I hear. A pity your father wasn’t around ten years ago to strike some fear into Pi and Ch’i.” The officer said.
  Fae Lao smiled. “I guess he felt it wasn’t necessary, why begrudge others the glory when he already had enough of his own?”
  “Ah, so that was it. Very kind of him, that.” The officer smiled back.
  “Perhaps Pi or Ch’i will find a new reason to fear the Laos in due time, sir. I’m sure that would clear up any questions remaining from ten years ago.” Fae Lao said.
  “I’m sure it would. We can take your horses.” The officer offered.
  “No, thank you. My men will be returning just as soon as everyone is fed and watered again.” Fae Lao said.
  “Ah, is that so? You’ll be staying with us on your own then?” The officer lifted his eyebrows, the first hint of surprise on his face.
  “Will I be in need of their protection here, sir?” Fae Lao asked.
  The man smiled, a hint of respect in his face. “No, I think not. Very well then, I hope to see you with the rest of the cadets for dinner tonight.”
  “I will be there.” Fae Lao nodded, clicking his tongue and guiding the horses to the trough for water and oats. So that’s how it would be. The officers were all going to be fiercely loyal to Hei Ming Jong. After all, they probably served under him ten years ago. They were the ones who fought. Those here who didn’t fight then will be looked down upon. I will be at a disadvantage. And it won’t matter how good I become, if they think I’m still a coward at heart, that I still won’t fight when the next war comes. That will be tougher than just proving my swordsmanship or archery. I will have to find a way to prove my courage as well. And my loyalty. Because at the heart of it we nobles didn’t answer the Emperor’s call. Out of cowardice or not, it was still a type of treason. These people had to fight without us. They still remember ten years ago like it was yesterday. They will have a grudge against us. Not just the peasants, then, the nobles who did fight are also against the nobles who didn’t. Though it had been the prudent decision at the time, I will have to face the consequences of it. I will have to overcome my father’s mistake. And all those like me. Fae Lao’s eyes narrowed to slits. They will probably try to flock around me like flies to a midden heap. They will hide behind me and use me as their shield from all the accusations like the one I’ve already faced. I will come to represent in the officer’s eyes all the traitors, the commander of the traitors and the cowards, the champion of treason and cowardice. I must not let that happen. I must make enemies with all the other nobles immediately, to differentiate me from them. I will not become their representative to the rest of the world, simply because I am the chief among them. I must be altogether different from everyone, for the officers to see me for myself, and not my father or anyone else. If I have any hope of ever becoming an officer, I will have to reopen their eyes and be judged anew. No matter. I can do anything required of me. This is no obstacle for me. I hope there is more of a challenge than this here, or I will gain nothing and learn nothing like usual.
  Fae Lao tied the horses’ reins to the post and went back towards his tent, watching the rest of the students filter in. There was already a crowd of kids forming, excited and talking about the training that awaited them. Fae Lao’s path brought him closer, and the conversation wasn’t what he expected. It wasn’t a crowd, it was a mob, clustered around a newcomer, surrounding an enemy.
  “What do you mean you’ve never shot a bow? Can you even use a sword?”
  “No.” The boy said. The whole crowd laughed and jeered.
  “What the hell are you doing here? Did you get lost? So what can you do?”
  “I’m an astrologer.” The boy said, looking uncomfortable. “I came here to become an officer. If I already were one, why would I have to train? If you’re all so great, why are you here?”
  “An astrologer!” The crowd laughed. “Can you read my fortune? I want to know my fortune!” The boy said.
  The boy in the center blushed. “I never got good enough to give a good fortune. . .I quit before my teacher had enough time. It’s a difficult science.”
  The crowd laughed some more. “So in the end you can’t do anything! I bet you’re just a worthless peasant, aren’t you? Only peasants believe in signs and omens. I bet you don’t even believe in God.”
  “You’re right, I don’t believe in God. How can you? Where is God? What is God doing? If the Dao is all powerful and controls everything, why doesn’t it stop the plague? Why make humans and then turn around and kill them? Is the Dao insane, or does it just enjoy contradicting itself?”
  “So what, what’s your explanation then? Why do you think the sun sets and rises every day if there is no God telling it to?” The spokesman for the crowd demanded angrily.
  “There are many gods, each controlling their own areas, each fighting and pushing against each other’s spheres of influence. Heavenly gods, earthly gods, and gods of the underworld, each imposing order within themselves, but chaos against each other. That is why there is conflict. Just like in the physical world, all the atoms are continuously pushing against each other, fighting for their place, the gods are pushing each other for their place in the universe, all trying to dominate each other. I can explain the plague. The plague is some god’s doing who prefers plagues to people. How can you explain the plague? Does the Dao prefer one or the other? If the Dao already controls everything, why is there even a contest? Why aren’t there just plagues or people already, why is there any conflict between anything? Why hasn’t the universe reached some final state and just sit there, exactly the way the Dao wants it to be? What’s all this nonsense and confusion for? If the Dao has a will, if the Dao has the power, why doesn’t the Dao have everything its way? Since the universe is always changing, does the Dao’s will continuously change too, so that the universe is continuously conforming to it, is the Dao some flighty girl who can’t make up her mind about what to wear? Is this your God? I’d rather believe in a lot of gods who are weaker than yours, because at least then I can respect them as men who fight for their goals as best they can.” The boy said.
  “Is that right? Well then, let’s settle this right now. We’ll fight for our God and you can fight for yours, and we’ll see whose God is worth respecting.” The spokesman said, and the rest of the crowd cheered, recovering their balance against the other boy’s logic.
  “I don’t know how to fight, but I can still break idiot weaklings like you.” The boy in the center scowled, revealing his teeth. He hadn’t thought karma and all that crap would chase him all the way out here. All the way to the kids he was going to have to live with. But he had to earn their respect now or they would make him miserable for the next four years.
  The spokesman stepped forward and threw a punch, anger boiling up inside that the other boy hadn’t learned his place even with all the odds against him. The boy in the center didn’t even notice it, even though it hit him straight on. He had stepped forward and punched too. Then a second and a third time, until the spokesman was on the ground.
  “Why you!” Three other boys from the crowd came running forward. One tried to grab him, another tried to kick him from behind. The boy in the center rushed to meet the grappler, they both went down to the ground with the peasant on top. He took the other boy’s head and repeatedly slammed it against the ground until he let go. The two other boys started kicking him in the back to try to make him stop, but the boy didn’t seem to even notice it. After he was done with the grappler he jumped up and grabbed one of the boy’s legs, tipping him over. He jumped at the other boy and got punched squarely in the face. He took a step back from the blow then shook his head and jumped back forward, got punched again and now bleeding but unfazed, he ran straight up and kicked the other boy’s knee, making it buckle backwards. The boy cried out in pain and fell down. The one who had fallen down earlier was back up, and three more had gotten stones to throw to put the wild beast down. None had been ready for him to put up this kind of fight.
  Fae Lao moved. He chopped the boy’s arm so hard the rock fell from his hand, then kicked him in the head. The boy went down. Before anyone had noticed he was on the second, a jump kick to his back sent him sprawling down. The third just had time to notice his attack but still couldn’t do anything, his punch was pushed aside and Fae was suddenly inside his guard, punching him three times and then hitting his chin all with the bottom of his palms, his fingers curved tightly back against themselves. The boy in the center had kicked the last man resisting continuously until he had stopped moving. The crowd stood still in fear, the two boys both standing over their respective mounds of fallen students, breathing hard and looking around for any other challengers.
  “Cowards!” Fae Lao spat, looking at all of them in the eye. “First you lose the argument, then you lose the fight, even though it was all of you against one, and then you try and use weapons when he has none, when he’s never even used one? Is this who I have to train with? Is this who is going to lead Liu-Yang? You filth? You worthless scum? Is this all you have? Are these your leaders?” He gestured at the bodies littering the ground. “You all disgust me. You shame your fathers. You shame your families and your ancestors. You shame yourselves and the entire universe because you exist in it. You should all go home and cry in your mothers’ laps. We don’t need you here.” Fae Lao spat again. “There is only one man here I will ever call my friend, and it’s him. As for the rest of you, I hope you die as soon as possible so you can be reborn as the slugs and snails you really are.”
  The boy in the center looked amazed, watching the entire crowd cringe from the lashing. He hadn’t even seen the other guy. Hadn’t seen that those three had been coming for him. If the other boy hadn’t intervened, he would probably be on the ground and being beaten twice as hard for putting up the resistance he had. That man had saved him. And now they were friends.
  “By the way.” Fae Lao turned to his comrade, ignoring the rest of the crowd like they were no longer there. “My name is Fae Lao.” He stepped across the bodies and held out his hand. “What’s yours?”
  The boy smiled. “Gai Yi. Pleased to meet you.”
  Fae Lao smiled back. Problem solved. Making friends with the most hated person was the quickest and easiest way to make enemies out of everyone else. He’d already divided himself from the rest before the first meal and proven at least in some part he wasn’t a coward. If this was going to be the hardest challenge, and he’d solved it in the first few minutes, the next 4 years were going to be terribly dull.

  Soon after the scuffle most of the older people left, the tents were all set up, and the evening meal was served. The officers assembled at the front of the crowd which sat upon logs or rocks or whatever they could find, talking in whatever little groups they could find, and watched with an ironic smile the same process as happened every year, the pecking order of better and worse, the nobles finding relatives or allies and grouping together, the commoners finding each other and making a group of their own. Like iron filings all of them going from scattered about to clumped together in this pattern or that, according to the lodestone’s magnetism.
  “Is that him? Shen’s kid?” Pang Lei said.
  “Yeah. You should have heard him, hoo, he insulted the whole rest of the crop and they all didn’t dare even look him back in the face. I guess we could expect something like this.” Pu Shi said.
  “Not often you get someone who’s already slated to become our general.” Pang Lei said. “Do you really think the Emperor gave in to the old man’s pressure?”
  “He’s not just good at beating up other kids. I met him when he came in. Talked to me with a tongue so smooth I thought cakes would start rolling out of it. He’s mastered the art of saying everything and nothing while only hearing what he chooses to hear. God damn.” Pu Shi said. “I’m almost starting to like the kid.”
  Pang Lei laughed. “He’s probably the most dangerous boy in Liu-Yang. He’s got that look about him. Like he’s looking all the way up. And of course we’ll never ever be able to prove it.”
  “I agree he’s dangerous, but if he’s as smart as he seems, he’s going to figure out Hei Ming Jong is God compared to him. If he’s smart, he’ll become one of the best generals Liu-Yang’s ever had, and leave it at that. We could use generals like him, even that kind of daring is useful, so long as we can point it across the border.”
  “He’s dangerous to whatever enemy he chooses to fight. There’s no telling whether that’s good or bad. And here we have to sharpen those eyes to become as lethal as possible, all the while not knowing. Karma, I suppose.”
  “It’s always karma.” Pu Shi agreed. “That’s what Hei would say.”
  “Are the other boys going to be okay?” Pang asked, incidentally.
  “One got his leg broken, kicked the front of the knee backwards, legs just don’t bend that way. We’re sending him back home. He can join next year. Feel a little sorry for him, he was the only boy who put up a decent fight.” Pu said.
  “You watched the whole thing and didn’t do anything about it?” Pang asked.
  “Of course.” Pu Shi said, looking surprised. “What, would you have stopped them?”
  “No.” Pang laughed. “I guess not. Fae Lao broke the guy’s leg, though? That sounds a little harsh for just a brawl.”
  “Actually it was the other kid. Fae only got three. The first kid took down four and made sure they stayed down too.” Pu Shi noted.
  “Another kid, eh? Maybe this class will be worthwhile after all.” Pang said.
  “God knows we could use it. Ten years of peace and now this plague, something’s going to break. There’s going to be another war. You can just feel the tension on those borders mounting. We gave them the plague, after all. It started with us. I don’t think they’re going to forget that, however it’s spreading.”
  “They’d be fools to attack us now. They’re weaker than they were last time and we’re stronger. Even with the plague since it’ll kill all of us equally it won’t make any difference. So long as Hei is our emperor, they aren’t stupid enough to attack us. No, I’m afraid watching our cadets fight each other every year is all the excitement we’re ever going to see again.”
  “I hope you’re right.” Pu Shi said, shrugging. All the same it would be better if these kids grew up quickly. This was an age of chaos and now the plague was making it worse. People did stupid things in times like these. Every war had to be stupid for one party, because at the end of it someone always lost, who would have done better to not have fought. Just because a war was stupid there was no protection in that. War was stupid, but people were even stupider. He’d figured that out long ago.

  Fae Lao and Gai Yi sat eating together, throwing questions back and forth. The two of them could not have had more different lives. It made for enough curiosity that the conversation was quick and lively.
  “You’re still wincing, turn around, let me take a look at you.” Fae Lao said.
  Gai Yi shrugged, lifting his shirt. Bruises ran up and down his back and legs where the two boys had been kicking him.
  Fae whistled. “You didn’t even feel it during the fight. Even I’d hate to look like that. Why’d you say you didn’t know how to fight?”
  “I don’t. It was always hard labor when I was a kid. I had to work with all the other adults to make the money my father wasn’t making. And then my teacher was hitting me all the time, so when the fight came, who cares? Just a bunch of kids. I’ve dealt with more than they could dish out. These’ll be gone by tomorrow.”
  “I’ve had my share of beatings. Mainly during practice, lots of guys were hired to train me. But hopefully I’m done with them. I still mind it when I get them.” Fae laughed. “You’re pretty strong though. I guess farming is a type of training too, if you just do it hard enough.”
  “If we ever ate any meat we’d snap you sissy nobles in two.” Gai smiled, eating his fish as emphasis.
  “Ha! We’ll see about that.” Fae Lao laughed, eating his fish in turn. It was strange. He was laughing too much. This wasn’t like him at all. Sure, he was smiling all the time, because smiling was polite and politeness was a weapon. But Gai kept making him laugh. His laughter wasn’t fake. He was actually having fun. Like Gai really was his friend. “You peasants herd all the cows, it’s your own damn fault if it never occurred to you to eat them.”
  “You have no idea how often it occurred to me to eat those damn cows.” Gai said. “By all the gods, I dreamed of cutting those cows up every other night. I dreamed of each damned pound of those cows individually.”
  “So why didn’t you kill one?” Fae asked.
  “Because, it was too risky. I was the only provider for my mother and my younger sisters. If they took me to jail, they would’ve all starved to death, just like that. I couldn’t afford to not work, even for a week, much less the month I’d be away. The numbers just didn’t add up. Gods, though, how I wanted to. I hope they’re still okay. I hope the plague hasn’t gotten to them. It’s mostly in the cities, still. Maybe it’s passed them by.”
  “When was the last time you saw them?” Fae asked.
  “A year ago. But the plague had barely started by then.”
  “I guess it’s hard, people depending on you. I’ve never had to worry about that.”
  “Someday I’ll save up enough money to buy all the damned cows I ever dreamed of and every day I’ll eat one with my little sisters and they can marry some nobleman who owns a thousand cows himself and I’ll pay the dowry and that will be that.”
  “That’s what you’re here for?” Fae Lao asked.
  “That’s what I’m here for.” Gai Yi nodded. “Well, except for one thing.”
  “What?” Fae Lao asked, his interest piqued.
  “Well, I’m also here to become Emperor.” Gai Yi half smiled. “But I think that’s treason or something, so don’t tell anyone else.”
  “That’s odd. I’m here to become Emperor too.” Fae Lao said, smiling back, suddenly trusting this boy implicitly. “I won’t tell if you won’t.”
  “Deal.” Gai Yi said. And they shook hands again. This time for real.

  “Your attention please.” One of the officers called, and the students all grew quiet and faced forward. “I hope you all have enjoyed your first day here. I’m afraid if any of the shenanigans that occurred today are repeated, you’ll all have to be thrown out, this is the army, not your homes, wherever they were. The rules are a little different. You don’t have any rank here, and nobody will do what you say or even give a damn what you say. You’re here to follow our orders, not give them. You’re here to become soldiers, and we’re here to make you ones. Don’t worry though, you’ll have plenty of chances to fight each other and even whatever scores you wish to even. You’ll just be doing it when we damn well tell you to. Am I understood? Good.”
  “You might be wondering what exactly you’ll be doing here. If you aren’t, oh well, you’re going to be told anyway. The first thing you’ll do is learn how to fight. You will fight unarmed, with a sword, and with a bow. You are officers and you use officer’s weapons, but you’ll often be fighting against peasants with spears and crossbows. Because of that you will learn their weapons too. You will also learn how to use artillery, because you will be either fighting with or against it. You will also learn how to ride a horse. Once we have that out of the way, you are going to learn how you should use your weapons. You will be broken down into teams and capture each other’s flags. You will learn Go. You will take tests. You will read books. You will study maps and patrol the land you study maps of. Eventually you will play war games and study the genuine threats Liu-Yang faces today and the genuine plans our army has to deal with them. If you do all of these things exceedingly well, you will become an officer and join the army. If you don’t, oh well. You can always reapply to serve in the regular ranks. You’ll even be a step ahead of them.”
  Some kids laughed, assured that they would not be the dropouts. Others looked a little daunted. Probably they weren’t very good at reading and writing. Many nobles barely stressed that particular skill at all. To Gai Yi it sounded like a continuous string of gifts, one skill after another at no charge, in fact being paid to learn them. It sounded like heaven. To Fae Lao it sounded mildly interesting because if done well it might actually help him get better at those things than he was before.
  “According to what we find you talented in, you will become specialized in that field. Some staff sergeants act as messengers, some lead the scouts, some become spies, some lead the cavalry, some find routes with maps, some look to keeping our men supplied. And some, a very few, actually give orders and lead men into battle. Many of you will do nothing but garrison some fort or city or watch the borders or wander around in patrol until you retire. Whatever you do, you will be serving our Emperor and protecting Liu-Yang. Of that you can be proud, and you will always be respected, wherever you go and whoever you deal with. For that, I salute you, and wish you all the best of luck in your training.” The officer saluted all the crowd, and the children replied with a cheer and stood up to a full salute in return. All of them were eager to test themselves and each other. They were finally away from home and doing something important. Pride and respect sounded to them like food and water. Or even something more.

  Lin Su Jong swallowed the tea gingerly. It was like bulbs were growing inside his throat, his throat always hurt the most. Probably because he had to use it all the time. If it wasn’t eating or drinking, it was talking, or breathing. His throat was always having to move and it hurt every time. All the rest of his body if he just lay very still, it was okay, but his throat alone hurt so much it made up for the rest. At least the drugs helped, but they made it harder to think when it was his last chance to do so. It was a raw deal either way. The door opened and he looked up, smiling as best he could.
  “Hi daddy.”
  “Hi Lin.” Hei said, a tiny smile coming and going just as quickly. “How’s the pain. Any better?”
  “The tea makes it go away.” Lin said, pointing at his cup. “I’ll be okay.”
  “Listen, we don’t know much about the plague, but we do know it doesn’t kill everyone. Some people get it and they recover, alright? They get better again. A lot of people, we think, are dying not just because of the plague, but because they aren’t kept clean, they don’t get any water or food, nobody is there to take care of them, because they have the plague too. But you have everything. We’re going to be taking care of you all the time, Lin. So you do your part. You don’t give up. You try and get better too. You don’t have to die just because you get sick. We can get through this.”
  “Do you remember, Daddy, when I asked about that little girl I met?” Lin was looking at the ceiling, at some place far away.
  Hei nodded, not understanding.
  “You said it was impossible, you didn’t have any cousins or anything like that, and you left just a few months after your first marriage, your wife was never pregnant.”
  Hei nodded. “That’s right.”
  “I feel sorry though. I wish it were true. Because then you could have a child again.” Lin said. “I’ve thought about it a lot, since then. I thought it would be nice, if she could live for both of us, once I’m gone. So you wouldn’t have to miss me.”
  Hei nodded again, bowing his head to hide his tears.
  “But anyway daddy, I think. . .I always wished you would remarry. . .if not her, then have some other kids. . .tell them about their older brother. . .and that I loved them. . .because I always did. I always. . .cared about those future brothers and sisters. I’m sorry I killed mother, Daddy. I’m really sorry.”
  Hei said nothing, his held his head in his arms, sitting beside his son and crying.
  “I’m sorry for everything.” Lin said again, and then the tea put him to sleep.

  Far away thunder rolled over the ocean, long and slow and echoing. The spring monsoon had come. And hardly any of the farmers were ready. They were all too sick with the plague.

No comments: