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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Emperor's Son: Part 2

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.”

“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 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 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 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 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’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.
“ 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 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?”
“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.
“Then the gods must like us a little, don’t they?”  Lu Tai asked.
“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.
Chapter 12

For the next week the Court was silent.  The emperor didn’t leave his room, he said nothing, made no proclamations, gave no orders, had no meetings.  Letters of condolence came from all the nations, the Emperor returned the letters unopened for people to do what they wished with them.  When asked about how and when the funeral should be conducted, Hei said that he didn’t care and they could do as they wished.  In a few days the priests had given a state funeral and buried him in the family graveyard.  Whispered debates were given over the epitaph, all of them sure that one had to be made, but none knowing what the Emperor would have wished.  Eventually they settled on this:

Lin Su Jong,
The Emperor’s Son,
At ten years old died of the plague,
Having never harmed a living soul.

The public went into mourning, as they were ordered to, but also because everyone had adored the little prince, as they adored their Emperor, and everyone had placed their hopes in a peaceful succession now that the child had both the Jong and the Fu bloodlines, and his claim was unquestionable.  It had looked like Liu-Yang, in the little prince, would once and for all be united internally and invincible externally.  Now people muttered and wondered what this meant.  Yue Fang Huang, Queen of Tang, had a son and three daughters.  She was still young and so possibly could have a second son, but without a second son, who was left to rule Liu-Yang?  And if Hei Ming Jong remarried and had another son, who would have precedence?  Yue’s second son or Hei’s second son, far younger and perhaps not ready if Hei should die?  Would there be war?  Would Tang seek to set up the single son they had as the new ruler of both Tang and Liu-Yang?  Would they in fact reclaim the dynasty through Yue and go to war?  People whispered that the river forts and the marriage had always been a plot for this day, when Tang would finally invade again and take it all.  People whispered that Tang hadn’t really changed sides ten years ago, he had only wanted to reserve all of Liu-Yang for himself, and would eventually finish the invasion he began.
Others whispered even darker things.  That the plague was from the gods, that the plague killing the emperor’s son was proof that he had lost the mandate of heaven.  That so long as Hei ruled Liu-Yang it would suffer continuous disasters as punishment from heaven.  Nobody would have listened to these thoughts two years ago, when Liu-Yang was getting rich off the spice trade, had been at complete peace with their neighbors, and the crop yields had been splendid year after year.  But now it was different.  Too many people were dying, and nobody knew what to do, or why it was happening, or how it could be stopped.  In desperation they were willing to try anything, even unseating the emperor, who must have given some offense to the gods to summon this black plague upon his people.
Some people watched the rain as it flooded the farms and the streets, the ever cloudy dark skies and the lightnings and thunders, and wondered who would be left to harvest the rice in the fall.  Some wondered if it was the end of the world.
In fact Hei Ming Jong had lost the mandate of heaven.  On the day his son died, he had thrown it away.  And after staring at nothing, feeling nothing, eating nothing, and thinking nothing for a day, a new anger and resolve baked in his heart of hearts.  Love was gone, lost forever, in its place were dark tendrils that swirled ever deeper inward, calling for the only thing left to him, the only emotion that still had any meaning to him.  For the rest of the week in his room, he planned for a lifetime of vengeance.
Hei Ming Jong’s first proclamation, upon returning to court, was the rescinding of all benefits and subsidies to the Church, and the seizure of all their lands.  He had calculated it out.  If he went too quickly or too far, their might be a revolt, but if he first removed the power of the Church, then came for their lives, it would become a quiet and simple endeavor.  His next proclamation was to put all the funding into a new secret police and spy network whose loyalty he would be able to count on.  Hei did not trust his army to carry out his orders anymore.  He also would need the spies to root out any private worship anywhere in Liu-Yang.  Of course the public institutions would be the first to go, but Hei knew people would pray on in their homes.  They would have to be rooted out and killed.  All of them.  Not one seed of the religion could be allowed to outlive him, or it would somehow be revived after him.  Everyone who believed had to be killed.  All copies of the sutras would be destroyed, but it wasn’t really helpful, because foreign nations still had their copies.  So in the end the people had to be killed, and the peasant religion had to be made to flourish, so that once the Dao was destroyed, people would be too stubborn to accept it from the foreigners who doubtless would try to revive it.  Hei was reasonable, he had already considered conquering the entire middle kingdom so that he could kill all believers everywhere, but he didn’t have the strength.  Liu-Yang would have to suffice.  If he did stay in power long enough, he would designate an heir he could trust to be just as merciless, but he did not count on it.  His attack must be swift and decisive, so utterly destructive that he could die in peace knowing there was no rebuilding what was before.  Like the northern barbarians and the collapse of the Li Dynasty, the destruction so terrible that the entire people ceased to exist, the nation wiped from the face of history forever.  If he was just thorough enough, it wouldn’t matter what his  successors tried to do.  It could be done.  His next major goal would be to replace all of his top appointees, all his generals, scribes, judges, and the rest, with people he could rely upon.  It would have to be done slowly and quietly, each group not aware of the other, until they were out of power and it was too late.  He could always be assured of a large group of people loyal to him, because they would get their living and power from him.  Since his persecution was only of the small minority of mainly upper class believers, the peasants would not care either way.  In fact he would use whatever wealth he could seize from his victims as charity for the poor.  He would buy the people as well.  With the enemy scattered and disorganized, and a loyal corps organized and empowered, and the vast majority of the people indifferent, or even on his side due to envy and greed—it would succeed.  He would kill God.
The real worry wasn’t domestic.  What worried him is that, halfway through his project, he was invaded, and the army sickened by his pogrom would not fight, and turn on him.  This was the most delicate problem.  Most of his army was now made of peasants, something he now thanked the foresight of his former self for.  If he pretended to convert to their religion, and be doing all of this in the name of piety, he could probably retain their loyalty.  The officers were another matter, most of them were nobility.  The answer was to train officers in his special new secret police forces, and on some pretext, when the officers attempted to protest or something of the sort, to execute them all and replace them with his personally loyal officers.  The peasants who served beneath would not mind either way, he could just double their pay or something of the sort and they would be silent.  In the event of a war he would just have to lead the army to victory.  He was not worried, Liu-Yang’s new army was enormous and he knew how to use them.  his only concern was that Yue might turn against him.  He did not want to fight her, or Pe Su Huang.  He hoped they would stay out of it.  If it ever came to a choice between Yue and him, he would have to choose her.  He would have to die with his work unfinished, because his life was already over, but hers was still bright and happy, and he would do nothing to protect his life if it meant hurting hers.  It would be best to keep all of it as quiet and secret as possible, so that the other nations didn’t know.  Then it would be over before they could interfere.  The darkness was his best and greatest ally.  The night would swallow the cries of the dead.  Silence would answer any who questioned the fate of others.  Obscurity would shroud all of it so that none were actually sure it was happening.  Before anyone died, they would be moved around, far from any friends or family, and then moved again and again, until no letters got from one to another, and nobody knew if the last disappearance had simply been another transportation to some other obscure nowhere, or death.  People could wait fifty years in hope, doing nothing, thinking their lovers were still alive somewhere, so long as their final destination was never known.  In this way he could kill them thousand by thousand until there was none left to worry about where the last thousand had gone.  Of course people would find out eventually, but hopefully most of his work would have been done by then, and his position would be too strong for any to stop the rest of the deluge.
But how to kill the nobility without a civil war?  Better if the nobility abandoned the religion without a fight.  But it was clear to Hei that all believers, not just the clergy, had to be killed.  Especially since the believers made up the most powerful section of the Empire, and would just reimpose the religion once he was gone.  It would be no use accusing them of scandals, the pattern would become too clear and the nobility would unite.  Better to accuse them of treason.  After all, the nobility were always guilty of treason, both sides just pretended they weren’t for the sake of the efficiency of governance.  But if the nobility were declared traitors, he could summon the army to arrest them.  Those who surrendered peacefully, confidant in their innocence, could be moved about and then executed.  Those who fought would only prove themselves traitors, and then they could be killed too.  The important thing would be to gather loyal forces and have them all set in ambush the very day the nobility were denounced as traitors, so that they could not summon their retainers before the fight was over.  Surprise was his weapon.  So long as people didn’t know his purpose, they could all suppose that whichever group had been singled out was the only group that would be singled out, and they could hope that the crisis was past.  It would only work once or twice, so best to attack the strongest group first, and then others.  So before the clergy he would have to kill the nobility.  And he would need a pretext, proof that they were plotting treason, so that people confused his aims, that he was merely trying to retain power.  He would set the Imperial spies on it.  Meanwhile he would have to create his personal army so that they could ambush the nobility when the time was ripe.  It would take time.  That was okay, it would get people used to the idea of the Church being abandoned.  Make people believe there was no connection between the two events. 
Patience, caution, secrecy, surprise.  Not even an Emperor can massacre his own people without careful planning.  With the nobility gone, another pause in case of foreign invasion.  Then?  The scribes would have to be dismissed, moved to further and further out-of-the-way provinces, then murdered.  There would be no explanation and he would never admit any scribes were even dying.  The scribes had no army, but they were still dangerous, because they had control of the treasury, they already ran the Empire and could thus easily replace him with one of their own, and the people interacted with them constantly and therefore would trust in them, if it ever came to that.  Without the scribes and the nobility, who would run the nation?  The army, the secret police, the spies.  Fear would keep crime low and the redistribution of all the wealth that came from these murders would appease the masses.  The country would move along as it usually did, farmers would farm, traders would trade, and craftsmen would craft.  They were always too hungry to worry about anything else.  The clergy would have to be killed third.  Easy enough to identify them, if they spoke out or wore their ceremonial clothes or anything.  The secret police and spies could listen in at every tavern or church or wherever they met, then take them away that night.  Never in front of others, their homes would be found and their doors knocked on in the night.  Hopefully the clergy would go peacefully, unsuspecting.  If not, oh well, ‘robbers’ or ‘bandits’ could have killed them.  What did the poor care for the rich anyway?  What did they care if heathen priests died?  All the better as far as the masses were concerned.  Once the clergy were killed he would target the cityfolk.  Many of them had emulated their betters and converted.  Rich merchants hoping to become nobles, retired scribes now in business, servants of the rich who took on their attitudes, whatever.  They would be found out and killed, their wealth given to the poor and the hungry and the cold.  None would stop him so long as they saw how it benefited them.  The city would prey on itself, he would just be a catalyst.  Liu-Yang was dying, it sought immediate relief, it was on the brink of famine, and the rich would be hoarding the food for themselves.  The Emperor could accuse all the cityfolk of being ‘parasites’ or whatever and call for a massive witch hunt, the rest of the cityfolk would probably join in, looting and burning and taking out their fear and desperation on others.  The plague fit well into the situation now.  At that point he would have no need of secrecy, they were the last of the believers.  After that it was just a matter of making belief in the Dao a crime and execute whoever was left, there would be no more institutions which could organize to stop him.  The sutras would be burnt and immigration would be banned, so that no new believers could come in. 
All in all maybe one million would have to die.  With the plagues, famines, and wars that were ahead, Liu-Yang was going to lose millions already, what difference if he threw in another?  People would be too worried about themselves to worry about their neighbors.  In a time of chaos the strong’s only limit was their own imagination.  He would not be stopped.  Could not be stopped.  He had never met his match before and he wouldn’t meet any now.  It was just a matter of time.

“Break.  Get some water.”  The sergeant said, and the students gave a collective bow and resheathed their swords.  Most had brought their own cherished swords, family heirlooms passed from father to son, from war to war.  Those who didn’t own swords had swords made for them.  All of them trained with the weapon they were going to fight with.  Most were prepared, having trained as children, but none had trained as hard as they did now.  The sense of urgency had increased.  The sword was only one thing they had to learn among many, and they had to learn it quickly so that they could concentrate on the next weapon.  First their bodies would be made into weapons, then their minds, all the while instilling in them discipline and courage that sharpened their wills as well.  The army transformed everyone who entered it, casting away all the old and putting in the wholly new and superior.  Gai Yi learned with a gusto, finding the work easy enough and the sword light as a feather however long they practiced with it.  Fae Lao did not learn at all.  Nothing they did even approached his capability.  He complained to the sergeants that this was all very well for the others, but he should be given private sword lessons or something worthwhile to pass the time.  The answer had been that he was to get back in line and if he couldn’t learn the sword then he could learn humility and patience instead.  Fae Lao had smiled, accepting the challenge.  He hadn’t complained since.  Only stared at the sergeant the whole time their lessons were conducted, never breaking a sweat.  If he wasn’t allowed to state the fact, he would allow the fact to state itself for him.  Sooner or later his trainer would have to bow to the reality so obviously expressed.  Whenever the children sparred with their wooden blades, Fae Lao won, effortlessly, not even hurting his opponents but only disarming them—being far more humiliating and difficult.
Occasionally Gai Yi would be matched up against his friend.  Fae would smile and disarm him like all the others.  Gai would shrug and laugh, picking up his sword and going back into the line to watch the next match.  He had never used any weapon in his life, only his strength got him through most of the matches, he had no illusions of being able to even touch Fae.  It was the easy shrug and laugh that Fae respected.  Most of the others would become angry and demand he fought ‘for real,’ or grow silent and ashamed.  Some few openly admired his skill and tried their best to emulate him.  Only Gai would shrug and laugh.  His instincts had been right.  Gai was the only person he could ever consider his friend.  Fae hadn’t been aware that he would ever have a friend, he hadn’t sought any out in his life, but it turned out he had criteria somewhere in the back of his mind, and Gai fit them.  Gai had as much pride as he did.  That’s why they could be friends.
“You know, watching you, I think you could be teaching the class.”  Gai Yi said, sitting back and drinking his canteen.
Fae Lao shrugged.  “I’d rather not have to deal with it.”
“Why did you get so good if you just have to wait for us anyway?”  Gai asked.
“I didn’t mean to.”  Fae Lao said, sipping his own canteen.  He wasn’t all that thirsty, since he hadn’t done anything yet.  “I just had a knack for swords.”
“I guess so.  Well, I’m sure to catch up eventually if we just keep drilling.”  Gai Yi said, stretching.
“I haven’t seen any signs of it.”  Fae Lao laughed.
“Come on, I already win half my matches!”  Gai said.
“Yes, by beating at the other guy’s sword until it breaks or he lets go.”  Fae said.
“It works, doesn’t it?”  Gai asked.
“Does it work against me?”  Fae asked.
“No.”  Gai said.
“Then find out something that works against me, and get good at that.  Who cares if you’re better than them?  The only thing that matters is who’s best.  Beating them is a waste of your time.”  Fae said.
“Who beats you?”  Gai Yi asked, innocently.
“My instructors did.”  Fae Lao said, thinking back.  “I’m not sure how.  They were always faster and stronger, they had better reach.  I just couldn’t get to them.  I always ended up whacked on the head.”
“Didn’t they have some special moves?”  Gai Yi asked, disappointed.
“If they did, would they have to waste them on a kid?”  Fae Lao shrugged.  “What I do know is that in a fight, you should be very quick and decisive about it.  Don’t aim at the other guy’s sword, it doesn’t work, it’s a waste of time.  Aim to kill.  Every stroke should be the decisive, killing blow, every cut should be at the head, either shoulder, or either side, killing strokes.  There should be no hesitation and no feints.  If the other person blocks your killing stroke, make another killing stroke, move faster, hit harder, and you’ll get through his guard.  Wars are fought by armies, not duels, so we have to kill our opponents as quickly as possible so we can kill the next person, and the next.  Isolate the opponent in the middle of the fight through speed and decisiveness, any peasant can stab you in the back no matter how good a duelist you are with the man in front.  Always meet an enemy attack with your own attack, cut, kill, finish, there is no time to protect yourself.  The enemy must be killed so that you can kill the next one.  That is my way of the sword.  Across, diagonally up from the left, diagonally up from the right, straight down, diagonally down from the left, diagonally down from the right, stabbing forward.  Those are the only moves of a sword, all of them thirsting for blood, seeking to cut flesh and not air.”
“But you aim for the enemy sword, or the hand holding it.”  Gai said.
“It’s just a game to pass the time.”  Fae Lao said.  “I set goals for myself when nobody else gives me any.  Maybe someday I’ll want to disarm someone without killing him, then I can at least have learned that, since they won’t teach me how to kill any better.”  Fae shrugged.  “Maybe my son will try to assassinate me, I’d rather not have to kill him, since that would be defeating the whole purpose of having a son.  See?  There’s something I can do with this.  Maybe my wife will get angry in some argument and grab some knife and try to stab me, well, there again I don’t have to just kill her, which would again be defeating the point of marrying.”
“Your family must’ve been pretty violent.”  Gai Yi said, laughing.
“Not at all.  We all loved each other very much, we never fought at all.  Father has too much control for people to be fighting in his own house.”  Fae Lao said.
“Then why are you so gloomy about your family?”  Gai asked.
“I’m not gloomy.  They’re just scenarios.  If you’d prefer, maybe there’s some spy and I want to know how much he’s told the king of Ch’i and he tries to kill himself, so I disarm him, okay?  If I kill him that would be defeating the point.  Is that scenario sufficient?”  Fae Lao asked.
“Fine fine.  Do you already know who you’re going to marry?  Being a high ranking noble and all, is it arranged yet?”  Gai Yi asked.
“No.  Not yet.”  Fae Lao said.
“Ah, I guess we are still pretty young.”  Gai shrugged.  “I think I’m gonna be so busy taking care of my father’s family that I won’t be able to take care of my own, not for a while.  Besides, nobody will arrange my marriage.  I have to somehow convince a girl to do it of her own will.”
“A messy business.”  Fae Lao said.  “A man I can deal with.  We will fight, and one of us will win.  Or we will argue, and one of us will have to agree with the other.  Or we will argue and then fight because the argument was indecisive.  In any case, one will conquer the other and the matter will be settled.  A woman, though?  It’s hopeless.  They haven’t the sense to understand our points, nor the strength to fight, and so they pass right by without a single way to settle who won and who lost.  I don’t understand girls and I don’t like them.  They are infinitely weak and yet the only people I can’t beat.  They recognize no competition as binding.  They recognize no strength as commanding.  They recognize no merit as admirable.  They give out no prizes of first, second, third.  So who is to know when the matter is settled?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”  Gai Yi asked.  “We win if they love us, we lose if we love them.”
“That’s foolish.  How am I the winner if I can’t enjoy my spoils?  I have to love her if I’m to love her love.  Otherwise it’s just an uncomfortable nuisance.”  Fae Lao said.  “But if we both love each other, then nothing is settled, we have to cede to each other victory as soon as we claim it.”
“Then maybe you both win.”  Gai Yi said.
“Impossible.  Nobody is exactly the same, we will always have different wills, and in that case, one will always has to dominate the other, so how can both win?  One always surrenders and loses.”
“I guess.”  Gai Yi gave up.  “In any event I’d rather have a girl than not.”
“Of course.  I need a family.  It is the only natural life.”  Fae said.
“So what, you aren’t in the least interested in just getting the girl?”  Gai challenged.
“No, why?  If I wanted a girl I could have one right now.  Or whenever.  I can just hold her down and have her, or pay her some money and have her peacefully.”  Fae shrugged.  “I need a girl who loves and supports me, who enriches my life and encourages my abilities.  I need her affirmation, her loyalty, and her womb, so that I can have children and carry on my purpose beyond my grave.  Her body is meaningless.  It’s just a feeling.  A sensation.”  Fae Lao curled his lip at the thought.  “Letting a feeling control you is to be lower than the feeling.  Abominably weak.  Disgustingly weak.  The only thing I will ever pursue, which in turn means I consider myself less than, is the absolute.  That’s the only thing worthy of my service.”
“I guess it’s the same with all of you.  “Symmetry, Harmony!” Gai intoned and rolled up his eyes to show his religious fervor.
“You’re wrong.  There is only one absolute, power, and there is only one corresponding feeling to the absolute, the will to power, and there is only one way to exercise this will, and that is to excel.  That is the absolute I follow.  A rock can be symmetrical.  Rocks are harmonious.  What do I care for rocks?  Power is the difference between man and beast, beast and nature.  Power to shape ourselves and our surroundings to suit our purposes.  To excel is the sole glory of man, because it is the source of our power and its expression.  To excel is to worship power and at the same time be worthy of its worship.  That is the only absolute worthy of my service.  Let rocks serve symmetry or harmony.  It all sounds like ‘getting along’ to me.  It just means mediocrity, being neither higher nor lower, but just the same.  Anything can be the same.  Who cares about them?  The Dao is just a chimera that teaches people to accept their own weakness.  Who knows, if I were weak, I’d probably worship it too, to feel better about myself.  But I have no time for such despicable. . .cushions. . .”  Fae Lao’s lip curled and he couldn’t even describe the disgust he felt about it.  “I will rise above--let those who can follow me!  Only the great are capable of a religion of greatness.  Let the rest play whatever games they wish, what are they to us?  I doubt any of the kings believe in the Dao they use to justify their reigns.  Their true religion is greatness.  Who can respect anything else?  Our Emperor is said to be very religious.  I don’t believe it.  He is too strong to believe in anything but strength.  For those of us who rise above, we live only with each other, in our own world that only understands itself.  Let others worship the Dao, what more can they possibly do?  Our own imagination sets the bounds to perfection, I’m sure an ant would consider a bigger ant that could make a whole hill in a day or find food just by wagging its antenna as perfection.  But what is that to us?  What is that to me?  The peasants’ idea of perfection is a god of mud, or whatever, because what do they know but mud?  The clergy and the nobles and the like have found this cute, safe little Dao that does nothing but makes everything right—fine, have at it, if that is your perfection, if you can think of no improvement, so be it!  My perfection is power, quivering, floating power.  Bright, fiery, passionate power.  Potential.  Possibility.  The flood, the eruption, the tempest!  That which overcomes!  Which sets new boundaries!  Which takes the next step!  Perfection is the master that is always mastering itself, always finding more to master!  Perfection must be infinite in scope and infinite in desire, the uroborus that eats its own tail, ever-devouring but never victorious because it cannot conquer its own grandeur.  I will worship that.”
“You know, I don’t really worship the mud.”  Gai put on an insulted face.  “I thank the gods for making my life possible, ask them for help when I need it, ask them for explanations when I’m curious, and generally just get along with them.”
Fae Lao grinned, unrepentant.  “Hey, present company excluded of course.”
“Of course.”  Gai Yi said.  But he gathered some dirt behind his back and threw it at him.  “Here, your very own mud!  Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it!”  It was satisfyingly wet, given how close they were to the river they’d filled their canteens with.
Fae Lao dived for his own ammunition, throwing a handful back.  “Here, have some god!  I’ll even help you eat it!”
“I’ll help you kiss it!”
“I’ll help you marry it!”  The two were promptly rolling through the mud in their religious zeal.

“It’s true then,”  Pu Shi said, sighing.  “Can’t be helped.  When does Hei go back on his word?”
“He said he’d bury the Church, and so he has.”  Pang sighed.  “Well, if it were my son, I might have done the same.  It isn’t God’s fault, but it’s still too cruel, Lin dying.  He was such a good kid.  I wanted to see him grow up here, like all the other kids.”
“It’s not like the Church caused the plague.  But I guess they haven’t stopped it either.  But who will take care of the sick and the poor now?  It’s not like the priests and nuns used all the money to buy chandeliers.”  Pu Shi said.
“Who is left to take care of anyone now?  They’re all too sick with the plague.”  Pang Lei sighed.  “It’s almost three years now.  Only the remote mountains of Ch’in and Mae-Dong don’t have it.  When will it end?”  Pang asked.
“I guess it’s a good thing, if they didn’t die now, they’d just have to starve to death later.  Our reserves are exhausted.  This harvest will be the worst ever.”  Pu Shi said.
“It has to come from somewhere.  There has to be a cure.  What are the priests doing?  The scribes?  Is anyone doing anything, anywhere?  There are only so many ways it can infect from.  Air, water, food, dirt, women, whatever, why can’t we find the source? If we just found the source we could limit it like all the others.”  Pang complained.
“I hope Hei can get over this Church thing and worry about the plague.  The plague killed his son, for heaven’s sake.  Use the money to cure the plague, if you’re going to take it.  If it keeps going like this in ten years there won’t be anyone left to worry about.”  Pu Shi said.
“Hei will pull something.  He’s always won before, he can beat the plague too.  It’s not our problem.  For now let’s just take care of the army, if you’re right, we’ve got a war to win.  The priests will have to shift for themselves.”  Pang Lei said, watching the students relax and play before the evening meal.  He’d waited so long to see the emperor’s son among them.  A shame.  Can’t be helped, he guessed.  Karma.
Chapter 13

When the five children broke through the woods they instantly saw the red flag unguarded on the hill.  Suppressing a cheer which may have alerted defenders to their position, two men rushed for the flag while the other three took cover and looked for any oncoming threats.
Fae Lao had not moved since the beginning of the fight.  Relaxing on his tree, overseeing as much of the battle as he could, he had waited near the flag as the last barrier between victory and defeat.  The rest of his team had left to seize the enemy flag, and had left Fae to guard their own, counting it an even distribution.  Fae felt that his power was put to best use by being in the one sure place the battle would be, instead of wandering through the wilderness searching for the enemy, the enemy would always come to him.  It meant the attack was probably less effective, but it didn’t really matter, the battle would just take longer than usual as both attacks failed and then the defenders played a game of patience, trying to bore the others into using the last of their manpower.  Fae never got bored.  Fae always out waited the others, until there was no one left defending the enemy flag and he simply went over and fetched it back.  Fae passed the time in meditation, clearing his mind and settling down into a trance that was aware but not affected by hunger, thirst, cold, heat, sleep, or just the itch to be doing something.  From all his training in weapons he did not need, he had honed this new weapon of patience and endurance into something enormously strong in this new phase of training.  Now that everybody could use their weapons rather well, Fae found patience to be the only edge he could rely upon to conquer a multitude of opponents.
Carefully, quietly, Fae Lao drew his bow and fired, not even watching the result, he took the second arrow from the quiver at his waist, drew, aimed, and fired again.  Both of the students dropped, not having even made a noise.  The rubber coating at the tips had made the arrows practically harmless, but once struck, students had to play dead until the competition was over.  For this and many other reasons everyone hated matches against Fae’s team, which could take days instead of hours.  The three onlookers were quiet, trying to find Fae’s position, looking in the direction the arrows had come from.  The foliage was too thick, though, Fae knew he was invisible from his perch, and that they likely wouldn’t be looking up anyway.  He had bet on it, since the position made him practically immobile.  Fae waited, folding his legs beneath him and settling back calmly, for the next three to make their move.  After maybe ten minutes, the three, after conferring, broke apart and started circling around the flag from the opposite direction, hoping to draw out the enemy’s position that they knew had to be on the far side of the flag.  Fae watched silently as the enemy went behind him, stayed seated and overlooking the flag.  Wherever they went, they would have to come back to the flag eventually, and then he would strike.
“He must have already moved.  I told you we should have rushed the flag.”  A boy said, his voice a ways behind Fae’s tree, the trunk dividing both of them from each other’s sight.
“What, so he could shoot all three of us instead of two?  You saw how fast the two shots were, we never would have gotten there and back in time.  The only way is to first kill Fae.”  The other boy said.
“Fine, but how do we?  We don’t know where he is, and even if we did, what good are the three of us against him?  I don’t think anyone has ever hit Fae in even one match.  It’s disgusting.”  The third said.
“It’s because he’s cautious.  He doesn’t put himself in any situation where he could get hit.  It limits him just as much as it helps him, we can use that against him if we can just find out how.”  The second said.
“He has to be here, he wouldn’t just abandon the flag.  He has to be within bowshot still.  Let’s just cover the area inch by inch, the whole radius, until we beat him out of his cover.  Then whoever he hits the other two will rush him.”  The first said.
“Even if we do, he would just beat the two of us.  I say we go back for reserves.  So long as Fae’s accounted for here, we don’t have to protect the flag.  We should gather the whole team and rush the flag, he can’t shoot all of us.”  The second boy said.
“Alright then, you two will watch for him, I can go back and get help.”  The third boy agreed to the second’s plan.  “He can’t move so long as we’re here to threaten the flag.”  Silence, probably they shook hands or something, and then the rustling as the third man left for help.  Fae stood up silently and drew his bow, watching for the boy to come back in sight.  They thought he was deeper in the woods because they had walked right by without provoking a reaction.  That meant he thought he was safely out of range before he truly was.  Fae waited for the first clean shot and released, the arrow striking his back and leaving the boy to drop just as quietly as the first two.  Fae Lao then waited again, seeing if the two had noticed or would react.  His ears listened as intently as they could, trying to hear what they would do next.  The silence was deafening.  No one was moving or saying anything.  Fae couldn’t decide if they were waiting for the third to come back, or if they knew he had been hit and were waiting for Fae to betray himself.  After a half hour birds and squirrels and the like were moving about, accustomed to the three men all hunting each other.  After an hour the sun was beginning to set.  All the other matches had been resolved long before.  Another hour passed, storm clouds blotted out the moon and stars as a drizzle picked up, the monsoon rains drenching the three boys.  It was too much, one of the boys let out a small curse and went to find some dry shelter, abandoning his fellow.  Fae Lao, who had been protecting his bow string carefully from the rain, drew and fired again.  The boy went down.  Fae folded his legs back beneath him and listened for the movement of the third.  Another hour passed, the rain sucking warmth from both boys, indomitable and impassive, fighting each other on a different level than the game called for.  Fae Lao shivered, his cloak protecting his bow instead of himself, the darkness making his eyes strain, the rain making his ears strain to hear the other boy’s next move.  He was tired and the tree’s bark made his sitting sore and wearisome.  Another hour passed.
“What the hell is going on here?”  Three more boys emerged from the clearing, seeing nothing but the enemy flag unguarded.  They saw the two corpses shivering in the rain, unable to move, beside the flag.  But there was no motion or noise anywhere.  They had ambushed the enemy team and beaten them handily, with 8 men to spare.  And yet the five they had sent had not retrieved the flag, and though they had been detailed to guard the flag no matter what, they had given up and gone to get the flag themselves.  It was ridiculous that they had waited as long as they did.
“Is anyone there?  What’s the meaning of this?”  The boy shouted.  No response was made.  The three looked around, seeing nothing but the flag and those two corpses.  It was too dark to see much of anything.  The boy shrugged, and walked boldly up to the flag.  Fae Lao drew and released, the arrow striking him in the heart.  His eyes widened in surprise, a hiss of anger came from his lips, and he dropped beside his fellow corpses agonizingly close to the flag.  The two with him shouted with alarm, taking cover and looking around.
“Who’s there!  Come on, what are you doing!  We’ve missed dinner and it’s freezing and wet out here.  Come out and let’s end this fight!  Who cares who wins anyway?  We have to exercise tomorrow, you don’t want any sleep before then?”
The reply was silence, from both enemy and ally.  Gai Yi felt that the two survivors were no help at all, since they’d only reveal his position, while getting them no closer to the flag.  He could find no way to protect them.  Fae Lao was sniping them, anyone who moved, anyone who revealed themselves, one by one, and he refused to die uselessly like the others, without even finding Fae’s position.  From all the corpses now, Gai Yi had narrowed Fae’s location to somewhere almost exactly next to him.  The shot had come silently and he had not been able to figure out where it was coming from.  He only knew that any move, any sound he made, Fae would instantly know of it, and he would just fall down dead like the rest, a whole mound of corpses losing to Fae all on his own.  The shame would be too much.  If only they had rushed the flag, all eight at once.  But they couldn’t have known what Fae was planning until it had actually happened.  Now it was too late for any rush to work.
“Fine, if you won’t come out, how about this?”  The boys conferred together, and then they marched towards the flag, one boy using the other as his shield.  Fae Lao stood up and drew his arrow and shot, the boy in front going limp.  The boy behind held him up though, still moving forward.  He carefully, without exposing his front in any way, reached out and grabbed the flag.  Then he carefully turned around, still not exposing himself, holding up the other boy with his arms wrapped around on his back now, as he walked back the way he came.  Fae Lao watched, wondering what to do now.  He had to protect his flag, but Gai Yi was still out there, waiting for him to move.  He was pinned to the tree almost.  If he waited too long he wouldn’t be able to catch his flag though.  Victory was steadily receding.  Fae calmly stretched, looking at the way down.  He would have to jump and roll, climbing down would make too much noise and just make him an easy target.  Fae let go of his bow, carefully collecting his wooden sword instead.  He would have to use this for the last two.  Gai Yi would miss.  Gai would miss the first shot after that drop and roll, and then he would rush him and win the sword fight.  Fae Lao paused, looking down and taking a breath, and then he jumped.
The drop was around twenty feet, Fae flew down, jumping as far as he could to get clear of the other branches, and crumpled his legs the moment they touched, rolling through the muddied earth and leaves three times until the momentum was gone.  It hurt but there was no time to worry about it.  Fae heard the brush break as Gai Yi charged forward, Fae rose his sword in surprise, he hadn’t thought Gai had been this close the whole time.  They had been sitting across from each other with only the tree trunk between them the whole night.  He expected an arrow shot, instead he barely got on his knee to block the full force of Gai’s swing.  Fae gaped as the strength of the blow knocked him back to the ground, Gai swung again, and Fae used both his hands to hold the sword between them.  The blow thrummed through his arms, with Gai swinging again, sure that his guard would break eventually.  Fae kicked out, knocking Gai down beside him.  Fae swung his sword trying to catch Gai, but he rolled the moment he had fallen out of range and the two of them jumped back up, covered in mud and drenched in the rain.  Fae charged, jumping forward and aiming for the head, Gai backed up and Fae jumped forward again, stabbing, hoping to catch Gai off balance as he backpedaled.  Gai knocked the blow aside and swung at Fae’s head, but Fae dropped to his knee and brought his sword slashing back, knocking decisively into Gai’s stomach as Gai’s sword swished harmlessly overhead.  Gai sighed and sat down, ‘dead’.  Fae saluted him with his sword and a smile, racing to catch up to the last boy with his flag.
The sprint was on.  The last boy had deposited his friend the moment he had reached the woods, running through the woods back towards his base, the first victory against Fae Lao finally within sight.  Fae had lost maybe thirty seconds on him, his headlong rush through the dark woods following the snapping twigs of his enemy.  The two ran, breathless, ankles tripping and catching themselves over roots and rocks, hearing each other but not seeing in the dark woods.  The first boy emerged from the woods, jumping into the stream and running as best he could through the swollen water towards his own flag which had been put in such a great defensive position, the river and hill now his greatest obstacles.  Fae emerged from clearing, almost falling into the river, heard the splashing and saw the enemy nearing the enemy hill.  He thought about jumping in and discarded the idea, it was too late to catch up now.  He waited until the other boy reached out from the river and pulled himself onto the bank, and in that one moment of stillness where he caught his balance, Fae Lao threw his sword across the river and struck the boy on the  back.  The boy tipped forward, looking back at Fae with a curse.  “What the hell?”
Fae laughed and jumped into the river, wading across and pulling himself onto the bank.  He picked up his own flag and then went up the hill to take the enemy flag as well, holding both of them up high flushed with victory.  A judge, emerging from the rain and cold, shook his cloak and glared at Fae Lao.  “Took you long enough.  We don’t all enjoy these overnight picnics, you know.”
Fae Lao smiled, handing the flags over.  “Then change the rules.  The other kids are learning to wait too, next time it will be two days.”  Fae laughed and stretched, his entire body sore from sitting on the tree and then jumping down and running through the woods, tripping and crashing his way at full speed.  It had all paid off though.  Single handedly he had again transformed defeat into victory.
Whistles and shouts alerted all the living dead that the match was over and they could finally get up.  The boy nearest him was the first to get up and point accusingly at Fae to the judge.
“He’s cheating!  He’s just camping out there, shooting anyone who comes near, it’s not fair.  It’s not like he’s any better, he just wastes so much time that the rest of us get sick of it!”
Fae Lao smiled.  “You were pretty good, using that one guy as a shield.  I wonder if he’d die as willingly for you in a real fight though?”
The guy scowled.  “In a real fight we’d just go around your entire position and leave you there to rot.”
“And if my position is vital?”  Fae Lao asked.
“Then we’d bombard it with catapults!”  The boy said.
“And if I’m dug in?”  Fae Lao asked, laughing.
“Then we’d set fire to the whole area and burn you out.”  The boy said.
Fae Lao laughed.  “But it’s raining!”
“Go to hell!”  The boy shouted, giving up.  “I’m going to bed.  I just jumped into a river and I’m freezing to death.  Goodnight, and thanks a lot!”
The judge shook his head at Fae.  “Don’t let it get to your head.  You know it won’t work next time.  They’ll just rush the flag with everyone now that they know their own isn’t threatened.”
“I know.  I guess next time I’ll hold back three others with me and we’ll stay on the ground so we can move around.”  Fae said.  The fall had been pretty hard, something he’d rather not repeat.
The judge laughed, clapping him on the shoulder.  “Alright then.  Congratulations on another win, Fae Lao.”
Fae bowed, elated and relieved.  He could have lost to any other team and just been annoyed, but he couldn’t lose to Gai.  He never could have lived that down.  If he lost to Gai, the friendship would change into something else.  He wasn’t sure what.  Of course he’d still like and respect Gai, but. . .it would replace that comfortable warmth with a deep cold. . .he wouldn’t be able to share anything with Gai, say anything to him, without wondering if his friend would use it against him.  If he lost to Gai, they would become bitter rivals, because he could not accept losing to anyone.  He could not accept someone outpacing his own progress.  He was going to be the Emperor of the whole Middle Kingdom.  If he lost to just a random classmate at the very beginning. . .it would be humiliating.  It would mean he was an idiot, an arrogant little kid who had no idea how vast the world was or how pathetic he was in comparison to it.  If he lost to someone his own age, this early on, the first time he was actually competing with others, it would make him have to eat his words.  He could just imagine Gai Yi saying smugly, “How do you expect to be Emperor when you can’t even beat me?”  It would be humiliating.  If that ever happened he would hate Gai Yi for knowing his shame, and he didn’t want to hate Gai Yi.  Because he was the first person he really loved.  If he would just keep his place and leave him free to pursue his dream, everything would be fine.  But if Gai stole that dream from him, made a fool of him, became the better of the two and thus stole away Fae’s only purpose and worth in life. . .he would hate Gai.  The very thought of it twisted at him.  If Gai beat him, Gai killed him, there was nothing left in his life if he just became another weak loser, a placeholder for others to rise above and leave behind.  And the only way to reclaim that dream, that goal, that rank of best. . .would be to kill Gai Yi.  It was a struggle for survival.  Gai Yi would be suffocating him.  Choking him like a snake around its prey, crushing him into nothing.  He couldn’t accept that role, that fate, that place in life.  The only way out would be to kill his friend, to clear the air and give him back his path.  Not from just losing a game or two, a fight or two.  That didn’t prove anything.  That just meant Gai Yi was nearly as good as him, which would be fine.  But if he ever started consistently losing, or if he lost something important, like a battle or something. . .that would be the end of it.  They couldn’t be friends after that.  Losing to him was unforgivable.  It was a betrayal.  Gai Yi would be killing him by beating him, knowing full well how much winning meant to him, and after that there would be no going back.  For one to live the other would have to die.

Gai Yi sighed, taking off his clothes as the rain pelted his tent and lying down, exhausted from the strain of being a coiled spring for hours.  Fae had been right above him.  That whole time he had just been up the tree.  And even though he’d had the jump on him, Fae still won the sword fight.  So close.  He wanted so much to win, to prove himself to his friend who only respected strength, so that Fae would respect him as much as he respected Fae.  And instead he had lost again.  Fae was just too good.  He had waited as long as him, sat out in the cold and rain and hungry and sleepy, all for that thing which was infinitely more important, just a tiny nod of congratulations from his friend which he would have cherished more  than a thousand girls’ fluttered eyelids.  He’d gotten his chance and he’d messed it up.  He didn’t even know how he could have done better.  It had all happened so fast and he had had to make an immediate decision, he couldn’t tell where he had gone wrong.  Gai sighed and watched as the rain ran down his tent, making strange patterns and forms.  Maybe Fae was just a god.  Some perfect invincible hero blessed and charmed by the heavens.  Maybe he’d never catch up to him.  Maybe Fae would never care as much about him as he cared about Fae.  But he would keep trying.  What was left?  It was all he really wanted, all he looked forward to anymore.  Another chance to win.  His family was still taken care of, all of his pay was sent through the mail to his brother, Lu Tai had been satisfied that he’d become an officer and ‘walk in palaces’ as he’d prophesized, and all the instructors were pleased with his progress and hard work.  The only thing left, the only thing missing, was for Fae to respect him.  At that point he would have everything he wanted.  And it just kept slipping out of his grasp.  Gai relaxed.  There was plenty of time left for him to catch up.  They would be together for four years.  And with Fae’s help, he was already better than most everyone else.  Sooner or later, it was bound to happen.  Gai closed his eyes, listening to the rain and warming up under his blankets.  Then they’d be not friends but brothers.

When Gai Yi woke up, not long after he had fallen asleep, breakfast was being served and he was starving.  Everyone on both teams had missed dinner last night, and the two groups were mocking each other and blaming each other for having extended the fight so long.  Fae Lao was laughing and talking to his teammates, probably figuring out how they had been ambushed and cut down leaving so many for him to deal with.  Gai Yi waved and Fae Lao looked up, nodding a hi as Gai went to get his food.  Gai sat down across from him, eating his beef and vegetables with a relish.
“Hope I’m not interrupting any secret strategy meetings.”  Gai said, half apologizing.
“Doesn’t matter.  We won’t be playing your team again for a couple months.”  Fae said, a hint of relief in the words.
“Good.  Your team is the absolute most boring annoying enemy in the history of capture the flag.”  Gai Yi said.
“What do you know?  You were at least alive the whole time.  We had to just lie their dead, nobody remotely nearby, for four hours.”  Fae’s teammate complained, eating his own meal that seemed to have been slightly enlarged for the sake of those who had missed dinner.
“Above me.”  Gai Yi shook his head, disgusted.  “I saw three people drop and I still couldn’t figure out you were above me.”
Fae smiled. “If it helps I had no idea you were right beneath me.  I was sure you would try and shoot me with your bow when I landed from those bushes.  Scared the hell out of me.”
“I was too scared to move.  Everyone who moved was shot.  If those others hadn’t come along I would have just sat there forever.”  Gai Yi laughed.
“We’d probably still be out there.”  Fae agreed.  “I was pretty content where I was, nobody ever figured it out.”

“Gentleman, if we may have your attention.”  The officers assembled at the front announced.  “Most of us had to stay out in the rain all night, so we’ve decided not to have any drills but to stay here all warm and cozy instead, and to get some blasted sleep.”
The whole class cheered, standing up to applaud the decision.
“Instead you will break into groups under a shikijo and we’ll play Go.  It’s time you started learning the game anyway.  This will be your greatest weapon when you leave here.  I expect everyone to study this well and learn quickly.  Understood?”
“Yes sir.”  The children answered, excited and relieved.  Many played the game with their parents and were excited to match off with people their own age they could possibly beat.  Others were just happy they wouldn’t have to exercise in the cold wet mud.
“Go?  Our greatest weapon?”  Gai Yi asked the others, confused.
“You’ll see.”  A boy promised him.  “It’s everything to the nobility.  The only competition that matters.  Your dan is more important than your rank, it’s what we write our poems about and make all our references to.  It’s the game.”
“You just surround the enemy stones with yours on all sides, and that kills them.  Other than that you want to surround territory, make a moyo, and a point of territory is equal to a point for each stone killed.”  Another boy said.
Fae smiled.  “You’ll like it, Gai.  A genius at math like you should pick it up no problem.  It’s a game of patterns and possibilities.  It’s. . .a beautiful game.”
“I suppose you have a knack for it too?”  Gai asked Fae, sighing.
“No, I have a knack for the bow, the sword, the spear, horses, and all that.  When it comes to Go, I am a genius.”  Fae Lao grinned.
Gai Yi grinned back.  “Then you’re on.”
Chapter 14

A knock ran through the door, breaking Hei’s concentration.  His quill finished the character and stopped, orders being given to his Imperial spies on how to implicate the nobility in treason.
“Go away.”  Hei ordered.  “If I need anything I will call for you.”
“I will not go away.  Open the door, Hei.”  A voice from another life called to him.  Hei looked at the door in confusion.  Why was she here?  How could she have come here?  Hei looked at the parchment and opened his drawer, carefully putting it away with his other papers and then closing and locking it with a key he always carried on his person.  He stood up and looked out the window, leaves going brown and slowly dying, though there was no lack for water or heat even now.  Snow would already be clogging up the passes between Tang and Liu-Yang, except of course for the river that bound the two nations together.  Why was she here then?  Hei went to the door and opened it.
“Yue.”  He said, looking at a girl much taller and heavier than he remembered.  “I’d forgotten how old you were.”
Yue smiled.  “Thank you so much, Hei, it’s always good to be told how old I look, in case I should forget.”  She leaned forward and hugged him, loosely but not letting go.  He held her carefully, afraid to say anything.  When was the last time they had met?  I think when Lin was six years old and they brought his three cousins to play with, the eldest son, Fu Tsen Huang, their first daughter, Fimiko Lorelei Huang, and their second daughter, Ruriko Tai Huang.  The fourth hadn’t been born yet, the youngest sister, Hitomi Kazuke Huang. They had come to celebrate the fruitfulness of their marriages, and let the children know each other, for the day they would have to rule together, and for Fimiko to meet Lin, for the day they might be bound to one another.  There was no more promising marriage than another in the next generation which would bind Tang and Liu-Yang together for their time as well as their parents, and through love and custom, their children’s time as well, and then from habit their children’s children, and for all time, if it could be helped.
“I didn’t mean that.  It has only been, what. . .fourteen years since we were married beside one another. . .you are not yet thirty then.”  Hei blinked, surprised.  How could they still be so young and have lived through so much?
“And you are only 35, but apparently you have already gone senile.”  Yue pulled back from their embrace, glaring at him.  “We have heard nothing of you, they tell me you haven’t even read our letters, since the funeral.  Do you have any idea what’s going on?  Do you even know Tang is at war?  Or that I have had another son, rounding the grand total out to five, all of them healthy and doing well?  Do you want to know your nephew’s name, Hei?”  She had her fists on her hips.
“At war?”  Hei was surprised.  “With whom?”
“His name is Fan Lin Huang, Hei.  We named him in honor of your son.”  She said.  “If you hadn’t cut us off, you’d know that we mourned deeply for you, and care very much about you now.  I couldn’t come before because Pe was leading the army, and I had to run the kingdom while he was gone.  But now I’ve come as quickly as I could, and named my child that Pe left growing in me while he was away in your honor, and you didn’t once think of us.  Aren’t we supposed to be allies?  You didn’t even accept our messengers, come to exact your sworn aid.  What on earth have you been doing?”
“But at war with whom?”  Hei asked again, reeling.
“The southern barbarians, who else?  They are always attacking.  But this past year the plague has ravaged us and the barbarians smelt weakness.  They came in full force, some one hundred thousand men, women, and children, creeping out from their jungles to come live in our river valleys and seize all our wealth while they were at it.  We were desperate at first, we could only find twenty thousand healthy men to fight with on such short notice, but the Dao was not asleep.  Before we ever fought the barbarians they caught the plague and died en masse.  We harried the rest of them back across the border, where they quickly spread the plague to all their people.”  Yue laughed.  “I hope they choke on the karma they do not understand or believe in.  The Dao still rules those who do not know its rules, and the plague does not take sides.”
Hei sat down on his bed, wondering what to say.  “Your children, they are all healthy?  Pe was not wounded in the fighting?”
“No, Hei, all is well.  The plague and the war has been hard on us, but we are through it now.  Though the plague still comes back and kills more that it missed before, the worst is done. . .there are few left to kill.  And with the plague protecting our borders, we will be safe enough to wait it out, and plant everything anew once it’s finally burned itself out.  You have three nieces, two nephews, and a sister who loves you very much, if you would open your heart back to us you would know that you aren’t alone.”  She sat down beside him and touched his hand, tentative because she was broaching a dangerous subject.
“I can’t believe you came all on your own in this kind of weather.”  Hei said, stiffening at her touch like a man hunted.
“You made me.  I missed you too much and I was worried about you.  Would you rather have rotted alone in this tiny chamber for another fifty years?  Are you even ruling Liu-Yang anymore, locked in here and meeting no one?  What will become of our homeland at this rate?  It’s shameful, Hei.  What if father or mother were here to see this?  Did they raise you to abandon your people when they most need you?  Do you know there will be a terrible harvest this year?  Even if you have enough food for Liu-Yang, what about the rest of us?  What about all the other kingdoms that rely on your crops?  And where do you expect you will get the iron you need to make more plows and barrels and nails and all the rest, when you have no rice for Mae-Dong?  Do you expect we will give you all our tools out of charity, when from your mismanagement my people will starve?  Is this how my brother cares for me?  Was the marriage in vain because you no longer have any interest in what happens to me, my land, or my people?”
Hei looked at her, searching for words to say.  I don’t care anymore.  He wanted to say it, but he knew he couldn’t, because Yue would not accept that as an answer, or respect him any longer for even thinking it.  But he wasn’t going to lie and say that he did care.  Not when the facts flew directly in the face of such a claim.
“I’ve been busy.”  Hei finally said.
Yue looked at him, confused and angry.  “With what?  You have not done your duty to Tang, nor to Liu-Yang.  You speak with no one and do nothing.  What is so important that everything else has been thrown away and forgotten, including me?”
“I can’t tell you.”  Hei said.
“Why?”  Yue challenged.
“I can’t tell you why either.”  Hei said.
“That’s not good enough, Hei.  Too many people are dying because you are busy.  Too many of my own people are going to starve to death this winter because this fall’s harvest is half that of the harvest four years ago, and you have been too busy to do anything about it.  What will I say when I get back, and Pe asks me why you broke your alliance, even though disaster was averted?  Will I tell him, ‘sorry, he’s been busy, and it’s a secret what he’s busy about.’  Is that a good enough explanation?  Would you accept that explanation if Pe gave it to you?  Hei, if you break faith with Tang, and break faith with your own people by neglecting them, you will lose the mandate of heaven.  It cannot continue like this.  The people will begin to murmur.  Even though opening up the spice trade has enriched Liu-Yang, even though you saved them in the war of three kings, their memories are short, Hei.  They will forget that and only see that you are failing them now.  Even though we have ruled Liu-Yang for three generations now, they will forget and put someone else on the throne if they think you are no longer fit.  Don’t count on the people’s gratitude to let you just go do whatever you want while they suffer and die.”
“What can I do?”  Hei complained, anger rising in his voice.  “If I could have cured the plague, don’t you think I would have?  Don’t you, Yue?  The plague cannot be stopped, it kills my farmers and my town folk alike, it has taken away our industry and our agriculture, and then comes back for more just when we think it has passed.  I could as easily hold back the flood or cast the monsoon winds back into the sea as stop this world-eater.  This death-greed.  This all-devourer.  This is heaven’s doing, not mine.  The consequence shall be on its head then, not mine!”
“I know you can’t cure the plague.  But you could at least try to help people recover from it.”  Yue said.  “Of course you didn’t start the plague, but you’re the emperor, Hei, you’re still responsible.  Maybe. . .maybe because you weren’t raised to be emperor you never. . .understood how heavy that duty was.  Why father was always so strict and stern and unforgiving. . .don’t you see it was because he had to be, because that duty was so strict and stern and unforgiving to him?  Even though it’s not your fault, it’s still your responsibility.  We have to do what we can, Hei.  We have to go on living and do our best to make things right again.  Did you give up after the swamp, or the two rivers?  So why are you giving up now?  Why have you given up on the rest of us?  You sound like the plague has killed everyone and there’s no one left to care about.  Don’t you think there are a million people just like you, who have lost their parents, or their children, or their siblings, or all of them together?  Do you think just because Lin died you don’t have any obligations to anyone anymore, that you can just grieve forever?”
“I can do whatever I want.”  Hei said.
“That isn’t what the Hei I remember said.  The Hei I remember said, there was only one thing you could ever do, and that was the right thing.  That was the Hei I came to understand and follow, though it meant marrying the very King who invaded us and killed our father—was I a fool to do that then?  Was I wrong?  Should I have just done what I wanted instead?”  Yue challenged him.
“What do I care?  Do whatever you want.”  Hei snarled.  “I didn’t ask you to come here and I didn’t ask for your advice.”
Yue stared at him.  “Where is my brother I left behind?”  She asked, quietly.
“He’s dead.”  Hei said.  “You should go back home.  You have five children, you could even have more if you wanted.  You have a future, go enjoy it.  There is nothing left here for you.  Keep your children fed and warm and loved and teach them to be good and wise and strong, and then marry them off to good wise strong people like them and watch them have children and give them presents and keep them fed and warm and happy too and bless yourself for having so many people to love and be loved by, because there can be no greater happiness than that.  I have chosen my future, it is just death.  There is nothing left between us.  We cannot be further apart, we are opposites now.”
“But why does it have to be that way?”  Yue started to cry.  “Why do you have to turn your back on us?  If my future is happy, let me share it with you!  I have enough left over to give!”
“I would just end up killing you too.  Everything around me crumbles and dies.  You were lucky, you escaped and are far away.  Maybe the curse won’t find you.  My only future is death, it is my karma, I was born with it, there’s no helping it.  I am a poison that spreads through all the water in the well.  I am an adder.  God has decreed that whatever I love will die, so I refuse to love anymore.  I will not sacrifice yet another victim to God.  I will not give the Dao the satisfaction of rekindling my heart only so that it can extinguish it again.  I’m sick of it.  I’m not doing it anymore.  It hurts too much.  I’m done with all humanity and all good things.”
“But then what is left?”  Yue cried out in protest.
“Only death and more death.”  Hei said, clenching his fist.  “You should leave and not look back.  Your brother is dead, remember him fondly if you please, but he is just as dead as Rin.  It’s to you to live for all of us.  I’m done.”
“But that’s crazy.”  Yue said.  “It doesn’t have to be that way!”
Hei stood up, shaking at this last thread held out to him, shaking with the effort to not grab hold of it and start the cycle anew.  “If you won’t leave then I will.”  He rushed out the door and slammed it behind him.

Gai Yi and Fae Lao sat with their legs folded underneath them, staring at the board.  Most of the other games were over and the students had crowded around to watch this final match.  The shikijo watched silently while the others whispered and guessed where they would move next and who would win.
“How did it start?”  “Sanrensei.”  “How many turns so far?”  “48.”  “I’ve never seen a line like that.  Why did Fae let him claim the right so thoroughly, and on the fourth line?”  “Well he did stick in that little at the lower right.”  “still so much territory this early given over for practically free.”  “Fae isn’t afraid to let black get ahead, white has to make it up over the long haul, there’s no way white can stay with black early when they move first.”  “I don’t like it, that 11-15 stone disrupts Fae’s whole moyo, and that’s all he has, the rest he’s just running scared with.  He even lost the corner he started with.”  “Give him time.  Fae always pulls something.”
In fact that’s what Gai was worried about.  Looking at the board, he was winning everywhere, but looking at Fae, it was apparently all a part of his plan.  Gai Yi had tried to play as simply as possible, not getting caught up into Fae’s strange games and trying to play with as much flair and originality as he did.  He didn’t know how to play with new moves, but he did know that playing on the star points couldn’t go wrong.  The sanrensei had simplified the game first off, and his one point jumps and corner invasions all peacefully settled had simplified the game even more.  His territory was already pretty much defined now, the rest of the game would be about how much white could make from its thickness in the middle and the right side, and the moyo up top.  He had been pressing white across the whole center, both sides denying each other much of anything, both sides staying alive more than attacking each other, with either a bamboo joint or a diagonal extension or a potential extension into a tiger jaw, one way or another only individual stones were abandoned to be taken by their irrelevancy, the rest were safe.  Now he would have to begin an attack that denied white’s territory in white’s own framework.  It was like marching across neutral ground, across the frontier into enemy soil.  It may not be any harder defended or look any different, but the moment he crossed that line the entire atmosphere would change.  The game would go from the peaceful gift Fae had made of all his territory to a struggle over every point, as this was what Fae had relied upon and was building towards the whole game.  The true battle began here.  And he still had the initiative.  The gift of black, the power of sente.  Alright, start with a push from the already safe group.  Fae backtracked, trading threats, Gai took the outlying stone, Fae threatened it again, Gai filled in, then Fae connected his diagonal to protect against a fork.  It made a strong wall, but left another stone a stranded victim.  Defense was not about fanatically holding to the last man on the frontier, and it wasn’t about risking your entire army to save a single detachment or outlying fortress or threatened city.  Defense was about interior lines, advantageous terrain, the support of the people, retreating when you had to, counter-attacking when you could.
Gai had no time to kill a single stone, he shifted his attack to the white central thickness, expanding his lower right territory.  Fae retreated again, content to connect assuredly his lone outriders on the right side to his strong center.  The new strength Fae’s right side gained simply by being alive made Gai pause.  Those three men suddenly looked more menacing than before, and his completely wrapped up, unquestionably secure territory looked more like a leaky boat.  Gai extended his corner position, which both protected his corner and threatened to gut Fae’s newly gained right side.  A flurry of moves and Fae had attacked in a completely different direction, splitting Gai’s men in his unquestionably secure top right territory.  It was all Gai could do to save his men by marching them towards his center position since they could no longer connect to the top or bottom.  Gai had sente though.  It meant he could consolidate the bottom territory for sure this time, and threaten Fae’s right and top while strengthening his own now precarious top right corner.  Fae responded defensively until he saw his chance, and the stone hit the table with a wooden clack at 11-13.  If Gai’s 11-15 stone was cut off, Fae’s moyo would be crushingly enormous.  It was the stone neither had wished to place until their other men were secure, because once it was placed the battle would be too fierce to move anywhere else until the matter was settled.  And with insecure flanks surrounding a fierce battle quickly filled up with untouchable thickness, whole subordinate positions would have been swept away and killed just from being caught in the midst of the war zone.  The fight began, but then something unaccountable happened.  Fae moved again on the right side, threatening a single piece.  The theatre of war might, possibly, have an effect on the central fight, but far less than if he had moved directly in the zone, and there was no way that single stone was worth a turn to defend.  Gai looked at the move in bewilderment, gave it up for too deep for him to understand, and connected his outrider which could have been cut, creating a true dagger into the heart of Fae’s moyo.  A few turns later Fae had the chance to finally contain the attack, but instead attacked the top right corner.  If given another turn, the move declared, he wouldn’t have to connect his two forces up top, because he would create space for his men by killing Gai’s.  Gai looked at the move, and decided it was too dangerous to ignore, a flurry of stones, and then Fae had to admit it was time to connect. 
The outlook was grim.  Fae’s stones, though all alive, were now crawling along the edge when before they had laid claim to an enormous territory bigger than all of black’s combined.  There was one scary side, that, even though Gai’s line of stones was enormous, spanning all across the bottom left to the top and the right, it did not have any defined eyes yet.  That move which had made so little sense now took on a more sinister look.  It had denied him an eye.  Fae must have decided right then that defense was hopeless, and shifted to the subtlest, longest ranged attack that only now Gai saw.  Gai scanned the board, looking now for eyes.  He could make none on the right side, Fae’s move had taken it away.  There was none up top, if he moved to make one part of the eye, Fae would move to deny the other part, it was miai, a situation where two points were mutually exclusive and cancelled each other out, if someone went on one, the other went on the other, so neither bothered to make the move, when it would serve as a ko threat so long as it wasn’t used, and would be useless otherwise.  Gai looked south, the eye he already had was a false eye, he would have to use it to connect his two forces in the bottom left and top right.  Another move by Fae during the central fight had ensured that.  The bottom left itself could form an eye if he moved now.  But that was only one eye.  He needed two.  There was nowhere left.  Gai scanned the board in disbelief.  He would be the laughing stock of the entire class, this wasn’t just losing a close fight, or letting five or six stones get cut off and killed from some sloppy play.  This was the entire army.  This was forty stones or more.  This was somehow losing the entire board.  And all because 11-13 had been a diversion.  Fae had thought on an entirely different level from him.  Gai had been exploiting a breakdown in territory, denying points in a stingy victory of one stone at a time.  Fae had thrown that all out and determined on the destruction of the entire enemy army.  Fae had abandoned his territory not just in the beginning, not just in the middle, Fae had abandoned his territory in the endgame as well.  He had abandoned from the start the wish to hold any territory, all of it was superseded by the wish to cut, to attack, to isolate, to surround.  Fae didn’t want a close fight, he had decided either it would be a total victory and the smashing of Gai’s entire army, save for some scattered surviving outposts—or a total defeat and Fae not having any territory at all in the end.  And Gai had noticed only now.  And he had only one eye, if he moved there, and this dagger into Fae’s territory that was now contained would not reach much further.  If he moved to secure that eye, he was dead, because all potentialities would be eliminated because Fae would wall off the dagger for good, and there was no second eye.  So the dagger had to produce an eye.  Not only would it have to produce an eye, it would have to keep sente the whole time so at the end of it, he could move immediately to create the second eye.  In fact, if the formation of one eye was not also a threat to kill, he was going to lose.  Lose absolutely.
Most of the rest of the crowd did not see it.  They watched as Gai seemed to sweat and stare at a board which clearly showed him winning on all fronts, with Fae barely scrabbling for life and virtually no territory.  They saw his eyes race back and forth across the board with a panic that should instead have gloated over owning the left bottom corner, the right bottom side, the top right side, the top left corner. . .some wondered if he was actually teasing Fae with the prospect of the board.  Only the shikijo watched impassively.  Fae had his eyes staring at nowhere in particular in the board, afraid that if he looked at any one space Gai would see what he was seeing, his jaw bone tight against his skin due to his teeth locked together.  His face was pale with a deathly grim intensity.  The two together looked more like two desperate wrestlers locked and trying to throw each other, than two cross-legged students staring at a pretty pattern of black and white.  Gai now saw both eyes.  He could make either one, but not without losing sente.  One up top, one at bottom.  If he made one, Fae would take away the other.  A giant miai.  The god of all miais.  Then Gai looked at the L, the strong wall Fae had sacrificed a stone for that Gai had never bothered to take so long ago.  Gai saw a plan unfolding in his head.  If he moved one down, Fae had to move on the very edge, or see his two halves cut off and the side on the right would die before his entire center could be killed.  Then move one to the left, that would put two borders on the bottom containment stone.  If Fae moved diagonally to block off his stones, he would cut down, threaten the stone on three sides, and chase it if it moved to certain death.  Which meant he would have to extend his bottom stone to protect it.  Extend one and there was the threat of a diagonal extension which would cut off and isolate the L, so Fae would have to move there first to protect it.  If Fae connected the L directly, Gai could cut downwards and yet again isolate and destroy the right half.  Which meant Fae would have to connect with a tiger jaw, a poor man’s defense of both groups.  Next Gai would threaten to take as though he were going to make his eye, white of course would retreat, but instead of making his eye, and giving away his sente and the game, he would move one further up.  This would not make the eye, but it would threaten to take again, white would again connect.  Next he would move straight into the tiger’s jaw.  It would be taken, because it had to be taken, or else he would just connect the move and isolate and cut off the L.  After it was taken, though, it would have one less life, next he would finally make his eye, which, bordering the group continuously threatened, would make white fill in to save his men in response, thus preserving sente.  His next move would then be to make the second eye by simply taking in the lower left.  He could do it.  Gai checked, double checked, and moved.  Fae thought over each move furiously, just as Gai had, but every move was necessary and inevitable, the only correct moves were the ones that led to those two eyes, the other choice was always just being taken.
Fae finally had the chance to act instead of react, a turn too late.  Black had moved first and had always moved first since then, the initiative had carried through unchecked, he just couldn’t make up for it.  If he had been black, the game would have been entirely different, of course.  But he had been white, and he had desperately needed that one extra turn the whole game.  One last attempt to take the right corner by creating complications, but Gai formed a solid mei that left the situation beyond any ko fight’s reach.  A little cleanup, and then Fae counted up the points.  Though there were still some end game moves left.  The gap, even with komi, was around 50 white, 70 black.  There was no possible way to make it up.  Fae had lost.  Fae looked up from the board with a forced grin.  “Well, you got me.  I resign.”
The crowd released a collective sigh  Until that point they still thought maybe, somehow, Fae would do something.  He had an aura of invincibility, he’d beaten them all at Go, only the shikijos ever found fault in his moves, and even they respected him as an innovator who was changing the way of the game with a move here or there one further up or left or right or diagonally.   Fae Lao was someone even the masters were learning from, how could some peasant who’d never even seen the game before, who didn’t even know the name of it before coming—how could Gai Yi possibly win?  And yet he not only won, he won decisively.  He won by a huge margin.  And the start had been a simple sanrensei, or three star points.  16-16, 16-4, and 16-10.  And from there yet another star point at 10-4, with one step hops inbetween.  If a genius could not defeat moving on the points marked out on the board. . .how could white ever possibly win?  Some muttered about invincible sente, others about upstart commoners, and still others about Fae taking it easy on his friend.  A large group did cheer for Gai, but when Gai turned to see who they were, they were the other commoners.  All the noble sons looked like they had been chewing on something particularly disgusting and hard.  This was their game.  This was the essence of the difference between the enlightened nobility and the ignorant masses.  And their champion, the one who surpassed all the rest of the nobility. . .even though they all couldn’t stand him, he was one of them, and they had staked their pride as a class on his achievements as a member—for him to lose—what did that make them?  A fluke.  That’s all it could be.  Gai Yi moved on the star points.  Anyone could do that.  It’s not like he did anything smart the whole game.  He was just lucky.  Nobody could really beat Fae.  Maybe he had a headache or something.
The shikijo began to lecture them on their mistakes, but neither of them were really listening.  Fae Lao felt a black howling that practically deafened him.  And Gai Yi was too drunk with happiness to care.  To lose at Go of all games!  To beat him at Go of all games!  Fae shook his hand and congratulated Gai again, keeping his smile as best he could.  Gai Yi of course noticed the knot in his friend’s stomach, but he knew it would go away, while the excitement of the games they played together would continue and the challenge increase, making the entire game more enjoyable and  capable of propelling both of their skills forward.  Of course Fae would feel terrible now—having gambled and lost, the whole game would now look ridiculously stupid on his part, foreordained to destruction and total unequivocal defeat.  But he’d realize the advantages to losing tomorrow, and then it would be better than ever.
Fae stood up and bowed to his shikijo.  It was getting dark and it was time for bed.  Fae stumbled into his tent with eyes that saw nothing but the game, lines and connection points and pivotal turns and that last continuous threat trick that had destroyed him.  That he hadn’t seen how that dagger could create an eye through continuous threats now looked like colossal blindness, something any child could have seen, so much so that it made him want to rub his eyes and wonder if he just hadn’t seen the stones right.  Surely no amount of stupidity could account for an oversight that enormous.  How stupid was he?  Was he really that stupid?  Anyone could have seen that coming.  It was disgusting.  He was so furious with himself he wanted to break something, and it raged all the more because he couldn’t show any of it without seeming weak.  God damn it.  Why him?  Why always him?  Why is he always nipping at my heels?  Why is he always closing in?  Why is he improving faster than me?  Why did he have to beat me?  Anyone else, it would be a fluke.  But it wasn’t a fluke!  I tried my best and he saw further than I did and he beat me!  I couldn’t do anything more!  He’s improving quickly because he started so low, that’s understandable, of course that will slacken off, but why does it have to be my friend?  Capture the flag, scouting, fighting, the tests, the go games, he’s always the only one I have to beat.  He’s always the one standing in the way.  And what cruel joke is this—this insane chance meeting, that of all people he also wants to become Emperor!  That not just here, but my entire life, he will be the one standing in the way, chasing behind, or running right beside, he will be the one I must overcome!  Anyone else could be my rival, anyone else in the world I could be competing with for that one spot of greatness, and it has to be the first person I ever care about.  I’m such a fool.
Chapter 15

“Hu Ran Shea, you’re under arrest for treason against the Emperor.”  The marshal called at the mansion, the sun just peaking over the horizon.  Everywhere across Liu-Yang, similar detachments were arresting other nobility as the sun rose as well, secret police moving around in civilian dress, nobody had taken special notice of them.  The nobility would never have a chance to marshal its men or resist in each case, and with the nobility decapitated in a single stroke, there would be nobody left to protest the action.  It wasn’t like the serfs were going to assemble to save their lords.  They generally hated each other.
“Hu Ran Shea, I repeat, you’re under arrest.  Come out or we will be forced to come in.  If we come in we will summarily kill you all as belligerents.  You have two minutes to get dressed and collect whatever personal items you wish to bring with you to stand trial.”  The officer shouted at the top of his lungs.  He then began an internal count and waited patiently.  A battalion of fifty men backed him up.  Not the regular army, because that would have attracted too many eyes.  They were the new army.  Hei’s personal guard, that wore purple and black, and were sworn to silence and complete obedience to the Emperor alone.  Their weapon was a short sword, concealed underneath their ordinary brown cloaks along with the rest of their uniform.  The cloaks had been discarded once they had reached the mansion though.  Their secrecy had served its purpose, now it was their authority they had to show.  They had been recruited generally from the army or the police, offered a new job as elites with higher pay and honors.  Certain qualities were demanded of them and a communal oath and ceremony bound them to Hei Ming Jong for life.  They all had to belong to peasant sects that were fervently against the Dao and believed all their suffering was caused from improper respect and sacrifices being given to their gods, which instead went to this imposter.  Secret rituals that promised the overthrow of God and the new age of the true gods so long as they obeyed the Emperor unquestionably and said nothing gave them all a particular cut to their eyes, so that though they all looked different they seemed to blend into one another without any distinction.
Hu Ran Shea emerged from the house slightly before the two minutes had passed.  “What is the meaning of this?  Treason?  On what proof?  On what authority?  Don’t you know who I am?”
Five men ran forward and tackled Hu.  With a roar of outrage he tried to fight back, and the five gleefully began to kick and beat him into submission.  After thirty seconds or so he’d given up fighting, curled into a ball to protect his head, but the beating went on for another minute until all his body was blood and bruises, his clothes were torn, and his dignity was absolutely lost.  “Unfortunately, Hu Ran Shea, it is you who don’t know who you are.  You are nothing.  In fact, you are worse than nothing.  You are a parasite and a disease that has been sucking at the underside of our country for too long, and we have come to crush you.”  The officer let a smile of triumph reveal all his teeth.  “Fetch everyone inside, try not to kill any, but don’t let anyone escape and if anyone pulls any stunts like this man beat them.”  The battalion nodded.  Sub-commanders led squads of ten as they broke into different doors and sealed off room after room, collecting servants, cooks, stablemen, guards, maids, tutors, women and children and depositing them in the central ball room.  Fights broke out as men had seen what had happened to their lord and armed, but as it was all haphazard and individual, they were generally killed and their bleeding corpses deposited along with the other prisoners.  The officer watched with his own ten men, keeping account of the discipline and silence and making sure nobody was escaping to send any messages.
“Sir, all the rooms have been cleared.  We have three wounded and one killed, sir.”  A man with a slightly rumpled uniform reported, saluting fist to chest.
“Killed?”  The officer glared.  “That will go hard on you, Hu Ran Shea.  That will go very hard on you.  Killing one of us is equivalent to assaulting the Emperor.  You have just sealed your own death warrant with that cute little trick, Hu Ran Shea.”
The numbed, bloody mass in the dirt gave a whimper, a plea for mercy.
“I’m sure one of the prisoners is a family doctor, make sure he tends to the wounded.  Beat anyone who gives the slightest look of impertinence.  Staff sergeant!”
“Yes sir?”  One of the ten who had waited with the commanding officer stepped forward.
“Go quickly to the headman and inform him that henceforth he will be running these estates, and whatever foremen who help him are now promoted accordingly as well.  They have juridical authority and shall exact the taxes just as before.  They can do with Hu Ran Shea’s riches as they will.  Wait, on second thought, all portable wealth is to be distributed to the people evenly.  We will visit here again at an unknown date, in secret, and if we don’t find things running smoothly or one house without silk or gold, we will come for them just as we came for their former lord.  Understood?”
“Yes, sir, I will tell them exactly.”
“Good, sergeant.  We will be tending the wounded and loading the wagons until you have returned, so make it quick.”
“Yes sir.”  The man repeated and saluted, running to his horse and mounting in one swift motion.
The officer’s lip curled.  He had not meant for any of his men to die on such a simple and abrupt attack as this.  The higher ups might accuse him of incompetence.  On the other hand they would have to admit that it gave them greater leverage against Hu Ran Shea.  Maybe they would take that into account.  Well, no matter.  The objective had been accomplished and no word would be left for those remaining as to what had happened or where the noble household had gone.
As prisoners were escorted singly past Hu Ran Shea’s lump towards the wagons, their eyes widened and their skin blanched into a deathly pallor.  No one understood what was happening, or why this was being allowed.  Nobody could understand how a member of the nobility, the proud long Shea dynasty that went back all the way into the age of serving Tang, could be assaulted or struck.  It was like reality was unraveling around them.  They had all worked so hard to get employed into the relatively easy, clean, and rich life of the household, but now they all wished they had been anywhere else, doing anything else, rather than serving this bloody whimpering mass which had somehow gotten them arrested by these merciless silent eyeless men.  When Hu’s wife was led out she screamed and ran to her husband, crouching over him and spitting venom at the purple and black men.  One of the men stepped forward and backhanded her across the face, knocking her to the ground beside her husband.  Others laughed as Hu desperately crawled over his wife to shield her from any more blows.
“I’m afraid there will be no more of that for you, Hu Ran Shea.”  The officer laughed as men dragged him off her and apart.  “But I’m sure there will be more than enough of it for your wife, don’t worry, she won’t be neglected or forgotten.”
“Nooooo!”  The wife screamed again, in tears, terrified and bewildered that nobody civilized was left to protect her from the barbarians, that her name and honor had somehow vanished and she was being treated like some peasant or criminal or worse.  Hu Ran Shea bellowed again, furious.  “Not her.  She’s done nothing.  Nothing!  Don’t hurt her!  Please!  Take me!  But don’t hurt her!  Don’t hurt my children, they’ve done nothing!  Take me!  I’ll come willingly!  Only leave them!  Please!”
“I’m afraid you’re no longer in a position to bargain, Hu Ran Shea.”  The officer smiled and the rest of the men laughed. He made a sign with his eyes and the guard gleefully kicked the wife again in the stomach, knocking the air out of her screeched protests.  “You see, you’re nothing anymore.  You’re nothing to no one.  Nobody gives a damn what you want, and nobody will save you.  You belong to us now.”

The interrogator waved the piece of paper in Hu’s bloody, half lidded face.  “We have proof!  Proof!  You cannot deny it!  Admit it, you are a traitor!  You plotted to assassinate the Emperor and overthrow the state!  Admit it, traitor!  You plotted to surrender the country to the king of Ch’i in return for rewards and more land, didn’t you?  Aren’t these bribes from the King of Ch’i?”  The interrogator threw more paper at him.
“No. No.  It was just business.  I was trading spice. Spice!  I was being paid for the spice I sold upriver!  It was just business!”  Hu repeated, confused and pleading.
“When are you going to shut up about that?  Why would you be doing business when your lands automatically ensure your wealth forever?  What were you doing business for, hmm?  What are you, a merchant?  Are you Hu Ran Shea?  Are you?”
“Yes, yes I’m. . .but it was just business!”  Hu repeated.
The interrogator made a sign and two brutes detached from the wall and beat him for a couple minutes.  Then the interrogator made another sign and they stopped.  He poured a glass of water and helped Hu back into his chair.  “Now, kindly don’t lie to me twice in the same way.  If you’re going to lie, you must think up a new lie every time, or I will grow impatient.  Now, did you accept this money as payment for your treachery or not?”
Hu Ran Shea looked wildly at the interrogator, swallowing his own blood.  “It was. . .it was just. . .it was just. . .”
The interrogator arched his eyebrows, daring Hu to repeat himself again.
Hu Ran Shea stood up from his chair.  “By God, it was business!  Business!  I sold the spice and I was paid fairly like anyone else!  By God!  It was just business by God!  It’s not a lie!  It’s the truth!  It’s the truth God damn it!  Why won’t you believe me!  Why won’t anyone believe me!”
The interrogator sighed.  “Until you’re willing to cooperate with us, Hu Ran Shea, there’s nothing more I can do.  Guards, take him back to his cell.”  The guards moved in and grabbed Hu, all his energy draining from him as they dragged him away.
The next person in was one of the chamber maids.  “Now, we have proof here.”  The interrogator jabbed at a piece of paper which she couldn’t read.  “That your master conspired to assassinate the Emperor.  Is it or is it not true that you overheard this?”
“N-n-no.  No.  I didn’t hear anything about it.”  The girl stuttered, terrified.
“How is that possible?  Think about it.  You are around them all the time, you are always cleaning or taking away the filth or washing the clothes—how could you be nearby and never hear anyone say anything?”  The interrogator asked.
“I. . I don’t know. . .I just. . .I just live there.  They don’t tell me anything—“
“Oh, please.  Are you telling me that the servants of a household don’t know what their masters are doing?  Isn’t it the truth that all you gossip about is what fights your master and mistress have been in, or what disobedience their kids have been in, or any affair or anything they do, down to what they wear and where they go?  How is it that something so vital, so clear, so obvious as continuous guests and meetings with other nobility, discussions and urgent debates—how could all of this go unnoticed?  Isn’t this something that would most excite your curiosity?”
“We. . .we. . .of course we talked about them. . .but I didn’t hear anything like that.”  The girl said, now not sure of herself or her own ears.
“Oh?  You never heard anyone criticizing the Emperor or anything he did?”
“Well. . .of course. . .of course sometimes they would criticize the Emperor.”  The servant licked her lips, afraid she was confessing something.
“Like, for instance, his recent measure that banned funding to the Churches which have been parasites and fed off all our hard workers all these years, spreading their foul lies and causing the plague?”
“Well. . .I didn’t know. . .I don’t know.”  The girl quivered.
“Did they criticize the banning of the funds or not, girl?  It’s a simple question!  Are you stupid?  Are you some sort of idiot?  Do you understand our language?”
“Yes, it’s just. . .it’s just. . .well yes they thought it was too abrupt. . .and, they might have said it was. . .it was destabilizing and. . .and I don’t know.  They thought the Emperor had acted. . out of line and. . .against the interests of. . .of the ruling class—“  She desperately tried to remember or invent what she had heard.
“Ha! So you admit it!  Destabilizing, was it?  Or maybe they were saying something about destabilizing.  Perhaps you overheard them thinking of being out of line?  Of going against the ruler’s interests?  Are you sure that’s not what they were talking about?”  The interrogator pressed.
“I don’t know.  Maybe.  I didn’t stop to listen, I was just doing my job!”  The girl protested, crying.  “Please, let me go.  Please, you have to let me go.”
“So you heard them!  You heard them plotting against the Emperor, and you did nothing.  Is that what happened?  You heard that they planned on assassinating the Emperor and took bribes to help Ch’i invade and conquer Liu-Yang, and you did nothing.  Why is that?  Why didn’t you try to tell anyone?”
“I didn’t know!  I didn’t know they were planning that!  I only overheard a little!”
“But before you said you hadn’t overheard anything!”  The interrogator exclaimed.  “Which is it, girl?  Or perhaps you heard even more and you’re not telling us?”
“No, I didn’t overhear!  I mean, yes I did, but--!  I mean--!  I only overheard that little, and I didn’t know they wanted to kill the Emperor!”  The girl cried.  “Please, let me go.  I can’t stand it here.  I just want to go home.”
The interrogator smiled.  “She’s clearly an accomplice, confessed by her own mouth.  Take her back to the cell next to Hu and punish her as you see fit.”  The guards grinned and looked at each other, then at the crying bewildered girl.  “Make sure once you’re done that you explain to Hu Ran Shea that next time he doesn’t cooperate, it will be his wife in the next cell over.”  The guards grinned even more and saluted him.

“So, Hu Ran Shea, do you confess to plotting against the Emperor?”  The prosecutor asked.
“Yes. I. . .plotted to kill the Emperor.”  Hu said, woodenly, hollowly.
“And who did you plot with?”  The prosecutor asked.
“With. . .with Ren, with Tsu-Ning, with Hao, with Bai, with Lee, with Lu, with Zhang, with. . .with Liao. . .with. . .”  Hu forgot the other names, they floated in such a confused mess in his head, he couldn’t think of any others.
“What about Tsen-Shi?  What about Shu?  What about Kai?”  The prosecutor jumped, angry that Hu was failing.
“Yes, yes, them too.  I plotted with all of them.”  Hu agreed.  “We all plotted to assassinate the emperor.”
“And didn’t you all plan to betray Liu-Yang and while our armies were still unmarshalled, weren’t you going to use all your retainers to aid Ch’i in conquering Liu-Yang?  Isn’t this true?”
“Yes.  Yes it’s all true.  We. . .we were all paid by Ch’i to betray Liu-Yang.”
The court gasped, all the scribes writing furiously.
“May I present the judge with these documents that prove these noblemen have been in the pay of Ch’i for the past five years?”  The prosecutor grinned, taking the huge stack of papers and putting them on the desk.  “Will these files be kept for the official record?”
“Yes, granted.”  The judge said, looking at the first few pages to see the obvious transactions.
“Hu Ran Shea, if you would like to say anything in your defense, now is your opportunity.”  The judge said.
“I. . .I. . .I’m very sorry.”  Hu said, trying not to cry.
The prosecutor shook his head like a parent scolding a child.  “Though it is clear you have been honest and repentant, Hu Ran Shea, can you really expect forgiveness on an issue so grave as this?  As endangering all the people of Liu-Yang?”
“No, no, I. . .I deserve death.  I am nothing.  I’m a worm.  I don’t deserve forgiveness.  I am ready to die for my crimes.”  Hu Ran Shea said, tears going down his cheeks.  His wife and children danced in front of his eyes, their bright faces and laughter and happiness.  Anything to save them.  Anything to spare his wife and daughters from those men.  He just wanted to die.  He couldn’t stand living anymore, all the protests he had made had only ended up with his people and family being hurt, he couldn’t stand it any more.  He just wanted the whole thing to end.
“Well, judge, I believe this case is at an end.  Though of course all the nobles implicated must be dealt with as well.”
“Of course.”  The judge waved his hand.  “Hu Ran Shea, you are sentenced to death.  Bring in the next conspirator.”  The crowd applauded and cheered as Hu Ran Shea was roughly grabbed by the guards and taken out of the court back into the wagon that led him to prison.  In some dark corner of the prison his head was chopped off and his body was thrown into a furnace, to make sure nobody could bury him or show him any honor or memory.

Hei Ming Jong scratched off another name on his list.  “The wife and children?”
“Moved to another prison far away.  They will be moved again in two weeks and then killed, as instructed.”
“Good.  If the nobility got any hint that their confessions would not protect anyone, they would not confess.  Make certain their safety is paraded to all the other prisoners and they are seen to be ‘set free’ and are being ‘brought home.’”  Hei said.
“Yes sir.”  The purple and black uniformed man said automatically.  “If I may, sir, Shea was a close friend of Shen Lao.  Why haven’t you implicated him?”
“He is on our side, Jin Yu.  I promised to make his son a General.  Do not touch him.”  Hei said.
“Sorry, sire.  I shouldn’t have asked.”
“No matter, so long as it’s cleared up.  There will be no touching the Fu family either, is that understood?”
“Yes sire.  All of them have been protected, even their sub-branches.”
“And the Pao’s and the Shi’s.”  Hei asked.
“Yes, sire, they are immune.  Everyone on the list is safe, sire.”
“Good.  If any of them are harmed, your men will suffer whatever they suffer ten times over.  Understood?”
“Yes sire.  They will be protected.”
Hei nodded.  “Very well then, dismissed.  I believe your men have done well so far, Jin.  Keep up the good work, we still have much to do.”
Jin Yu saluted, fist to chest, and left.  Hei looked out the window, watching the birds fly across the clouds.  As he had expected, the nobility had been too weak and afraid to do anything.  And the populace had been convinced of the nobility’s guilt, especially since they held no love for them in the first place.  Everything had gone smoothly for the first stage.  Once the followers of the Dao were disarmed, the rest would be relatively easy.  Of course, he would pause for a while, to let the populace’s fears dwindle and the event appear isolated.  But he could wait.  He had all the time he needed.  The other benefit to replacing the scribes bit by bit, throwing out the church, and massacring the nobility, was that every day it left him with more and more power and control over all of Liu-Yang.  Waiting all on its own was effective.  The Empire was becoming absolutely his, the new guard swelling in numbers sufficient to oppose even the military, so long as it remained scattered and unstirred.  Too much of the army was still nobility, but there was little he could do about that, not until the next war.  Then he would order them all into hopeless situations and they would be removed from the problem.  He almost hoped Ch’i would try and take advantage of the civil tumult.  He could use their swords even more easily than his own.  Nobody could blame him then.
Chapter 16

The king of Pi listened to the flutes and strings of musicians from behind the screens, the rice paper itself the work of all the most skilled painters, depicting birds in flight, reeds in the wind, the moon rising over a lake, flowers and trees growing outward from precarious mountainous perches.  There were no pictures of humans, as humans were a mix of beautiful and ugly, where these things were absolutely pure, whole, and perfect.  There were certain screens full of artist’s fancy, though, fireflies that, when looked at closely, were in fact faeries.  Trees which, if looked at from far away, became dragons.  Attempts to capture the invisible beauty and wonder of the world, which only the imagination and not sensation could describe.  He drank casually from his cup of wine, the finest flower printed porcelain from Weh, and looked gloomily into a distance beyond his mansion’s walls.
“I find this sitting troublesome, let us take a walk in the garden.”  Pi finally decided, putting his cup down.  Incense and perfumes wafted through the halls, different according to the whim of the hour, and moving so as not to permeate and choke the hall, just enough to make sure that all the smells, along with all the sights and sounds, were pleasant rather than unpleasant.
“Of course.”  The king of Ch’i bowed and the two left the hall.  The bright sun lessened the chill of the coming winter, but the two pulled their cloaks tightly around them and fell into step.
“Gardens at this time of year are the most pleasing to me.”  Pi commented.  “These are the survivors, as it were.  To bloom in the snow, it is a pleasing image to me.  A beautiful irony. . .a sort of poem, even, written by God and not men.”
“The flowers are indeed perfect in their own small fragile way.”  Ch’i agreed.
“It is not in spite of that, but due to it, that I admire them so.”  Pi said, the two walking together looking at one sight or another as they passed.  “That these flowers have found a way to carve out their happiness, with so much less to work with than their cousins of spring and summer, there is a nobility to it.  Are these not truly the sages of flower-kind?  The flowers that have learned to say ‘enough’ and treat superfluity as no different from excess?  Men never learn these listens well enough, they are always wishing for more when neither more nor less could ever please them, because happiness is a state of being, not an object to be lost or found.”
“And yet some would say your court is the most excessive in all the Middle Kingdom.”  Ch’i mentioned.
“Then they are ignorant.”  Pi shrugged.  “What is Ch’i save Daoyan, and what is Daoyan save its library, and what is its library save its excellence in wisdom and wise men?  I do not mean this as an insult, but as praise.  Who can argue that Ch’i are the wisest and most learned in all the world?  All others must be mere moons to your sun, reflecting your light to adorn ourselves with, for lack of our own.  What, then, is Pi, but this?  The enjoyment of life?”  Pi gestured.  “We make and sell rice, that is how we live.  But what of it?  Why live?  The kings of Pi have been given power and wealth, all this extra rice our great river has given us.  Liu-Yang has used it to have more babies and to feed them and farm yet more rice so they can have more babies and so on.  We chose instead to transform rice into art, and through art to transform. . .men into seeing men.  Our blood, it is not like Liu-Yang’s, which is surely made of mud, or your own, if you will forgive me, which is made of ice.  The lifeblood of Pi, the heartstrings that bind our nation together, surely it runs with quicksilver.  We are a light-footed people, always looking up instead of down, ready to put on cloaks of feathers and fly away like the birds.  Do you know what is beautiful about herons wading through the rushes?”
“What would that be?”  Ch’i asked.
“That they are wading only because they wish to be, because they are enjoying the water.  At any moment they could rejoin the sky.  It’s their transcendent power we admire.  We like to imagine our souls in such a graceful, fleeting state, ready to take flight from the body at the slightest whim, to rejoin the all-soul above, the soul of souls.  The Dao.  The one.”
“There is beauty in that.”  Ch’i agreed.
“Others look at Pi and they see waste, sumptuousness, effeminacy, foolishness.  It is said that our men put our women to shame, for we outdo their flighty love of frivolity with the passionate and steady devotion to it that only men can feel.  But is a flower so trivial, really?  When one truly thinks of a flower, there are so many beautiful truths, carrying the very deepest meanings and secrets, that its form exhausts our wisdom before our wisdom ever manages to exhaust it.  For truly, has anyone described the nature of a flower, its ways and causes—are we not still wholly ignorant of it?  And in our ignorance we dismiss it, for we never stayed to hear its story, to know whether it was an epic or a tawdry limerick.  If I knew the heart of the flower, I would know the heart of the entire universe, for every part contains the whole, and the whole inspires and quickens all its parts.  Such is the value of a single flower, it is infinite, sacred, divine.  Its petals are the principles of existence.  Is all creation not wonderful enough, that we must pick and choose only certain parts as worthwhile, and discard the rest?  Are our souls truly such misers and curmudgeons as to condemn nine tenths of the universe and praise only what is left?  Is there anything truly trivial or unimportant, not deserving of our love?  For just think, people find someone here or there, and for their beauty and kindness and tenderness, or their strength and devotion and integrity, they fall in love and think, ‘here is someone more important to me than life, the universe, and everything.  With this I stand or fall, having found it, I cannot bear to lose it, we shall never part again.’  But just think, for this one person, this other person is worth so much, how can its worth be weighed?  It is worth as much as the heart can bear, as much as the mind can hold, its worth is a sunburst that fills the heart beyond all measure, a cup that runneth over and fills their whole lives with light and joy, though it should lack all else.  But some stranger, looking upon the beloved, might think her ugly and dull, or him stupid and clumsy, and pass over him without further thought.  What is trivial, then?  The person, or the judgment?  Surely all values are valuable to someone and for something, they cannot be detached from a valuer and still be valuable.  Nothing is illusory or trivial, so long as someone should love it.  That is the wonder of the seeing man, we can rain value upon every rock and creeping thing, like water from the heavens, or even sunlight.  We can bathe the whole world in value and like our myths, transform ducks into swans and swans into raven-haired, snow-skinned maidens.  We were born alone and helpless in this vast cruel world that we never chose—what, then, shall we make of it?  I believe we should bless it, and shower blessings upon it, all that we are capable of.  That is how we of Pi see things.  So long as, somewhere, farwhen, a flute plays a song, suffering has not defined us.  We have found something higher.”
“I have heard you out.”  Ch’i said, still calmly and affably.  “But have you any answer to my request?”
Pi shrugged, giving it up.  “There was an answer in what I’ve said, but I will agree that it was not very clear.  In short, I will not war with Liu-Yang.  They have done Pi no harm, and we can gain nothing from them.  A fish should as well declare war on a bird, begrudging the ownership of the sky.  What have we to do with Liu-Yang?  I find the whole matter disagreeable.  Fourteen years ago, when my father was killed and his army scattered, we were betrayed by everyone, Tang, Ch’i, and at last even the peasants who promised us refuge.  But before all that, didn’t my father betray himself?  By renouncing peace, harmony, trust, fellowship, honor--for the sake of, literally, mud?  I find a soothing irony in that.  The beauty of genuinely killing and dying for mud, and killing one’s soul long before you killed another’s body, only for mud is such a death suitable.  It is a pleasing image.  It still makes me laugh sometimes, or at least smile to myself.”
“You are rather peculiar.  You enjoy your father’s death, rather than seek vengeance?”  Ch’i asked.
“My father killed himself, the day he renounced his humanity.”  Pi shrugged.  “Who should I avenge myself upon then?  And isn’t vengeance such a petty wish, in the end?  Compared to eternity, does anyone really care if someone dies sooner or later?  Are we not all reborn in due time anyway?  Shall we avenge ourselves on our enemies life after life, and, frustrated and exhausted, crushing the serpent’s head over and over, at last realize that souls are immortal and we shall eventually have to live with each other, as we are all part of the same all-life and all-being—or shall we skip over all that and love our enemies to begin with?  Like water I believe it is easier to flow downhill.  To struggle against God like salmons rushing up-stream, there is a noble savagery to it—but at last we must surrender and flow towards the ocean, the receiver of all streams and the essence of all souls.  There alone is the repose of happiness, the end of struggles for the lack of anything to struggle for or against, having all we could wish for, and in such a way that nothing can take it away—therefore in our strength we can forgive our enemies, and love those that hate us, for what do we have to fear from them?  Shall a soul fear its shadow?  What then of this world of illusion and doubt, can anything that happens here harm a soul?  Then what shall I avenge myself upon, if naught is left to harm me?  I predict if you go to war, you will only lose it, after much suffering, and it will be worse for you than it was before.  But what of that, say you win, say you conquer the whole Middle Kingdom, the whole world—what, shall you be any better off than before?  Are you not rich enough to enjoy whatever you wish already?  Is a garden of winter blossoms not sufficient?”
“Liu-Yang must be stopped or it shall swallow us all.  It has become unstable and afflicted, divided and fearful, this may be our only opportunity, weaker neighbors as we are, to slay this great serpent.  Looking back to this time, when their Empire overshadows all of us, will you not curse the chance to save yourself, willingly abandoned?  Will your people not curse you for their unnecessary doom?  This is likely to be our last, best chance.  In absolute terms, every year we are losing and they are winning.  Their wealth and population grows, as ours grows more slowly or does not grow at all—every year we wait it goes harder on us.  And if we do not fight at their ebb, they shall fight us at their tide, and we shall be at our ebb, and they shall crash down upon us like a flood and sweep all our borders and peoples away.  You say they have done nothing to us—don’t you understand that once they have acted, it will be too late to do anything about it?  Is it of any consolation to a dead man, that the murderer may yet be caught?  What of it?  The ghost will say:  Am I not still dead?  Karma has given us a chance to strike, and you speak of herons wading through reeds.  Am I truly here?  Is this conversation truly happening?  Surely one of us is dreaming, because our realities cannot both be real.  I see a ravenous beast, a gathering storm, and you see—herons?  Flutes?  Fireflies?  Flowers?  I have tried to keep my peace, but—you amaze me!  You, who will be the first victim of Liu-Yang, you are the least afraid?  Do you not see that Hei Ming Jong, right now, is seizing absolute power over his country, mobilizing his armies and accusing us of malingering to start a war—can’t you see where all this is heading?  Ally now, or it will be too late for us.”
“But aren’t you planning to start a war?”  Pi asked, smiling at the irony.
“Yes, but only because he has unjustly accused me and threatened me with it first.”  Ch’i gritted his teeth.  “He has taken all the wealth from his churches, the churches of the very faith you follow—and given it all over to create another army.  Does this not mean anything to you?  Can there be any more dramatic sign than this, that he has no further thought for herons or flowers, and every thought of fire and blood?  Are you truly so blind?”
“Hei Ming Jong must decide for himself what is worth thinking about.  I have decided for my people, that we must outlast this great death, not join into it.  It began, so it must end eventually.”  Pi said.
“Will you at least let the men of Weh march through your lands then?”  Ch’i beseeched.
“How did you convince them?”  Pi asked, surprised.  “They don’t even border Liu-Yang.”
“They were convinced the military build-up is aimed at them because of their habit of piracy.  They know they’re a thorn in Liu-Yang’s side and they can’t think of anyone else Liu-Yang would be arming themselves against.  Who knows, they  may be right.  For me, I believe it is aimed at Pi and Ch’i.  First they weaken us with the plague, knowing full well that any trading of casualties is in their favor, and now they mobilize and accuse us of conspiracies to give them an excuse for war.  Perhaps Liu-Yang wouldn’t mind taking down Weh while they are at it, but certainly the dagger is pointed at our hearts.  Again I ask you to reconsider.”
“As for Weh, if they’re pirates, they’re sailors.  Let them ravage the coasts, they have no need of me to reach Liu-Yang.”  Pi shrugged.  “As for reconsidering, my apologies, though of course I wish you all the best of luck.  But I am catching a chill, I think it is a time to go back indoors.  Surely you will wait until spring for this weather to break?”  Pi asked.
“And for summer for the wretched spring rains to cease.”  Ch’i sighed.  “Think on it, perhaps you will change your mind by then.  I will be waiting.”
“Of course.”  Pi nodded politely.  The two turned back towards the fire-warmed palace, with the perfect courtesy all the nobility gave equally to their best friends and deepest foes.  It was an art so ingrained as to be their nature.  They could have more easily stabbed each other in the back, as say one cross word.  It was one thing to be vicious, quite another to be rude.

“I just heard there was another sweep, is your family okay?”  Gai Yi asked, taking his place by Fae as he sat playing another boy at Go.  The boy looked at Gai with annoyance at the interruption.  One simply didn’t speak during a Go game.  Oh well.  Ful Lei Shu shrugged inside himself.  Gai was a commoner, he couldn’t be expected to have any courtesy.  It had been two years since the fight that had begun Gai and Fae’s careers as candidates had made enemies of everyone else, but gradually the two had earned more respect than hostility, and as leaders of their respective squads, more friends than enemies after all.  Fae looked at the board carefully, as though to memorize the situation, then looked up.
“It’s okay.  Of course my father is safe, we aren’t traitors.  My father is a loyal and valuable servant of Hei Ming Jong, nobody can dispute that.”  Fae said.
“You say that, but my father is completely innocent too, and they took him away.”  Ful scowled.  “I’m sure it’s a misunderstanding, his name will be cleared, but I don’t like it.  We have rights, we can’t just be trampled over like this.  If there was a conspiracy, then very well, root out the conspiracy, but does he think to root out all the nobility along with it?  Hasn’t the Emperor been favoring the peasants and the merchants over the nobility all this time?  I think he hates us and he’s just using this as an excuse.”
“You’d better be careful.  You might get your father in trouble, talking like that.”  Gai Yi warned.  “But it’s true.  I can’t believe this many people can be guilty, even if they have confessed.  It just doesn’t add up.”
“Maybe the Emperor is being careful, arresting everyone to forestall whatever plans they had, and then he’ll release those who are cleared.”  Fae said.
“But that’s presuming guilt instead of innocence.”  The boy complained.
“He’s the Emperor, he can do whatever he wants.”  Fae shrugged.  “I’m sorry about your father, just as I’m glad about my father, but in the end, it comes down to power.  Hei Ming Jong has it and we don’t, so it doesn’t much matter what we think.”
“Hei Ming Jong has always been a just Emperor.”  Gai Yi said.  “He saved us fourteen years ago against all odds.  Perhaps he’s been deceived.  The scribes might be jealous of the nobility’s influence and spread rumors—“
“Do you really think Hei Ming Jong could be manipulated like that?”  Fae asked derisively.  “Since the emperor’s son died, he’s been disbanding one class after the other.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the scribes were next.”
“But what for?  Why?  What did we do to him?”  Ful complained.  “Who wasn’t sorry the heir died?  Didn’t the whole nation don white in mourning?”
“I don’t know why.  It doesn’t make any sense.  If you tear down your supports how do you expect to hold up the roof?  Doesn’t he know that all these institutions were designed to empower him, to extend the influence of his wishes to the rest of the country?  It’s not like he gains anything by destroying all his allies.  He’s just inviting disaster.  Either invasion from the vultures without, or a rebellion from the dispossessed who wield respect even when fortune deserts them.”  Fae Lao said.
“All of you, be silent.”  Pang Lei said, walking up.  “There’s no way to know, but don’t you think even this camp could have imperial spies listening in?  Every word you say could be construed to mean anything.  Don’t give them fuel for suspicion, not right now when everyone’s suspicions are blazing out of control.  Don’t you understand the gravity of the situation?  Ful Lei Shu, come with me.  Just so you know, Fae, your family is still well and out of suspicion, so please keep them that way.”
Ful got up shakily, leaving the two friends to hear news that the officer had refused to say in front of others.  Gai and Fae watched silently, somberly, as the news was imparted.  “It’s not true!  My father’s innocent!”  Ful shouted.  Something too quiet to be heard, then.  “It’s not true!”  And Ful ran for his tent, leaving the officer standing silent and troubled.
A moment later Ful emerged with his sword and a sack.  Fae and Gai jumped up, but their master was even quicker.  “Hold it!  What do you think you’re doing?”
“He killed my father!  Fine!  Then kill me too!  Kill me!  I won’t run and hide!  If he’s brave enough to kill my father, let’s see if he’ll kill me too!  He can kill a full grown innocent man, so let’s see if he’ll kill an innocent child too!  I’m not going to abandon my father!  Either I’ll kill the Emperor or he’ll kill me, either way my father won’t die alone!”
“Listen to yourself!”  Pang Lei had a firm hold on him, as much as the boy struggled.  “What do you think you can do?  Kill the Emperor, are you crazy?  You’ll never get within sight of him!  You fool!  What good is there in dying?”
“I don’t care!  I have to try!  It doesn’t matter what happens, I will not sanction this.  I refuse to live in this world!  If I go on living, I permit it!  Is there any honor in that?  What do you know of honor, you’re just a commoner, but we know!  Tell him, Fae, tell him that living in disgrace is worse than death!”
Fae looked at the boy, weighing the matter carefully.  “Live, and I promise you, you will have the chance to vindicate your family.  If it were my father, I would await the opportunity to change the world, not run away from it.”
“Easy for you to say!  It wasn’t your father!  You always get all the shortcuts, it’s always easy for you!  The Emperor protects you!”  Ful shouted, ripping his way from Pang to confront his new opponent.
Fae Lao looked him in the eye.  “Ful Lei Shu, I respect you and your feelings.  Live, and await your chance.  I promise your day will come, on my word of honor.  If you know me, you know I do not lie or speak idly.”  Fae’s eyes locked onto Ful’s with absolute intensity.
Ful Lei Shu looked at Fae, trembling.  “A coward could hide behind the same words.”
“But your actions will prove which motivation was true.”  Fae Lao said.  And Ful, reassured, dropped his bag of clothes and cried.
Chapter 17

Ma Sen stared at the orders in confusion.  “Hei can’t be serious.  I understand we need to fix the position of the Ch’i forces, but the cavalry this far ahead can’t possibly be relieved.  The vanguard will just become its own smaller force.  Even if the cavalry can get away, they’ll just be somewhere out there, supplies and communications cut, having to act for their own survival and we won’t be able to use them until well after the battle’s over.”
Mao Cai looked at the orders beside him.  “It doesn’t give any reason, does it?  I suppose it’s part of some larger plan we aren’t aware of.”
“But we’re the generals.  Why shouldn’t we know everything?”  Ma Sen said.
“I don’t know.  Maybe he was afraid the explanation would be intercepted and so said as little as possible.”  Mao Cai offered  “Ch’i is known for its excellent spies.”
“I can’t in good conscious follow an order that would just split our army for no reason and likely endanger it.  Perhaps Hei Ming Jong isn’t aware of the situation when he gave the order.  I’m afraid I never received this order, it must have gotten lost somewhere.”  Ma Sen said, picking up the orders and putting them into his candle’s flame.  He held it until the flame almost reached his fingers then dropped it in his waste basket.
Mao Cai watched silently, then nodded.  “Perhaps it’s for the best.  What about these orders then?”  Mao Cai dropped them on the table.  Five new dispatches from the Emperor telling where to seek battle, detaching divisions and sending them hither and thither, giving orders for how to coordinate with the fortress guards, which cities had to be protected at all costs, when they could expect militia reinforcements, and where their supply depots would be formed and what prearranged supplies had been bought from wholesalers and contractors who would deliver it to the army wherever they set up a semi-permanent line.
Ma Sen looked through them, nodding.  “All of this is reasonable.  Except here again the cavalry is sent sweeping far into the west, leaving us helpless.  Of course it would be nice to plunge into their rear and disrupt their lines of communication, but using the whole cavalry on such a. . .tertiary field of combat?  The cavalry wandering around raising havoc has a minimal impact compared to more men at the ready to send into the actual battle.  I need all my men, I don’t have the luxury of throwing them around like this.”
“The Emperor may get suspicious if no cavalry are sent ahead.”  Mao Cai said.  “The nobility are not in the best of repute, especially when dealing with Ch’i, right now.  He could easily arrest us too for this.”
“I pledged to die defending our country, even if it’s being executed for not following up stupid orders.  How about you?”  Ma Sen asked.
“I suppose victory is the best defense against all charges.”  Mao agreed.  “All right then, until Hei Ming Jong comes out here to fight this war himself, he’s just going to have to realize that lots of messages get intercepted and lost.”  Mao picked up the offending order and set it afire, tossing it in the waste basket with its neighbor.

Hei Ming Jong looked at the letter with a sigh.  “Unfortunately no alliance can be considered between us, given the lack of support during the southern barbarian invasions.  We are still busy with said southern barbarians, and wish you good fortune in your own war, whose origins are still so murky and unclear, centered around such conspiracy threats and counter threats, that we cannot even know who is responsible for the escalation, and thus whether the war is offensive or defensive.  If said aggressors attack our river holdings, we will of course declare war on them, but until such time we cannot say they have wronged us in any way.  Your treatment of Yue made clear that all personal ties between our kingdoms are a thing of the past, and that you should be considered ‘already dead.’  In that case clearly a treaty signed with a dead person is no longer binding, even supposing you hadn’t first violated it.  In any case, Yue is very perturbed by the crackdown on the nobility and hopes all justice is being done to her countrymen.  She sends her regards and prays for the day when Liu-Yang recovers from plague, famine, civil unrest and war, to the land of peace and plenty her childhood recalls.  She prays for your soul to return to the peace and happiness it once had and she remembers as well.  I will not comment on my evaluation of the chances of either of these things coming true.  You have my regards as the husband of your sister.
--Pe Su Huang.

Jin Yu stood waiting for Hei to finish the letter, but once Hei had put it down, he saluted and cleared his throat.  Hei almost always stayed in his study rather than the courts.  He rarely dealt with scribes or anyone else deserving pomp and ceremony, so the move had only been natural.  “Sire, the cavalry was not detached.  The army joined battle preventing any crossings of the Liu river.  They say the situation is stable and that reinforcements should be brought up at the earliest possible moment so that Ch’i can be rebuffed.  The cavalry served as a rapid reaction force to subsidiary crossings while artillery knocked apart any bridges that were attempted to be laid.  The wideness of the river is such that no large army is expected to be able to cross at all, now that their position has been found and is constantly monitored by our imperial spies and their forward pickets.”
Hei Ming Jong drummed his fingers on his desk, a thundercloud over his head.  So long as the cavalry was safe the nobility still had a vast armed force to face him with.  “They knowingly defied my orders?”
“It is not yet proven, but it can only be assumed, sire.”  Jin Yu said.
“Very strange.”  Hei Ming Jong said to himself.  His thumb played back and forth over his beard as he mused over what to do next.  Public trial?  Assassination?  They would remove the generals, but not the cavalry.  The cavalry was the real problem, not the generals.  If the generals would not divide their forces, the only way to get rid of the cavalry was to commit them into a forceful battle.  But at this point he wasn’t sure whether his generals would follow any orders they didn’t agree with.
“Jin Yu, take this seal.”  Hei Ming Jong handed over the emblem that denoted messages from the Emperor himself.  “You will go with one hundred imperial guard, and deliver new orders, which I’ll also have in writing.  The next major push Ch’i mounts across the Liu river, his forces are instructed to allow the forces to cross, then attack them in full force, pushing them back against the river.  The cavalry will be sent on a wide circuit across the river in a counter-pincer, which will cut off the route back which they took to cross the river, and hold off any reinforcements from the rest of Chi’s forces.  Once the army across the river is annihilated, the cavalry will be allowed to withdraw as they see fit.  You will read out these orders in front of all the officers and men.  If the generals refuse, you will have them arrested, and appoint new officers until ones are found who will follow my command, understood?”
“Yes sire.  I will go immediately.”  Jin Yu saluted.
“Stay safe.  We still have much work to do.”
“Yes sire.”  It was a good plan, a nasty plan.  It promised success but only at the sacrifice of the cavalry, who would have to hold off the majority of the enemy army while on the other side of the river, the enemy army was attacked by the majority of the allied forces.  It was a sort of miai: if you take here, I take there, and the two would cancel each other out.  If an outright sacrifice was refused, a trade might still be considered.  In any event it better masked Hei’s true intentions.  The Emperor was as astute as ever.
“Oh, and Jin.”  The Emperor recalled him.
“Yes sire?”  Jin Yu turned back around.
“Be sure that in the confusion of the battle, both generals are tragically killed by Ch’i assassins, snipers, or what have you.”
“Yes sire.”  Jin Yu saluted again.  The hundred men would have to be hand picked.

Zhou Min Rok, the king of Ch’i, fiddled with his brush, determined both to express his letter well and beautifully back to his wife.
“It is only natural for women to want peace and security above all other considerations, because only in peace and security are women protected against barbarisms such as rape, kidnapping, plunder, even slavery.  War is a time of chaos, and in chaos all is permitted, therefore war puts women most at risk, who most need stability, both to bear and rear children, a task that requires practically a stable lifetime.  For this your worries and doubts are perfectly natural, and I sympathize with them, but I ask you to consider a more complete analysis which I had to consider as the protector of not only our people now, but for Chi’s future as well.
“The essence of karma is balance, for every this, a that, that which goes out eventually returns unto itself, so that harmony and symmetry are eternal.  Without karma, without balance, everything would descend into chaos.  Just suppose that the hotter an object became, the more heat it absorbed from everything around it, in an ever mounting cycle—shortly this one object would include all the heat in the universe, and everything else would be absolutely cold.  Clearly this would mean the destruction of everything, nothing could be expected to exist in the midst of such a boiling cauldron of heat, or in such a lifeless frozen wasteland of cold.  Happily, nature has imposed just the opposite rule, that whenever one thing becomes hotter than another, it will naturally diffuse its heat upon all its surroundings, until everything is the same temperature again.  This is karma, which is blessed, because it enforces the symmetry and harmony of the Dao, which is the preserver and maintainer of the universe.  If the Dao ever removed itself, if its principles were ever neglected, if the will of the Dao ever changed, if karma lost its power—the universe would perish and all life along with it.  For this we love God, and consider anything that is karma, is Good, and that the will of God is absolutely Good, such that man’s sole goodness is his alignment with God.  Man is a moon who is full and bright when he participates in the glory of God, and when a new moon, divorced from God, dwells in total darkness.  It may be strange to be repeating this, when of course we all understand the perfection of the Dao, but I felt it necessary to bring a fresh image to the mind of the necessity of balance as the most important principle of God.
“It has been the role of the King of Ch’i ever since the end of the Tang dynasty to preserve a balance of power between all the kingdoms, because we understood that Ch’i as the center of the Middle Kingdom, which was itself the center of the world, as the seat of the sutras and the wisdom of all the ancients, had a divine mandate to be like the Dao to man.  Our wars and conspiracies and negotiations and treaties and alliances, they have always been for the sake of balance, for the sake of karma.  Without which clearly, long before, a new dynasty would have emerged and conquered our seven kingdoms, and stamped Ch’i out along with all the others.
“There is an ugly truth about karma, however, which most others have attempted to ignore, though it faces them daily across all Nature: life is a zero sum game.  Nothing can be created or destroyed, it can only change forms.  Due to this, for one life to be created, another must be destroyed.  For the predator to survive, it must chase down and devour its prey.  But are the prey innocent?  For the prey to live, they must devour the plants.  But are even the plants innocent?  Their roots battle over the nutrients below, and their trunks conspire to grow higher and further so that all the sunlight is reserved for them, and the other plants must choke to death in the shade of their competitors.  The vines’ good is the tree’s evil, the mosquitoes feed on our blood, and everywhere we look, there is a struggle for life, a war of all against all.  Balance requires this, it is the eternal principle that preserves the universe, but at the same time, it makes us, as reasoning beings, cringe from ourselves and hide from the truth that we live at the expense of others.  Man is omnivorous, its appetite is phenomenal, all the ocean and all the earth is our prey, we devour the whole world—and yet even this is not enough.  Our desires are so unlimited, so uninhibited, that only cannibalism can hope to satisfy us.  It is sad, it is nasty, but it is the undeniable truth.  Men live off other men, and it is only a question of who will be the masters, and who will be the slaves.  The entire history of mankind is simply the struggle for mastery of all against all.  It can’t be helped, there will always be the masters, who consume, and the slaves, who produce, because the hunger for goods always outstrips the ability of an individual’s production.  For the sake of peace, of the security to live, people will consign themselves to this slavery and respect each other’s property, even their claims to land and boundaries, though clearly no part of the earth belongs to anyone by right, but only by the violence of people determined to keep others off of it.  Therefore a few strong people claim all the best spots of land, all the choicest food, the most beautiful women, the most gaudy treasures, the most diverse entertainments, and so on.  Everyone would like to have these things, but for one to have it, another must not have it, and therefore all goods are relative.  One man’s good is another’s evil, one man’s evil is another’s good.  Liu-Yang, by dint of strength alone, owns the most fertile, productive soil in the Middle Kingdom, and has such a gigantic population of slaves, of peasants who till the land and hand over their produce to the masters—that they have prospered enormously.  This is their good, and our evil.  Their prosperity could be ours, but is not.  Why?  Because they will kill any who try to move in and farm their soil, or not pay their taxes—that is the ultimate source of their prosperity, their threat to kill any who would jeopardize it.  On the surface it looks entirely peaceful and benevolent, Liuyans just farm rice and sell it to others for our goods.  But its foundation is the threat to kill, what other foundation could it have?  To have wealth it must be seized, it cannot come from nothing, it can only be taken from someone or something else, to enjoy wealth, it must be denied to all others, what is possession save the exclusivity of enjoyment?  Possession is denial, only the perspective determines the word.  Life is zero-sum, it is an eternal war, just to live from day to day, we must constantly kill and devour the corpses of our victims.  Perhaps man has best refined parasitism, like mosquitoes we have discovered how to feed off the produce of others without disabling them from producing yet more—but the essence is the same.  Always has been the same, and always will be the same.  It is the nature of existence.
“When you look at the Middle Kingdom, as opposed to the barbarians, you cannot help but notice that the Middle Kingdom is under eternal siege from the barbarians on all sides.  The northern barbarians are the curse of Ch’in, the southern barbarians the curse of Tang, the pirates from the east besiege the coasts of Weh, Pi, and Liu-Yang.  And Mae-Dong, with all its mountains and jungles, isn’t even safe from invaders from the west.  Why is this?  People are quick to say, it is because the barbarians are barbarous, bloodthirsty, and warlike.  But are they not men like all other men?  Our nature is the same, only our circumstances differ.  The people of the Middle Kingdom do not attack the barbarians, because we already have all the resources.  We own the rivers, the fertile land, the temperate lands, the rich mineral veins, the silk worms we zealously keep anyone else from stealing, for fear that they will not have to buy our silk—is this not a violence against them?  Aren’t all our possessions an inherent violence?  If we weren’t here, the barbarians could instead migrate to our fair climate, our rich soil, dig up our iron and cultivate our silkworms, sail our rivers and live in a plenty they can’t imagine as they ride through howling winter wastelands, simmer in their tropical rainforests, or scratch a living from the dirt of high mountain peaks.  All our wars are to preserve what we have from those who would like to have it—because we both understand that for us to have it, they must not have it, and that one or the other of us must suffer, for one of us to be happy.  Only strength decides who has the ‘right’ to what we claim.  If the barbarians someday succeed and drive us out of our land, and we were sent to wander endlessly with herds of sheep scratching out a meager existence of dirt, constant tribal wars over waterholes and grazing lands, freezing temperatures and no chance at a contemplative or retired life, would we respect their ‘rights’?  The barbarians live so close to the edge of life and death, that any day without work would be their last day, in such a society, there can be no art, no wisdom, nothing at all.  The only chance at happiness is to raid those who do have the wealth, take it from them, and use it up in a spree that reminds us why we live before we descend back into the drudgery of the winter winds, for lack of the resources that produce the wealth, which alone can sustain wealth.  If we were barbarians, our dream in life would be to invade and conquer, to bring our families to these happy valleys and wide rivers, these gently warm  winters and nicely chilled summers, this light gauzy colorful clothing, laughing women, and life of repose in the midst of plenty.  And isn’t it laughable, to claim no evil is being done to the barbarians, by being pushed into these wastelands, but the barbarians are wrong to push back, to try to get back in?  Defender and aggressor are lies.  To defend anything is an aggression against all comers who would like to have it.  To defend something is to kill any who would like to have it, just as those who would like to have it determine to kill those who already have it.  There is absolutely no difference.  Two people want something, neither has any ‘right’ to it, they fight, and one prevails.  The idea that one started the fight, though both determined to kill for the sake of the object, is ridiculous.  The fight would not occur if the ‘defender’ didn’t resist.  This is why it is simply despicable for people to be unwilling to attack for an object, claiming objects are worthless and they are above all that—and yet they are all willing to defend that very same object if they do have it.  If they truly believed that things had no value, they would surrender them to any who asked, and prostrate themselves as slaves to the first who would be their masters.  If things are of no value, if slavery is not a misfortune, then why do they fight for their property and freedom?  The truth is attacking and defending is always the same war, the eternal war of all against all, the war of life, and that there is no such thing as aggressor and defender, life is inherently an aggression, we are all equally ‘guilty.’
“The nature of life is the struggle for existence.  The question then is this: How best can I, the king of Ch’i, acquire and preserve the most goods for Ch’i?  How can I maintain Ch’i against all competitors?  Whether through war or peace, it makes no difference.  For the sake of survival, nature has taught us only one rule, all is permitted.  Birds devour each other’s eggs.  Mock-queens trick whole hives into their barren service.  Wasps lay their eggs on the backs of spiders, which hatch and grow fat on its living body.  Worms invade our bodies to eat out our innards.  There is absolutely no limit, no restriction to the terrible evils life practices on itself, it is a festival of cruelty and hate.  Anyone who restricts himself only falls prey to those with no restrictions.  In this world only the strong survive.  Only in heaven can we escape this cycle of death and rebirth, only in heaven can we abandon this wretched world of relatives and embrace the absolute.  Here the law is only kill or be killed.  God’s will, not mine, but I must follow it, I am the king of Ch’i, it is my duty to keep Ch’i strong.
“Given that, the only way to keep Ch’i strong is to keep its neighbors weak.  Ch’i is only safe and rich as the middle of a fractured world.  All nations must trade across us, because we are in the very center of them.  This is the source of our wealth.  If we were conquered, there would be no tariffs, because there would be no borders.  Goods would travel freely across us without having to pay us anything.  All that wealth would pass us by, and we would have no part in it.  We would be the blighted center of a wealthy dynasty.  Since we are not the strongest nation, we must use our central position to play all nations against each other, and preserve the balance of power by throwing our weight as the crucial deciding factor, and never alone.  Liu-Yang is fast approaching a time when not even the combined powers of the Middle Kingdom will be able to stop it.  Once this last barrier has been passed, a conqueror king will emerge, like in all history they always do—whenever the wealth and power of a kingdom waxes, it has absolutely, always, used that wealth and power to conquer its neighbors and expand.  That is simply the nature of life.  Once the Middle Kingdom is united under Liu-Yang, even given that we will be not be ruled over tyrannically, which is hard to believe considering how Hei Ming Jong is ruling his own country, the center of the world will no longer be Ch’i, it will be those two rivers.  All wealth will bypass us and we will wither on the vine.  And the emperor, not Daoyan, will again be the center of the Church, stealing away all our pilgrims and all our scholars and all our authority.  Ch’i is the center of the Middle Kingdom only so long as the Middle Kingdom is kept drunken, reeling, off balance.  Our era of shadow rule and velvet order ends the moment some new capital and new center is found that replaces all of our functions with its own.  For the sake of our children and our people, then, my father, and now I, have undertaken to destroy Liu-Yang, break it apart, make it so weak that it can never challenge us again.  You beg me to consider what happened to my father, and the children I will leave behind orphaned, and your tears as a widow.  I have considered all of those, and I remember my father with such pride, and love my children enough, that I in fact must kill or be killed.  As all life must.  God willing, I will return with such a victory that ensures the life of Ch’i for as long as our eyes can envision.  Only by ensuring our future can we possibly enjoy peace for our present.  As a man and as a king, I cannot accept the peace of a slave, the security of a servant—I must settle for nothing short of mastery.  No other life is worth living.  Honor and Pride do not allow me to retreat or turn back, I can only go forward, and trusting in God, pit my fate against this Hei Ming Jong’s, and allow fortune to take its course.  Even if I lose, I lose as a master, and that is no loss at all.
“Yours, always and forever, for a thousand lives yours,
“Zhou Min Rok.”
Chapter 18

Gai Yi marveled over the fact that he was now walking in a palace.  He had served ably and bravely in the river campaign as an artillery officer, and with the onset of the winter everyone had retired back to their quarters, waiting for the weather to improve so that they could  kill each other again.  Meanwhile the Weh navy had been sparring with the Liuyan navy, with no decisive battles that could be claimed for either side.  So long as the Liuyan navy was alive, it would be suicidal to unload troops onto the coast.  The Weh navy would be chased off and wouldn’t be able to give supplies, communications, or reinforcements.  It would be an army in total isolation, surrounded for thousands of miles on all sides with hostile territory.  A Weh army deposited as exiles with no way home, no possible retreat, was just an impossibility.  They had to first own the sea before they could attack on the land.  Ch’i complained that they couldn’t possibly cross the Liu river against so many men and Weh had to divert some of the men off, so Weh had done its best to make annoying lightning raids against the people in the coast, but with the major cities fortified and their harbors deathtraps with catapults situated to snag them in a crossfire and nasty obstacles thrown into all the good harbors that only the Liuyans knew the route through—the damage was just a nuisance and was ignored.  All in all the war was going well, but it would just go on forever, apparently, unless someone committed themselves to a serious attack.  It was a stalemate caused by the strength of the river.  Defending that river was so much easier than attacking across it, that neither force was capable of overcoming the other.  Some officers had even suggested letting the damn Ch’i army across the river so they could have a real fight.  But if they lost that ‘real fight’ there would be nothing left between Ch’i and the capital.  There would be no stopping them. The answer, as the answer always was, was to mobilize more men.  The constant sparring over the river had been costly, especially for the cavalry, who had continuously been stuck in the most dangerous roles, and the only answer was to replace the men faster than Ch’i could.  Both nations realized trading losses was not possible for Ch’i, that eventually they would run out of men and have to give up at that rate.  Ch’i kept waiting for Weh to do something, or maybe for Pi to join the war, or for Liu-Yang to make a mistake.  Unlike last war, this one didn’t seem to have any possible end, perhaps it would become just some permanent reality like the plague had become.  The plague of course had killed more people in both armies than they had killed each other, along with all the other diseases that devoured any large groups of people who got together.  If anything, the plague would eventually ruin the Ch’i army and make them give up.  That was the ultimate deadline that would require Ch’i to first risk it all in a decisive battle slanted severely against them.  But the kings of Ch’i weren’t stupid.  They would change their strategy before then.
But after all that, to be following the prophecy this closely, it was surreal.  Was he really destined to be Emperor then?  How?  How could that possibly happen?  If I were emperor of Liu-Yang, what would I do?  How would I change things?  Gai’s mind reeled.  What did he know of ruling?  He had no idea what an Emperor even did.  He consulted with his scribes, and together they made decisions, and alongside that, he kept on good terms with the nobility who ruled the countryside and in turn defended the Emperor, administered the Emperor’s laws, and so on.  It all sounded good, but how would the scribes possibly follow him, who couldn’t even pass the scribal test?  And why would the nobility follow his commands, a commoner?  Only the most noble lines could be expected to gain the nod of the other nobles.  There was no way on earth he could be emperor without any factions that would support him.  And if some faction did put him on the throne, then he would be relying entirely on them, because everyone else would want him gone, and so if that faction decided to turn on him, he’d be dead within the hour, and that kind of Emperor was hardly a goal worth shooting for.  Only the agreement of all the factions to put him on the throne would give him the power to disappoint at any given moment one or the other.  But Hei had so ravaged the nobility, and payed so little attention to the scribes, and had completely abolished the bishops and archbishops and all of them—that it was like he was just some floating head without any support at all, just absolute power.  Maybe he could be the next emperor in that tradition, maybe he wouldn’t need anyone’s support, because he would just kill anyone who even thought of resisting him.  But he didn’t want to be that kind of Emperor either.  If he was going to be Emperor, it would be to end the persecutions, end the war. . .and help out all the poor and downtrodden. 
He knew they were only taxed ten percent, it wasn’t greedy exploiters who were keeping them poor, it was simply the nature of their lives.  The problem was rice was too plentiful, there was so much they were actually shipping it halfway across the world, to find some place to get rid of it.  With that much rice, it sold at such a dismal price that they couldn’t get anything with it.  Meat was a luxury, because if it was one thing farmer’s had, it was enough food, so why trade for meat?  Better to trade for wool or cloth, for metal needles, plows, to pay the doctors for cures when they got sick, to sacrifice to the gods for good fortune, for spice to preserve and enrich their drab meals—what good thing didn’t they lack and need?  And for all these things, so much rice had to be given in return, because these things were all skilled, hard to produce, complex, irreplaceable—but the rice could come from any farmer anywhere, even from Pi, and they didn’t even need rice, they could eat fish or wheat from Ch’i and Weh, the crop that grew in the north because it was too dry and cold for rice.  So the farmers were each other’s curse.  They all made as much rice as possible to make enough for sale that they could have some modicum of good things from the cities—and so there was always so much rice that the people in the city could get almost a year’s supply for some few weeks of work on their side.  Just a little work, but not easy work.  Not work the farmers could do.  It always took some skill that took a lifetime to learn, time the peasants never had, and besides all the skills were secret.  They were locked up by the merchants in their guilds, which would literally kill any member who taught the trade to a non-approved apprentice.  Or in the case of reading and writing, so essential to so many things, to then learn from the ancient masters who had written down the skills, like the doctors or fortune tellers—the language was so difficult to memorize, and having nothing to do with the spoken language, with so many characters, that it was simply beyond the hopes of most farmers.  The very sight of so much writing on such a tiny piece of paper bewildered them and made them give up in despair as a sort of magic.  Or it required the peasants to own an ocean-going vessel, for instance, which would be the only way to get the spice themselves.  They had to buy it from the merchants, or the experts, or the manufacturers.  There just wasn’t any alternative.  And so the prices were always so much that not only did it generally take up all the peasant’s surplus yield, but almost always drove them into debt as well.  Forced them to promise their future yields, to even pay interest on their loans, until one day the nobility came to foreclose their land and they became serfs who had no financial choices at all.  They couldn’t even marry without approval, much less move or change occupations.  They were bound for life by the debt they could never work off.
The only way to help the peasants would be to restrict the farming of rice, which though enriching the peasants, would be impoverishing the cities, because then people who were before working on all sorts of things, would instead find their economic activity too marginal to be supported anymore with the rising cost of food.  No, the low cost of food was good for everyone, it meant more people could live and live with more.  There had to be another way to deliver the peasants.  Abolish the absolutely stupid writing system and replace it with some simple phonetic script that corresponded to the spoken language.  Then everybody who could talk could read and write as well, it would be an instant transformation.  On the other hand, there were so many dialects among the peasants, and even further among the Middle Kingdom, that without the written language there would be absolutely no connecting to each other and understanding each other.  Only the massively educated could speak the several languages that divided the Middle Kingdom, but their writing allowed trade, business, politics, poetry, history, everything to travel uninhibited.  Their stupid senseless language was the only thing that they shared.  Without it civilization would literally fall apart.  Everything was the way it was for a reason, it wasn’t like everyone beforehand hadn’t confronted the same problems, there just wasn’t an easy solution.  Taxing them even less would hardly help, the rice glut in the market was already hurting the farmers, releasing yet more rice into the market wouldn’t help in the least.  Maybe even raising taxes would help the farmers by getting rid of some of the rice.  Gai sighed.  That sounded far-fetched.  “We’re here to take your goods, so that you’ll have more goods.”  The answer would be to get more farmers off the land and into some other business. Skilled businesses.  If there were more skilled people farmers would be able to go to whoever offered the cheaper skilled labor, their rice would be worth more both because there were less farmers, and more people wanting to trade with the farmers for their rice.  But how to give them time to stop farming and learn some other skill?  It couldn’t be done with this generation, it would have to start with the kids, who weren’t producing either way.  Give the farmer’s children a chance to learn some city skill.  But gods, it was so hopeless. Not only would they be competing with all the built in guilds and cityfolk, but whatever trade they learned, it would be in competition with all the manufacturers of Tang, who lived off the trade of products for rice, and transportation was virtually zero cost because it floated down the river.  It sounded great to say farmers could just be given skills and then they could live as tradesmen, but it’s not like they didn’t already try.  It’s not like farmers weren’t constantly moving into the cities to avoid debt collectors or because they were grown children and there was no land left for them to start a family.  Weren’t they already trying?  And that they stayed farmers whenever possible, wasn’t that proof that they weren’t succeeding?  That they couldn’t compete with those who already had their niches established, carved out, and zealously protected?  The only way to open up opportunity for the farmers would be to kill all the tradesmen.  Gai sighed again.  Maybe that’s what the plague was for.  Certainly it made rice more dear, and certainly it had struck the cities hardest.  Maybe the gods were killing us all to help out the economy.  There had to be a more sensible way.  Or maybe there wasn’t.  Maybe there was really no way everyone could be well off.  That for someone to have money, everyone else had to lose it, and if someone produced some good well, it just meant nobody else could produce it, and were doomed.  Or if someone saturated an overseas market, it was too late for anyone else to go and trade with the same goods, they were just sunk.  One man’s success was the loss of opportunity for anyone else to succeed.  Maybe society was just a war of all against all and it was either be the absolute best of your field, or be nothing, be utterly superfluous, worthless, and useless.  That didn’t leave room for many useful people.  But then reality reflected that, didn’t it?  There were just a tiny few rich, and everyone else the discarded poor.  Maybe that was just their fate, there really was no way to improve the world.
“Hey Fae, if you become Emperor, will you help the peasants get more for their rice?  I can’t figure out how without hurting others.”  Gai finally asked.
Fae gave him a look.  “Are you crazy?  Saying something like that in the very court of Liu-Yang?”
Gai Yi looked around.  “Well we’ve been in this waiting room for so long, I really doubt anyone cares what we’re saying or doing.”
“I don’t care.  Do you want to kill me?  By God, have some sense.”
“Do you have any idea why we’re here anyway?”
“I have an idea, but it’s hard to believe.”  Fae admitted.  “I’ve been thinking of it for a while.”
“What?”  Gai Yi asked.
“Well, apparently my family is the one of the very few loyal to Hei Ming Jong, if he were to make me a general, it would be some sort of repayment to the nobility he’s been persecuting for so long.  At least to reward my father’s loyalty.”  Fae Lao said.
“General, at your age?”  Gai Yi scoffed.
“Hei Ming Jong was Emperor at 20.”  Fae noted.  “What I still can’t get is why you’re here.  I mean, for the sake of symmetry, the only reason for both of us to be summoned together, is if you were going to be made a general too.”
Gai Yi widened his eyes.  “Who would make me general?  Who do I please, the peasants?”
“The only reason I can come up with is you’d be so grateful that you’d be sure to do whatever the Emperor said, unlike our previous generals.  But I’m sure that could be said of plenty of people.  Maybe it’s because we’re friends so we’ll get along.”
“That’s a nice thought.  Maybe I’m here to like, become your staff sergeant or something.”  Gai Yi conjectured.
“Just a bit ago you were asking advice on how to be Emperor, but you’re too modest to think of yourself as a general?”  Fae asked back, amused.
“Well, I’m going to be Emperor because of fate.  Becoming general would actually take skill.”
“Maybe all the steps to becoming Emperor are also required by fate for fate to make you Emperor.”  Fae suggested.
“I guess so.  Actually that makes sense.  I’ll become a general because the gods made Hei Ming Jong promote me to suit their plan.”  Gai Yi said.
“You know that can’t really be your fate.”  Fae Lao said.
“Why not?  It’s come true so far.”  Gai Yi gestured at the walls.
“Because I’m going to be the next Emperor.”  Fae Lao smiled.
“Now who’s risking being overheard.”  Gai Yi said.
“Not at all, since we weren’t ganged up on and arrested when you opened your stupid mouth, I knew we weren’t being eavesdropped on after all.”  Fae Lao replied urbanely.
“Who knows.  Maybe we can start some new tradition.  Co-emperors or something.”  Gai Yi suggested.
“No thanks.”  Fae Lao demurred.
“Stingy, aren’t you.”  Gai Yi laughed.  “Do you really think the Emperor would make us generals, at our age, with so little experience?”
“I don’t know.  But there’s no other reason to summon us to the capital like this.  And we were pretty damn good cadets.”  Fae Lao shrugged.
“Not to mention that you’re like, the only survivor out of every cavalry raid you lead.  You know they call you the Reaper.  Anyone assigned to your team just dies.”
“I do what I must to fulfill the mission.  I try to save them, but they just keep dying on me.  I swear, they’re just so damn bad at fighting.  They literally throw themselves on their opponents blades.  I don’t know why I keep surviving.”  Fae Lao bit his cheek, something passing across his eyes.  Times of terror and constantly wondering if he would die.  Times where he was sure he would be reprimanded for cowardice because he ran away from hopeless battles, escaped ambushes, pierced enemy lines.  But what could he do?  The missions were insane, he never had enough men.  He tried his best but it was barely enough just to save himself.  He should have died a dozen times by now.  He was just always good enough at riding and the sword and the bow and sneaking when his horse was shot from under him and hundreds of men surrounded the area trying to track him down, that he found some way out.  Like some divine corridor always opened its way up for him then closed right behind him to devour all the rest.  It made him wonder sometimes if there was a God, sending shieldmaidens down to hover over him and ward off all the killing strokes that should have come.  The myths seemed to be the only explanation for such wild chances always going his way.
Gai Yi saw the cloud pass through his friend’s eyes.  “I’m sorry.  I forgot. . .the war is so impersonal for the artillery.  I can’t know how the cavalry must feel.”
“It’s fine, it’s not your fault.”  Fae Lao said, automatically hiding any sign of weakness.
“I actually meant that as praise.  As stupid as that sounds.  I’m sorry Fae.”  Gai said again.
“It’s okay.”  Fae repeated.
“I hope you do become a general just so they stop throwing you to the wolves like that.”  Gai Yi said.
“Me too.”  Fae said, biting his cheek harder.  “Can we just stop talking about this?”
“Sure.”  Gai Yi said again, feeling even more miserable.  It had been the first time they were together again in months, and this was what he could up think up to say?  He was the biggest god damn idiot in the god damned world.

A big man in purple and black opened the door.  “The Emperor will see you now.  Follow me.”  The two stood up and followed.

“I only have one question for each of you.”  Hei Ming Jong said, looking at the two kids.  Eighteen, but they still looked so small.  Was he ever that young?
“You, Fae Lao.  Do you worship the Dao?”  Hei asked perfunctorily.
Fae Lao licked his lips.  What did the Emperor know?  To even ask that question, he must already know the answer.  He hadn’t been very circumspect about it.  It wasn’t like it was required.  Only one question, he’d better answer it honestly or there was no escape.  It was an obvious trap.  A test.  A test to see if he’d be honest even when the truth was unappealing.  “No sire.”
Hei Ming Jong nodded.  “And you, Gai Yi, do you worship the Dao?”
Gai Yi looked confused.  “I’m a peasant, sire.  An astrologer.”
“Very well then.”  Hei Ming Jong nodded.  Some men in purple and black handed over the gorgeous uniforms and epaulets.  “You’re hereby promoted to General of the Right, and General of the Left.  These people will tell you the entire situation of the war.  As you know it has grinded into a stalemate.  I want each of you to form plans on how to bring this war to a conclusion.  You will consult with me and others while we plan for the spring and summer.  You will stay in Liu-Yang learning across the winter, since there won’t be any need of you at the front.  Any objections?”
“No sire.”
“No sire.”
“Very well.  Congratulations.  Dismissed.”
The two saluted, confused, relieved, elated.  Of all the qualifications, going against the state religion had not been the ones they had been counting on.
“Fate.”  Gai whispered, reassuring himself.  “Just fate.”
Fae was already trying to put the pieces together.  The picture was frightening.

Chapter 19

San Lei Jong knelt down beside the bed, propping up the man’s head in her lap so that he could take a drink of water she had brought.  She carefully unwrapped his bandages and cleaned his body, trying her best to be gentle whenever he groaned over some particular spot.  Then she got out her new bandages and wrapped the sores back up, hoping to keep whatever bad air out that was spreading the infection.  Then they brought him back to the fireplace so that he could be kept warm.  She was quiet and efficient, but always smiled whenever one of the victims thanked her or looked at her.  It was the least she could do.
“How did he catch it?”  She asked the village headman, as she asked everyone.  “Tell me everything around him that day.”  A list of his activities, the food he ate, the water he drank.  None of it coincided with the other stories, so she simply filed the information away with her library of all the other people infected.  Still impossible to tell where the source was, but it had to be from something.  A lot of people got it in town, and so she had gone there to tend to the sick, and ask them questions.  There were no good answers, but generally it raged most powerfully in the poor, dirty districts where people lived closest together.  Even in the worst parts of town, garbage was routinely picked up and carted away, cleanliness was the only way to make cities livable.  Hundreds of thousands, even over a million people living together, was simply impossible without cleanliness, but as people got sick, the less they took care of their conditions, and the more it deteriorated, in a spiral.  She had done her best with others to keep places clean where people no longer could clean themselves, and it helped.  But she still wasn’t sure why the black plague specifically thrived in dirty places.  What particular filth was the breeding pit?  And why only now, when things had been relatively dirty or clean for thousands of years.  It couldn’t just be dirtiness.  Even the emperor’s son died of the plague.  If not the dirt, it was something that thrived in dirt, but could get along without it.  What fit that category?  Some bugs.  Carrion eaters.  Dogs, pigs, crows.  But then why was it concentrated along the river?  That would prove it was some sort of waterbug, but then again it spread far from the rivers afterwards.  Only not into the mountains, the highest mountains.  Why?  Was it too dry?  Did the bugs not reach there?  Too cold?  But it couldn’t’ be the cold, there were cases of the plague as far north as Weh and even in the northern barbarians beyond them.  One thing was certain, people could catch it from each other, but only certain people, others seemed to be immune.  Like her.  No matter how long she was around it, the black plague didn’t touch her.  So even that was a mystery.  So too dry perhaps, maybe that’s why it started in Liu-Yang, because it was so wet.  But how does dirt have anything to do with wet or dry?  If for instance they cleaned a part of the town up, but left a giant standing pool of water, would disease go up or down?  Not that she could do that, but if she could find some place like that. . .a place with a central lake or ornamental fountain, and see if the plague went up.  Well, from her own ministries, she couldn’t recall that nearness to standing water had made any difference.  That seemed to be the cause of other diseases, but never the plague.  Which meant dirt really was more important.  And thus dirty animals.  Dirty animals that didn’t live in the mountains, that were best off in dense human populations, but could survive in practically any situation regardless.  Cockroaches?  That seemed to fit all the parameters.  But cockroaches had been around forever, why now?  And if so, how on earth could you fight against them?  Didn’t they hide underground and lived everywhere and were pretty much invisible?  The plague was so canny at hiding itself, maybe it was cockroaches.  But if so, humanity might as well give up and lay down to die.  There was no possible way to kill off all the cockroaches.  No way to even avoid them.
A young girl, probably her age,  pulled on her black robe to get her attention.  “It’s been a long day, will you need a place to rest?”
“No, that’s okay, the monastery is only five miles further.  I should get home so they won’t worry about me.”  San Lei Jong said.  She yawned, only noticing now how tired she was because someone had brought it to her attention.  There was something unfinished, un-thought out, and now she’d lost it.  She wished she hadn’t been interrupted.  It was like she had been on the right track.
“This late at night. . .is it safe?”  The girl asked, softly.  No one wanted to mention she was a pretty eighteen year old virgin girl, she seemed far too old and pure for that, but at night, who could say what barriers would be respected?  When men were drunk, or bandits sought out the defenseless?  Not that there were many bandits, too many soldiers were moving back and forth for openly armed men to assemble into any large groups.  Peasants always ratted them out.  But there was always that one time things didn’t go as they should.
“I am in God’s hands, sister.  It should be protection enough.”
“But we all know God does not. . .listen to believers.”
“Because God has already arranged things well, and so we don’t need yet more prayers to set things right, instead we should trust in their rightness all along.”
“But they aren’t all right!  The night is full of hurtful people!”
“They can hurt my body, but they can’t hurt my soul, only I can harm that, and God loves our souls, not our bodies, and therefore faith in God protects only what is precious to God, not dust and air, which we should take no more notice of than the Dao above does.  Please, I know you mean me well, but it hurts me more to see such doubt and accusation in your eyes for our Lord, than if you took no care for my safety at all.”
The girl bowed, ashamed.  “Forgive me.”
“There is nothing to forgive.”  San Lei Jong quickly hugged her and kissed her forehead.  She took her staff and pack and slung it over her shoulders, bracing herself for the long walk ahead after a long day of work.  The truth was she had given up any consideration for herself on that day.  The only meaning she could find left to her was to help others, to try and save her mother in the only way she could, over and over and over again.  To try to save the lives of those who could still be saved.  She was just a ghost, a leftover memory, connected to none and needed by none.  It hardly mattered what became of her.

The men in purple and black surrounded the monastery.  Torches glittered in the darkness.  Most of the men had been sent to the temple nearby, where the priests lived.  The nuns could hardly be expected to put up a fight.
The corporal stood in front of the rest, unrolling his scroll and reading from it in his loudest voice.  “The Emperor, having discovered the Church’s collaboration with Ch’i, hereby finds the Church and all its members guilty of treason, and that henceforward all worship of the Dao is an act of treason, due to the authority all worshippers give to the capital of Ch’i in their religious matters, in direct violation of their duty to the Emperor.  For this and many other grave offenses, faith in the Dao is forbidden in all of Liu-Yang, the sutras are contraband and shall all be burned, and all members who continue to assert their belief shall be executed as traitors.  All of you nuns can come out peacefully, or you can wait inside as we burn this church, which is an abomination, down to the ground.”
Nuns emerged slowly, confused.  “What do you mean, how have we betrayed Liu-Yang?  We have done nothing.  We only aid the sick and the poor.”
“So you say, but we have numerous testimonies that you keep a regular correspondence with the capital of Ch’i, even though we are at war.”
“But. . .none of our Churches have anything to do with this war. . .we simply ask their scholars to check our transcriptions, because they have the original copies, and we don’t want to copy any mistakes—“
“Yes, yes, whatever, you admit that you are secretly corresponding with the enemy in time of war, what more is needed?  Now kneel down.”  The officer cut them off.
“But what will become of us?”  One wailed.  “When have we hurt anyone?  What have we done?”
One by one the guards forced them to their knees.  “Get that stupid cloak and hair out of the way, I can’t make a good cut.”  A soldier complained, and promptly the nuns were stripped down to the waist, their heads pushed forward so that their hair would hang over their faces.  Some prayed, others cried, all were too numbed to try and stop what was happening.
“Die with your cursed God on your lips.”  The officer commanded, sneering in hatred.  These were the witches who had brought down the plague on everyone.  These were the parasites that lived off the suffering of the peasants like blood drinking mosquitoes.  And now he could finally get back at them.
A single guard chopped their heads off one by one, the rest flinching after each strike, it sometimes took two or three swings to severe their necks entirely, so they were never sure when it was their turn.  Blood from the first victims spattered on the next victim, making her shiver in the cold and terror with her eyes closed.  Soon enough it was done, and the guard rubbed his sword clean vigorously, cursing at the stubborn necks and bones that had resisted him.  Torches were then thrown into the church, the men waited to make sure it had satisfyingly caught, threw their edict into the burning church, and then turned to get back to camp so that they could get some sleep.

When San Lei Jong reached home, there were only the bloody corpses and the burnt out embers to greet her.  She stared at it in stupefaction, not understanding.  This was impossible.  It couldn’t be real because nobody could ever do such a thing.  She ran forward, looking at one face after the next, all the sisters she knew.  One after the other, she recognized them all.  But she counted then counted again, then gasped.  There were two missing.  Someone might still be alive.  She looked at the blackened embers.  Ran over to her home, started throwing off the wood bit by bit.  It was still hot to the touch, there was still smoke coming up.  She heaved at a beam but it wouldn’t move, she pulled as hard as she could but she lost her grip and fell over.  Some broken piece of rubble stabbed into her back.
“GOD-DAMN-IT!”  She yelled, as loud as she could, heedless as to whether the people who had done this heard her or not.  She kicked the wood, cursed it, rammed her shoulder into it.  No use, it was too heavy and she was too light.  “GOD-FUCKING-DAMN-IT!”  She screamed.  “WHY AM I ALWAYS LEFT BEHIND?”  A moan, some debris trying to stir.  San jumped up, stumbled over to it.  “Are you okay?  Where are you?  What can I do?  Tell me what to do.”
Another moan, San pinpointed it and started throwing off little bits of rock and wood.  Eventually she found a face, blackened and bleeding with her own struggling to get free.  “Help me. . .help pull this off. . .”
San gathered herself, pulled at the beam as hard as she could while the other sister pushed, and it finally, gradually moved, just a little bit.  “Good. . .I have more leverage now.  Again.”  San pulled again, and it shifted further.  The two paused gasping for breath.  “Again, San.”  San pulled and the beam finally rolled down crashing into some mess below them.  “That’s better. . .San. . .fetch some water.  The smoke feels like it filled all my lungs.  It’s too dry to even breathe. . .my throat feels burned from the inside.”
San nodded, wiping away quick tears that had sprung from nowhere.  She rushed down the mound, stumbling and cursing, tried to find her bearings and where the stream was.  Where she’d always fetched water all her life.  She ran down the path, every step memorized.  Then she stopped, she hadn’t brought anything to hold the water with.  She cursed and started to turn around and run back.  Then cursed again and took off her robe instead, rushing to the stream and dipping it in, collecting the corners together and tying it as tight as she could, then walked as quickly as she could back without spilling the water.  She fetched the water the fastest she had ever done in her life, scrambled back up the debris, and appeared.  “See? I brought it.  Can you sit up?”  The sister, her face so dark and blackened by the soot, her voice so gravelly, she still couldn’t tell who it was.  But she felt an infinite tenderness for her.
The sister sat up under San’s guidance, panting.  The water spilled over but that was okay, there was enough.  She drank and drank and then sat back and sighed.  She turned her head and looked at the stars still shining heedlessly above.  A clear night.  Not a cloud in the sky.  “I wanted. . .I wanted to go out with the others. . .but I was afraid. . .and I wanted to wait until you got back. . . I was afraid for you. . .otherwise. . .I had to tell you. . .so don’t think me a coward.”  The sister said, catching her breath.  Figuring out how to talk again.  “I knew you’d come.”  She finally said, bringing a sort of peace to the matter.
“Sister Jun, is that you?”  San asked.  “Are you okay?  What happened?”
“Men came. . .men came and said come out or we’ll burn the church down.  I didn’t want to come out, so I. . .I crawled into the chimney, and covered it with a sheet, thinking, maybe the fire won’t reach here.  It was the only safe place I could think of.  I guess. . .I guess I was right. . .Only something fell on my legs, careless of me.  I think they’re broken.  It doesn’t really matter.”
“Why?  Why would they do such a thing?”  San cried out.
“It doesn’t matter anymore, child.  It doesn’t really matter.  I have to tell you. . .I have to tell you. . .since I’m the last person who knows. . .I need to tell you who you are.  San Lei Jong, your mother came here when she was three months pregnant with you.  Before then, she was married.  She was not a loose woman, you are not a bastard.  Remember that.  Your mother was lawfully wed and you are the legitimate child of your mother and father.”
“Why. . .why would she leave then?  Did my father die?”  San asked, confused.  At last she was going to hear the truth, but she hated it.  She hated having any touch of excitement, with all her life burned down in shambles.  It was too cruel only getting to know now.
“Your father left. . .to go fight in the war.  The war of three kings.  He left, and then she left, because she. . .couldn’t be his wife anymore.  You understand?  She never loved again, she never did anything wrong, but she felt it was best. . .best if she went away, and you never knew. . .but you have to know, it is your only protection now.  You have to know so that someone will take care of you.  San Lei Jong, your father is the Emperor.  Your father is Hei Ming Jong.  You are the firstborn. . .the princess, you see. . .the legitimate princess. . .of Liu-Yang.  You are a princess, San.  A beautiful, pure, perfect princess.”
San looked at the nun who had always lectured her and scolded her, confused.  “But why?  Why did it happen like this?”
“Your mother. . .felt it was best. . .who can know. . .what would have happened instead.  We’ll never know now.  But she felt it was best.  I don’t know why it happened like this.  It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  But now you know.  You are the only heir now.  The first, only heir.  The legitimate heir.  Remember that.  Don’t let anyone take that away from you.  Use it. . .to save yourself. . .the Dao, it has been forbidden.  They’re going to kill all the sisters, all the priests.  They’re going to kill all the believers and burn all the sutras.  So you must. . .must not wear your cloak anymore.  You must protect yourself.”
“Why?  Why do I have to go on alone?  If it’s a crime to love God—then I’ll die too!  What do I care anymore?  What do I need to live for?  Let them kill me too!”
“You can’t!”  Sister Jun stressed, doubling up with coughs.  “You can’t!  You must, don’t you understand?  You must intercede for us!  You’re his daughter.  You must try—try to save us all.  You must save the Dao.  Without it there is no value to life!  Without it there is only. . .this world. . .of illusion and doubt.  You must save us.  Save all of us.  Save us from a world without God.”
“But what can I do?  What can I do without any proof?”  San cried, protesting, shivering in the cold without her cloak anymore.
“Promise you will save us.”  Sister Jun demanded, looking fiercely, a last look.
“I promise.”  San shivered, not knowing what else to say, the cold sinking around her.
“That’s good.  You were. . .a good girl after all.”  Sister Jun said, lying back.  Breathing slowly.  “Such a clear night.  A little cold though.”

When the sun rose, San was asleep on the ground, huddled under the cloaks of the other sisters.  The bodies had all been buried as best she could, just a little bit of dirt covering each.  Her entire life was some cosmic joke.  Just a few hours ago she had sounded like such a saint, she had been so holy and detached, and now what?  Her words sounded like the most absurd ludicrous act, she had probably been saying them even while her sisters were being butchered.  Saying that it didn’t matter and she wouldn’t care.  So stupid.  And how am I, all alone, without anything—I checked but all the letters, all the childhood things were burnt up—there’s absolutely no evidence at all.  How am I supposed to save God?  Wasn’t curing the plague hard enough?
Chapter 20

Fae Lao rode up to the command headquarters with a thrill of energy running through his body and into the horse, which pranced back and forth and around with unloosed enthusiasm as well.  Finally the winter quarters and the stables were behind him, and they could move again.  At least for a short time until the spring monsoon drenched them all again.  That is, if they stayed in Liu-Yang.  Fae did not intend to be here for the monsoon.  Fae Lao had been given the chance to win the war, and so he was going to win the war.  Not just this stupid war concocted out of nothing and leading nowhere.  Now that he was here, the war was going to change.  He was going to win the real war, the war for the next dynasty.  The war that had been raging ever since Tang lost its power, the war for the unification of the Middle Kingdom.  He was going to conquer Ch’i.  And with the honors from that victory and the loyalty of his troops, he would go on to conquer Weh, or Pi, or whoever else opposed him, all in the name of the Emperor, until he gathered enough support to unseat the Emperor, or the Emperor died, or the Emperor attempted to betray him, or what have you.  Hei Ming Jong was without an heir, just a loose leaf in the wind, if he was removed, the Empire would go to the strongest and boldest, and that would be him.  It was only a matter of time.  A matter of how effective he would be at gathering support, and how much more Hei Ming Jong was going to alienate all the foci of power, thus necessitating their rebellion under a new leader—who would be Fae Lao, the flower of the nobility.  The only possible legitimate successor.  The ever victorious general who had spent his life away from the civil turmoil fighting foreign invaders and protecting the people.  He could not have set up the situation any better had he planned it himself.  The Emperor was practically begging him to become the next ruler.
“Staff sergeant!”  Fae Lao crisply shouted.
“Commander?”  The man stepped forward on his own horse.
“Gather the men.  I must greet them as their new general.”
“Yes sir.”  The sergeant detailed the others to spread the message out.  Of course not all the men could be brought together, there were too many and besides they had to keep out pickets enough to make sure Chi’s army wasn’t going anywhere.  But the word spread as it always did between the men, so it was just a matter of assembling enough to make it an impressive event.

Gai Yi looked at the ocean with admiration, wondering how many ships were out there beyond the horizon, and where they would strike next.
“Is their navy so superior to ours, that we can’t risk a decisive battle?”  Gai Yi asked his staff sergeants.
“No sir, they are no stronger than us.  In fact they’re a little weaker.”  The sergeant responded, looking at the young boy with a slight disbelief that he had come to take over the entire coastal defense against Weh.
“How do you explain our situation then?”  Gai Yi asked.
“Sir, it has been deemed acceptable to sustain the war as is, as we can afford a slow attrition of both sides better than they can.  Therefore risking a decisive battle is not in our interest.”  The sergeant explained.
“Hum.  So eighteen years ago we risked everything in pitched battles, over and over again, because we were always behind.  And now that we’re always ahead, we hide behind our fortresses and harbors and hope the enemy goes away.”  Gai Yi stated.
“That’s about it, sir.”  The sergeant agreed.
“Doesn’t that sound the least strange to you?”  Gai Yi asked.
“Not at all sir, reversed positions always have reversed strategies.”  The sergeant said.
“I suppose.”  Gai Yi grew silent, watching the waves come in and out.  It was still a very cold wind coming in from the sea, but it was refreshing after being so long in the city.  He didn’t like cities.  They were always full of the dead and the dying.  The gods protected him from the plague, but his skin still crawled when he was around it.  So much better here where he could pretend it didn’t exist, that there was just him and the ocean, looking at one another.  I guess I’m not used to being ahead.  Gai Yi decided.  I’ve always been behind, since the very first day, trying to catch up with him.  Trying to match him.  I was always having to take huge risks to gain any advantage over him, especially in the duels.  There was no other way to beat him, not unless you went all out.  Not unless you were ready to put everything on the line, every time.  He was just too good otherwise.  And now I’m told that to win, all I have to do is sit back and make sure my forces aren’t destroyed, and wait for something to change on its own.  Not my kind of war, but then, they are my orders.  I must find a way to win this kind of war.  Just because I prefer black doesn’t mean I can’t play white.  I learned both sides, just like I learned the weapons I will be fighting with and against.  I spent the last year playing a holding conflict of countermarches and warning shots and demolitions, playing this exact same game of hide and seek with the enemy, my entire job was to prevent any fighting from being possible, so I can do it here too.  But I can at least add some personal tweak to it.  Grab a stone here or there that is too far out.  Take advantage of their belief that we are too cautious to attempt anything.  I have that going for me.  They are going to be complacent.
“The cities, are they ever attacked?”  Gai Yi asked.
“No sir.  The harbors are deathtraps for any enemy ships, and the big cities are all fortified because they got sick of the eastern barbarians and their piracy long ago.  They would have to land a large army and lay siege to the city, with their own navy pinned with the duty of supplying said large army.  It isn’t practical.  Their best bet would be to head inland, abandon the coast and live off the land, strike for the capital and take it, then hope we surrender.  If we don’t, they could then march north and take the army opposing Ch’i along the Liu river in the rear, and finish us.”  The sergeant explained.
“Then the cities don’t need their men.”  Gai Yi concluded.
“Weh might change its mind about attacking the coastal cities if no one is left to defend them.”  The sergeant pointed out.
“Of course, but they won’t know the difference between a bunch of men and a bunch of warriors.  Not unless they tried.  And I doubt they will try.”  Gai Yi said, thinking it out.  “As it is, too many of our forces are pinned down protecting this coast.  I would say no more than twenty thousand Weh corsairs are being ranged against some fifty thousand of us, stretched across this coast, trying to defend all its forts and hardened points.  Is that a fair estimate?”
The staff sergeants looked at one another, finally the logistics chief stepped forward, accepting this as being under his field.  “It is hard to know, sir.  The Weh army has never deployed its full force against us.”
“Weh is not the wealthiest nor the most populous of nations, they have to worry about their northern border with the barbarian riders, the plague has devastated their lands, and famine has followed.  They will not have more than twenty thousand men.”  Gai Yi said, his mouth firming.  He was getting annoyed.  Prudence was one thing, but not even getting a handle on the forces opposed to them, allowing them to just be this shadowy phantasmal force with no upward limits, of any possible strength, ready to swoop down and attack anywhere—this was a paralyzing sort of cowardice, that was keeping them all cringing inside their fortifications, afraid to do anything about them.  And every man diverted from the western front into this coastal defense, was one man less where the war was actually going to be decided.  Fae’s front.
“Yes sir.”  The sergeants agreed just to be safe.
“Then I will borrow these men from the cities.”  Gai said.  “I will find a new use for them.  I will use them to kill the enemy.”

“Greetings!”  Fae Lao shouted at all the men assembled to listen, mounted atop his horse.  For those far away he was no more than a dot.  But it couldn’t be helped.  They would at least catch the atmosphere if not the exact word.
“Some of you may be wondering how young I am.  I will tell you.  I am two years younger than the Emperor was, when he won the war of three kings.”  Fae Lao said.  The men broke out into an appreciative cheer for the Emperor.
“Some of you may know me as the Reaper, as a cavalry officer who kept living beyond all possibility, that kept coming back alone.  Well, I will accept that name, if only you remember that the men who died were not killed by me, but by the men across that river, and the men I killed were not my men, but also the men across that river.  I suspect the men across that river also call me the Reaper, and for that name I will not be ashamed of this one.”
The men looked frightened, questioning each other.  Was their general really cursed with some sort of ill luck that killed his men?  If so weren’t they all cursed, since he was the general?
“If I wanted to explain what happened, I could point out the fact that not only my detachments, but all the cavalry have suffered horrendous losses, in ill thought out and isolated ventures, always against my wishes and the rest of our sergeants, always overridden by our generals.  However, we don’t have to worry about what happened and why anymore, because that is no longer the case.  Now I am the general, and now I control this battlefield.  I need not point out that from now on, the man who orders you into danger has already himself risked his life so many times, and been in such grave peril so often, that there can be no thought that I will ever lose confidence in myself or in my army.  I am sure many of you have heard that Hei Ming Jong, at the battle of two rivers, personally held off the enemy army at the head of a bridge, in a fantastic display of courage at fantastic risk to his life and the entire future of Liu-Yang.  It is well that I am the general of such an Emperor, for under any other, I would have such tales to tell that would bring him to shame.  I will not say them myself, that is not for me to say, but there are enough here who have served with me, that should you ask them, will have enough to say about the battles I’ve been in, that you can draw a portrait of my character to your full satisfaction.”
“I have introduced myself, so now I should like to turn to another subject.  That is, what I intend to do together with you.  It is very simple, I intend to win.”
The crowd settled back down, deciding to ask everyone they knew to indeed find out the truth of Fae’s record in battle, liking his confidence and honesty so far.  But they all reserved judgment, there were no cheers.
“Many of you have been away from home for over a year, two years, three years, many of your families are suffering for the lack of you, and there seems to be no end in sight.  I am through with this kind of war.  I am sick of risking my life in venture after venture that accomplishes absolutely nothing, seeing so many men die so fruitlessly, without an inch of ground gained or lost, just simply piled atop one another for the sheer show of it.  How about you, men, are you content to continuously risk your life for the status quo?  For these tents, this mud, the cold?  Are you content to be away from home for another year, two years, three years?  Is the food here so good and so plentiful that you would not rather return to your wives?”
The men chuckled, then laughed.  “No!  No!”  Some called.
“I propose a new war.  I propose a war where when we fight, something happens, so that after the fight is over, we won’t have to fight again tomorrow.  And when we win, we don’t just shove them back, we break them.  And in breaking them, we don’t have to fight anymore.  I propose victory!”
Men cheered, but there was still a current of doubt.
“You are wondering, that is all well and good, but how do I expect to win this war?  How am I any different from those before me?  There is only one way to win a war, and it is not through defense.  We are through defending.  We are tired of it.  Instead we are taking the war to the enemy.  We are invading Ch’i.  We will take Daoyan.  Their capital is an invincible fortress, they say, nobody has ever taken it.  It’s impossible to attack Ch’i because they can always hide behind the walls of Daoyan.  Well that’s fine.  We’re taking it anyway.  From now on, let them stop us.  Let their women cower in fear.  Let their crops be ravaged and their livestock slaughtered.  Let them answer for their crimes against us, now and in the past!”
Now the men stood up, were on their feet, cheering wildly.  The prospect of vengeance, the chance to take whatever came to hand, to engorge themselves on their enemy’s loss, it was wonderful.  It was paradise.  Whatever they couldn’t use they’d destroy, whoever they didn’t rape they’d slaughter, and Ch’i would finally learn the price of losing wasn’t just a shattered army taken prisoner and ordered to go home—this time the price of losing would be actually losing.  This time they couldn’t just start the war again when they were ready.  They couldn’t just play another game of cards and fold if the stakes got too high, or their hand wasn’t what they hoped it would be, this time they were all in, and they would know how it felt to fight a real war.
“I propose a new war!”  Fae Lao shouted over his men.  “A WAR OF ANNIHILATION!  I PROPOSE THE END OF CH’I!”  He punched his fist into the air, and the army with wild abandon drew all their weapons in response.

“Sir, I’m sorry to bother you, but this old woman insists on seeing you.”
“Oh?  Well, we must respect our elders, I suppose.”  Gai Yi stretched, laying aside his plans for the new defense.  It would be a nice break anyway.  There was a sheer mountain of men to move and supplies to find.
The attendant bowed, passing the order back to the guards.  The woman who entered wore the black cloak of her sisterhood tightly around her, she looked scared but even more determined.
“I must speak with you alone.”  The sister said, looking at the attendant and guards.
Gai Yi shrugged.  “It is alright.  I’m sure I can defend myself against an old nun.”
The men saluted again and left.
The sister clenched her hands together, strangely scarred, pacing back and forth.  Then turned on Gai and blurted out.  “I survived the massacre at the temple of holy wisdom.”
Gai Yi looked at her, trying to place what she was speaking about.  “Oh, that temple that was burnt down?  Some thugs taking advantage of this time of chaos.  A shame because it was so newly built too.  I am sorry we were not around to stop it, but we are stretched thin.”  Very thin.  Across the entire border.  There had been a rash of banditry and crime breaking out everywhere due to people running out of food and becoming desperate.  Only the rats ever had enough food these days.  Churches everywhere had been going up in flames, probably out of resentment for the wealth of the structures and easy way of living, and some pernicious rumor that the nuns and priests had brought down the plague upon the land by not paying proper homage and sacrifices to the true gods.  For most peasants their education couldn’t think of any other reason, and it made for a very defenseless and easy target to take out their fear and frustration on.  The army was too busy fighting the war to worry about local vandals though.  That was for the nobles, or the scribes, or the Imperial Guard, to deal with.  Whoever had local control.
“Is that what they say?  Well it’s true.  They’re nothing but thugs.  But did they tell you that these thugs wore purple and black?  That they read out a scroll sealed by the Emperor?”  The lady fixed her eye on him.
Gai Yi looked at her.  “The imperial guard is outside of my jurisdiction.  I cannot help you.  If you like, I can detail men to escort you back to Liu-Yang, and you can appeal to the Emperor and accuse these men to him.”
“Sealed by the Emperor.  Under orders of the Emperor.  Do you want to know what those orders were?  The orders were to execute everyone who didn’t renounce their faith.  The orders were to burn all the sutras, and to ban even the mention of the name of God, the Dao.”  The nun said.
“I find that hard to believe.”  Gai Yi said, unsympathetic.
“Do you now?  Well, I thought about that.  Do you want to know how I survived?  I was fetching water at the time.  You know how we’re always having to fetch water.  Well, it was really dark, but San wasn’t home yet, and so I had to get the water myself.  It couldn’t be helped, you see.  So here I am coming back up the path, and there they are, all in purple and black, reading out their scroll.  And so I sat there with my water, hiding in the woods, and watched them kill all my sisters one by one.  And I thought, right then, do you know what I thought?”
“No.”  Gai Yi said, annoyed.
“I thought to myself, I’d better save a copy of that scroll, or else no one will ever believe me.  Isn’t that the strangest thing to be thinking right then? And so after they started the fire, and turned to leave—what do you think they did with their orders?”
“I don’t know.”  Gai Yi said, angrily standing up, ready to throw her out.
“They threw them in the fire, so that no one would ever know.  And-I-fetched-it-from-the-fire.”  And the nun slammed the scroll down on the desk in front of him, the purple wax seal perfectly intact, the script brittle but completely unstained, and her hands black with burns.  The same wax seal that he had seen giving him innumerable orders, the same seal he had been living beside all winter.  The Emperor’s seal.  Gai Yi stared at it with disbelief.
“I came to ask you, because you were nearby, and now you’re the strongest man other than the Emperor—I decided I only had one chance at this because time was running out—because San might be killed at any moment now—I came to ask you to save San, to save the Church, to save Liu-Yang from this vicious tyrant—and in return I have the key that will make you Emperor.”
“What are you talking about?  Who is San?”  Gai Yi said, backing away.  It could still be some elaborate trap.  It could all be set up to see if he was a traitor.  Old nuns didn’t really come in with damning documents about your Emperor asking you to fulfill the prophecy you were given by an astrologer from a rival religion six years ago.
“The legitimate daughter of Hei Ming Jong’s first marriage, the eldest and only heir to the throne.  San Lei Jong is the princess of Liu-Yang.”
Chapter 21

“You have so little, and yet here I am taking more from you.  I’m ashamed of my own hunger.”  San Lei Jong said, bowing to the family.
“Not at all.  God will reward us for serving a woman of God, it is only karma.”  The wife replied, loading San Lei Jong’s sack with more balls of rice wrapped with pickled cabbage.  “The rice will stay wet for a couple days so long as it remains wrapped, but you must be sure to eat them quickly or they’ll be of no use to anyone.”
San bit her lip, wondering if karma really did care about who was giving what to whom.  Wondering if she was just tricking her way into the henhouse like any fox.  If not in this life, surely a giving soul was rewarded in the next life.  Perhaps she would be reborn as someone with more to give, to suit the generosity inside her.  It could be true.
“I will.  My trip won’t be long now anyway.”  San bowed again.  She opened the door and started back towards the main road that connected all the villages along the Yang river all the way to the capital.  From what the fishermen and other travelers said, she was only two days out from Liu-Yang.  She was a strong walker and could cover any number of miles in a day, water was always near at hand as she followed the river, shelter she generally begged her way into, some combination of her youth, fragility, and black robe always won her way under some sort of roof.  Food was harder, because as much as people would like to help her, many of their own children were starving, the harvest of the past years had been steadily declining, and the granary reserves which also served as the banks had been bled dry already.  So many farmers had been taken from their farms to serve in the army, which in turn got the first priority of supplies, that those left in the cities were being taxed harder than ever.  It was a race, to see whether the amount of farms turned to wasteland from the black plague could keep up with the amount of people relying on the farms dying of the black plague before they had a chance to starve.  But that wasn’t the only problem.  As food became scarce, farmers tended to keep the excess for themselves, for the security of next year.  And with the war on, and the reserves drained, the cost of everything had risen of its own accord, almost magically, such that the services people generally provided for their daily rice simply no longer were worth said rice.  Everything other than rice was seen as a frippery, a luxury, hardly worth actual food.  Those who had been going into debt to pay for actual goods were now just a laughingstock.  Who would ever give away something real and present for some hazy future good, when either of them could die any day, when the future good would probably never come?  The entire economy had warped and changed, so that the cities seemed some bizarre mutation, some divine mistake.  Didn’t they know that without some way to produce food they could not live?  Didn’t all the animals live out their lives daily collecting food, and all the plants, and all everything?  Who did the humans think they were, that they could somehow exempt themselves, that they thought they could live without hunting or gathering all they could all their lives?  Peasants, who before were the poorest and the worst off, now to the townsfolk seemed like some aristocracy, provided with everything they could ever wish for just at hand, without any cares in the world, completely ensured against any and all calamities that might occur, because they owned the means of production.  And that was worth infinitely more than the mere products of such production, no matter how many the townsfolk had before amassed.  Inflation proved it.
“Where are you going, girl?”  Three Imperial Guardsmen seemed to be loitering at a crossroad, playing some game of dice to pass the time.  Barrels and boxes served as seats and their horses were tethered nearby, drinking from the public trough.  As ordered, the final phase of the purge was in the making.  Whenever they found a particularly outspoken believer among the cityfolk, they staked it out and recorded everyone who went in or out, marking their lives as forfeit as well.  That a nun was now leaving just made the family all the more guilty.  The nerve of those people.  And the nerve of this girl, to still be wearing her black robe.  Enough of them out of uniform had incited enough peasant mobs against them that they were generally hated on sight, but it seemed they would have to encourage the hatred again, or young pretty fish like this would slip through their nets.  They couldn’t wait for the day when they could openly just slaughter any believer simply for being one, but the Emperor insisted that no matter what it should always remain at night, in remote places, by shadowy figures, and that nothing should ever be proven.  People could think whatever they wanted, they could have whatever suspicions they wanted, but so long as there was no proof, the doubt and fear mixed together would paralyze them from trying to resist or escape, always hoping until the end that what was happening wasn’t really happening, that they would still be spared if they just cooperated meekly.  Most of all they should always have some other reason than their religion to persecute them.  There should always be something else, some screen or facade to hide behind, to divert their attention, to make them think that they could still prove their innocence, that they could vindicate themselves against whatever other charges were being made, so that they never thought their religion alone was guilt enough, and thus try to run, hide, or fight.  So long as they believed in justice, they would continue to stretch their own throats out for the cutting.  But without it, their jobs would become terribly difficult.
“To Liu-Yang.”  San bowed and walked on.
“Hold it girl, who said you could leave?”  The guardsman raised his voice, angry at being dismissed as though he were still an unimportant farmer that nobody thought anything of and no girls would look twice at.
San stopped, looking back.  “I wasn’t aware I had to stay.  Is there something more I can do for you?”
“Don’t play coy with us, you whore.  We saw you enter that house last night, and now here you come out with your sack full of, what, food?  I doubt you’re worth a sack full of spice, even with that face.”  The two other guards laughed appreciatively.
San bowed again.  “You’re right, I’m probably not.  May I go now?”
“Why are you so anxious to leave?  Come on, stay a while, we have money enough, maybe you could entertain us for a while.”  The guardsman offered, standing up and walking closer to fetch her, in case she was thinking of running.  Much of the crowd had now paused or quieted, surreptitiously following what would happen.  Most of them were divided.  They hated to see such a defenseless girl preyed upon, but then again it was someone else in pain instead of them, and thus interesting.  Besides, she was a nun, and everyone knew nuns in their monasteries had secret rituals where they bathed in baby’s blood, held giant orgies with demons for lack of males, summoned the plague with their dark magic, and so on.  They deserved whatever they got.
“No thanks.”  San bowed again, turning and now walking quickly away as the guard approached.
The guard broke into a run, angrier than ever that she had again turned her back on him.  The other two guards stood up to help, in case anyone from the crowd thought of being a hero and coming to her aid.  San looked back with fright and started to run too, but she was immediately caught tightly by the arm and jolted to a halt.  Her arm screamed with the pain of being pulled nearly out of its socket, and the bone of her wrist rivaled the claim with the crushing of the man’s grip.
“Let go of me!  Let go!  I’ve done nothing!  Let me go!”  San shouted, trying to pull out of his grip.
“We’ll teach you to respect the officers of the law, whore.”  The man slapped her across the face, knocking the hood off and revealing her long glossy black hair.  She suddenly looked more appealing than ever, and the guard started looking around for some secluded house he could appropriate for the use of her.
“Stop right there.”  A man on a horse said, coldly and firmly.  “That girl is under my protection.”
“And who are you?”  The man sneered, turning his attention to the intruder.
“Gai Yi, General of the Left.”  The man responded.
“And why should I believe that?”  The guardsmen retorted again, angry that she might escape and he would be left frustrated on the very brink.
Gai Yi drew his sword, carefully and calmly.  “I could prove it to you, but I find I’d rather just kill you.  If you don’t hand her over right now, I think I’ll have excuse enough to do so.”
The guard looked at him, mounted and fully composed.  Then he cursed and let her go.  “Have it your way.  If you want to keep your whores safe, blasted look after them better.  Can’t blame us for not knowing.”
“You have my apologies.”  Gai Yi nodded in response, sheathing his sword.  “Come, San, it’s getting late.”
San looked up, surprised.  “How do you--?”  But then she stopped.  If he owned her of course he would know her name.  “Of course.”  She picked up her sack, which in the tumult she had dropped, and with her other hand took his, and suddenly she was lifted onto the horse behind him.
“If you feel like you’re going to fall, hold around my waist.”  Gai suggested, and then made a clicking sound and let his horse walk away through the crowd.  There was no rush now.  He had ridden hard enough to get here, with enough scouts and spies trying to find her before they did that he was truly worried the other officers would begin to ask questions.  About why he wasn’t concentrating on the coast, why he was taking a leave of absence after he had just gotten there.
“You idiot.”  He finally said.  “Why the hell are you wearing that robe still?  What are you, some sort of idiot?  Do you have any idea what happened to your church?  Do you have any idea how dangerous that robe is?”
San blinked.  “What can I do without it?  I have no skills.  No use.  Alone and without this robe, I really would be a whore.  Nobody would help me for any other reason.”
“You’re an idiot.  Are you okay?  Damn it, but why did you run so far away anyway?  It’s taken me over a week, with all my men, to track you down.  Why didn’t you just stay nearby with a friend?  Don’t you have any friends?  Do you know what could’ve happened to you?  What was about to happen?”
San bristled.  “Do I know you?  Are you my long lost older brother or something?  Why do you think you can talk to me like this?  Look, thanks for helping me, but I have to do something.  I have to go to Liu-Yang.  So why don’t you just drop me off here?  Why do you even know my name anyway?”
“Liu-Yang? Was that your plan?  What, you were just going to walk up to the Emperor and ask him, all nice like, to stop killing nuns like you?”  Gai scoffed.
“Yes, actually.  What else can I do?  Why is any of this your problem anyway?”
“Well excuse me for saving your life.”  Gai Yi said.
“I’m so happy, instead of those three kidnapping me, you have instead.”  San said.
“Don’t you dare compare me to those men.”  Gai snapped.  “You really are a spoiled little princess.  You just expect everyone to serve you without even the hint of gratitude.  You could use a good beating after all.  By the gods, is a simple ‘thank you’ too much for your royal lips?  Is a general too beneath you?”
There was no reply.  San suddenly became very still.  Gai looked back, and saw a look of dazed hope on her face.  “How do you. . .how did you. . .then the other sister, the other sister who was missing—then she’s still alive?”
“Yes.”  Gai Yi said.
“Then you know—then you know!  Then if you know-!  Then why can’t we go to Liu-Yang?  He’ll have to believe me!”  San exclaimed, a smile breaking out over her entire face.
“Why?  He’ll believe whatever he wants to believe.  Go up to him and ask him!  What are you, some sort of idiot?  Don’t you understand that your father is all the cruelty of all those guards combined?  That he’s all their crimes put together?  Do you have any idea how little mercy is in that man?  Why should he believe us, just because we tell him?  What does it matter how many people tell him?”
“Why do you keep calling me an idiot?”  San demanded.
“Why won’t you god damn thank me?”  Gai replied.
“Fine! Thank you!”  San yelled.
“Alright then!”  Gai yelled back.  The whole crowd turned to watch the youngsters quarrel, laughter in their grins.

Fae Lao pulled his black horse up with a taut jerk, craning his neck to look up the city built into the mountain.  A spring fed by snowmelt kept the city supplied with water.  In fact the water eventually became the great Pi river.  Stores of food were kept in enormous supplies, though at least not infinite like the water.  It was invulnerable to storm or siege.  There was simply no way to scale those heights, on the two narrow paths, completely overlooked by all the artillery they had to offer.  The walls were so thick, there was no point in marching up the path anyway.  They would just have to mill around at the bottom getting shot at until they died once they were there.  That was okay.  He had a different strategy anyway.
“Artillery Sergeant, let’s begin to make our catapults.”  Fae Lao said.  “I think we will not be moving much from here.”
“Yes sir.”  The sergeant saluted, leaving to get his men in order.
“Staff sergeant, send word to the cavalry, they will form into left and right wings, their men concentrated, and will keep our forces in touch.  They understand the formation.  I’ve done it enough on a smaller scale.”
“Yes sir.”  The sergeant peeled off from the rest, like the one before.
“As for the infantry, they will perform the main task.  Break into the smallest groups, half battalions, and spread out across the countryside.  I want Daoyan ringed with two rows of trenches and earthworks, one facing Daoyan, the other facing outward against whoever may come to relieve it.  The rest of the men will go forth in search of supplies.  I want one hundred prisoners per day.  The men will have to be quick and form a chain.  The cavalry will respond to any enemy force that resists, or if they can’t the main body will.  Above all the flow of prisoners cannot be stopped.  Understood?”
“Yes sir.”  The rest of the sergeants responded.  Two more, respective leaders of their divisions, peeled off to give their own orders.  Fae Lao looked at the city, wondering if he had forgotten anything.  It had taken only one brief month to get here, to scatter and destroy the opposing army and then to destroy the army again once it had been rallied and reinforced.  There would certainly be a third army, there could be any number of them now that they were in the very heart of Ch’i and their reinforcements were so near at hand.  But with such low morale after being defeated and driven back so often, with so few veterans left to stiffen them, and as outmatched as they were to begin with, Fae was not worried.  The harvest of prisoners had been grand after the two battles, and as hard as it had been to keep them all fed, now the benefits were at hand.  He was only worried that he might run out before he was resupplied.  That was the only thing left to go wrong.  If he wasn’t able to follow through on his word, they might not fear him.  And fear was his only weapon.  Cruelty was the only thing that could take this city.  The human will was far easier to break than this mountain.
The artillery sergeant returned at a gallop with his horse.  “Sir, the catapults will be ready in one week.”
“Fine, our entrenchments should be done by then as well.  Staff sergeant, ride up their pass with this message.  They’re a civilized people, you should be perfectly safe.  Tell them that they have one week to surrender their capital.  For every day after that, 100 people will be executed in front of their gates, until they surrender or Ch’i runs out of people.”
“Yes sir.”  The man saluted, suppressing any childish reaction.  Orders were orders.

“The ambushes are ready then?”  Gai Yi asked, finally back at his headquarters.
“Yes sir.  We’ve been waiting for your return.”
“My apologies.  It was a matter of urgency, and as you said, this battle has been anything but urgent.”  Gai Yi smiled as San slid out from the saddle behind him.  He supposed she could have been given her own horse, but she didn’t know how to ride.  And besides, he preferred it this way.
“Of course.”  The sergeant had no thought of judging his superior, or even looked twice at the girl.
“Your sister should be in that tent over there.  I had it set up for her to minister to the troops.  I’ll want to have both of you as my guests for dinner tonight, though.”
“Of course.”  San replied, bowing in imitation of the sergeant.
“If you’d prefer you can not eat and sulk instead.”  Gai Yi suggested.  Some of the men laughed.  San glared at him with her most regal superiority she could find, then walked slowly towards the tent pointed out to her.  Riding that long, that fast had been extraordinarily painful, and the entire lower half of her body ached and burned with every step.  She desperately needed the longest, warmest bath of all time.  Gai Yi claimed it was because he was needed at the front, but she suspected it had been done entirely to humiliate her.  She would put nothing past him.

“You’re alive!”  Sister Qi exclaimed, seeing San gingerly enter the tent.  “Oh San!  My prayers are answered.  I couldn’t know where you were and what had happened to you, so I thought my only chance was to ask the good general to help.  What could I do alone, hunted as we are?  Don’t blame me for leaving you.  Please, I had no choice.”
“That good general has taken off the first ten layers of my skin.”  San griped.  “I’m glad to see you too, sister.  But please tell me you have a bath set up.  I can’t think right now.  A thousand hornets are stinging me at once.”
“Of course.  Of course.  I had one set up for me, it can be ready in no time.  So you don’t blame me?  I left their bodies unburied and everything, but I was so afraid.”
“There’s nothing to blame.  I’m glad you’re well.  Since when have you been so worried about what I think, Sister Qi?  Last I remember I had to worry about you.”
The sister laughed nervously.  “Yes, well, that was a different world. . .in this world, in this world you have the power, and we can only hope to serve you. . .the world has changed now.  Everything has changed.”
“I wish you had told me before.  All my life, I wondered.  I worried.  I wanted to know who my father was.  And none of you would tell me.  Even after mother died.”  San reproved.
“It was your mother’s wish that you could have a normal life.  Nobody knew it would end up like this.  We did our best.”  The sister shrugged, dismissing it.  “How have you been?  Are you okay?  Did the general find you in time?”  The sister quickly started to fetch water to fill the bath and fire to warm the bath from underneath.
“Yes, only. . .how does it help to bring me here?  I have to go to him.  I have to see father.  What else can I do?  I gather it was your plan to bring me here, but what can I do unless I see father and change his mind?”  San asked.
“You can’t just ‘see’ the emperor.  Why would they allow you?  You’d never reach him.  You have to have connections, San.  An excuse to see him.  We have to do this cleverly.  We only have this one chance.  Without any proof, you can’t just walk up and announce yourself.  We have to incline his heart to us beforehand, so that he will want to believe.  Only the general can give us that audience.  Only he can protect us until then.”
“I suppose you’re right.”  San gave in, taking off her clothes and lowering herself into the bath with a long, soundless sigh of relief.  She had been going on adrenaline, without ever stopping to think, without daring to think.  She had shot herself like an arrow at her target, determined to reach it before she died, without thinking of anything else before or after that.  But now she wasn’t alone.  She could think about living again.
Chapter 22

“We’re running out of men.”  Fae Lao grinned, calling up to the city walls.  “So we had to scrounge for whatever we could find.  I hope you’ll excuse me the meager fare.”  Fae Lao raised his arm and lowered it, and the catapults all fired in unison.  Heads flew in volleys over the wall, small and long haired.
“Damn you, you barbarians!”  Guards shouted back in fury.
“Who is killing them?  Not me!  Not me, my friends.  Not me!  You have but to say the word to save them.  Here they are!  All lined up for you to save.  And they’re all such pretty faces.  Why can’t you protect them?  Isn’t that your job?  Some soldiers you are, hiding up there safe while your people aren’t.  Why aren’t they in the fort and you out here?  What a bunch of cowards you all are.”
Fae Lao displayed the next line of 100 women and children as they wept and begged for mercy.  The men cursed and fired arrows, but they all fell well short.  Fae had calculated the range long before.
“You know what, though.  I grow tired of this game.  Why wait?  I think we’ll just kill them right now.”  Fae Lao drew his sword and in one swift stroke spun and lopped off the nearest head, an old dumpy woman holding the hands of her two children.  The children jumped back in terror as the body fell down.
Fae Lao didn’t pause, grabbing the hair of the boy to hold him still and slashing his head off with his other hand.  Then he caught the girl and pulled her up into the air from her hair.  She screamed and kicked, but in a blink the sword cleaved through her neck too.  The body fell and Fae was left just holding the head.
Fae tossed the head into the catapult as his men went to butcher the rest.  “God damn it, you’d think they’d learn.  This is incredibly boring.  How many prisoners do we have coming in?”
“Around five hundred a day, sir.  There should be a large shipment when the cityfolk of Reng-Du arrive.  A lot of them die by the wayside so it’s troublesome.”  Catapults started lobbing the newly detached heads into the city.
“Fine, we execute everyone we have every day from now on.  The catapults will fire continuously.  I’m sick and tired of this.  Will they really wait until we kill everyone in their damn kingdom?  What are they waiting for?  How does it help them to delay?  They’re such stubborn bastards.”
Fae Lao turned back to the walls.  “My sergeant informs me we have a whole city arriving tomorrow.  We have removed all restrictions.  They will be killed as soon as they arrive and their heads delivered as soon as possible.  I am sick and tired of this game, men.  You cannot stop us.  You cannot beat us.  You cannot wait us out.  Surrender.  For God’s sake surrender, before we paint your whole city with blood.”  Fae Lao stopped, thinking a bit.
“If it’s reinforcements from Weh you were counting on, I’m afraid we caught them in an ambush yesterday.  Seven thousand or so, was it?  Strictly speaking, they aren’t people from Ch’i, so it didn’t occur to me to send their heads over, but then, I’m feeling generous today, we already gave up on the 100 plan.  So why not?”  Fae Lao gestured, and men dragged sacks and sacks of fresh heads up.
“Remember, we have a whole city coming tomorrow.  So if you want to pick a good moment, try sometime before they get here.  If heads aren’t convincing enough, maybe we’ll start throwing them part by part, like their fingers first, and then their hands, then their arms, and so on.  We can employ our catapults much longer that way.”
Fae Lao was met with silence as he walked away from the human bombardment back to his horse.  He was caked with blood and wanted a bath.  But then the gates did open.  Not to surrender, but with a war band set to charge.  Set to catch him and his men unguarded and alone.  Fae smiled.  Finally, the war was won.  Patience truly was his strongest weapon.  He had just waited out a stone.

The Weh raiders ran into the village, swords raised, ready to sweep whatever resistance they found aside, kill everyone they could find, and burn whatever they couldn’t take away.  It was just an extension of their piracy, and even more rewarding.  Bashing in the door, two men ran inside—and bounced back from the force of the crossbow bolts.  Out the windows sprouted a furious rain of arrows, striking the whole host in the middle of the street.
“Take cover, take cover!  Up to the roofs!  Root them out!”  The commander ordered, raiders breaking apart and in squads bashing in the doors.  Liuyans rushed out to meet them, drawing swords from beneath their cloaks and robes.  A furious melee broke out, spread out across the entire village, as crossbows loaded and fired as quickly as possible, changing positions to catch those hiding from new angles.  All of them were out of uniform.  All of them had been living a normal life the day before.  All of them had been tending animals, cooking meals, and farming in the fields.  And all of them had gone armed the whole time.  If the Weh army would only fight Liuyan civilians, the Liuyan army would just have to become the Liuyan civilians.  All it took was a change of clothes.  After all, they had been normal peasants before the war too.
“No mercy!”  Gai shouted.  “To the ships men!  To the ships!”  With that he kicked his horse and the whole division appeared from cover, racing towards the pirates who had been left behind to tend the ships.  They cut the ropes with terror in an attempt to abandon their fellows, but Gai Yi and the rest did not pause, racing their horses straight into the surf.  Gai jumped from his horse and grabbed onto the prow, pulling himself up with sheer strength.  Just in time he met the charge of a man trying to chop his hands off, dodging and pushing the man over the edge.  The rest of the crew came to meet him, and Gai did not stop to think.  He rushed forward with his own yell, swinging his sword.  Left shoulder down.  Right side across.   Left side up.  Spin and head across.  Head down.  Head down again.  Head down again.  Finally got the damn sword out of his way.  Head down again.  And the body split.  Strength was more useful than Fae gave credit for the toughest knots.  Stabbing chest into right shoulder up back into right shoulder down.  Gai cursed and drew his dagger, throwing it into the man behind him while he planted his foot in the body to drag his sword out of the other man’s ribs.  Too many.  Too damn many.  Where are the rest of my men?  Head down into right side up into stabbing chest.  Left side up into left side down.  Ducking sweep.  Jump back.  God damn it too little time to kill anymore—and a crossbow bolt took the man in the back.
“To the general!”  The men shouted and charged.  “No mercy!”  And the worst of it was passed.  Gai Yi parried the last man so hard he fell over and finished him off with a stab through the chest, and then he stayed leaning on his sword, covered with blood, breathing hard and deciding he had done his part.  The ships were his.  With a little refitting, their navy would be twice the size of Weh’s, and they would have to surrender.  They would just have to.  The emperor had to realize that a decisive battle now was practically a prize for the taking.  Gai shouted again with joy, raising his sword into the air.  The men remaining rose their weapons with him.  The day was theirs.

By the end of the day, the catapults had been restored to work.  They started with all the men who had sallied to fight that day, and ended with the king of Chi’s head.  It was enough.  The gates of Daoyan  opened in defeat.

“That should do it then.”  Gai Yi said, secluded with San like he was every night for dinner.  “The Emperor will certainly summon me back to the palace when he hears the news.  Give me a medal or something.  I’ll bring you along and ask him a boon, he’ll grant it because everyone will be there to celebrate my victory, and it’ll be to hear you out.”
“And then I step forward and tell him, hi, you don’t know me, but I’m your daughter.”  San said brightly.
“Umm.”  Gai Yi chewed on his lip.  “Right.  I guess we still have to work on that.  Maybe you could break the ice with something.  Can you sing?  Dance?”
“What do you take me for?”  San protested indignantly.
“Are you good for anything?  What have you been doing all your life?”
“If you must know, I’ve been researching the plague.”  San replied.
“The plague.  So you nuns really did start it?”
“Why you!”  San shouted, standing up to throw her cup at him.
“A joke!  A joke!”  Gai laughed.  “By the gods, San, I just won a war, and lived to see the other side of it.  Can’t I be a little happy?”
“Well you don’t have to be happy at my expense.”  She sat back down.  Great, now her silk was all stained over with wine.  There was something she was good at.  She destroyed her silk as quickly as people could give it to her.
“You know, my master tried to cure the plague too.  He didn’t really mean to, but everyone kept asking for his help.  He tried his best to keep them clean, to burn everything he thought might be contaminated, but it never helped.  We never could find the source.”
“That’s the problem!  That’s the whole question.  I’ve been among so many victims and none of them share anything.  If we could just find the source we could stop it, but it’s simply invisible.”
“You’d think it was simple.  I mean, it started in the ports, so it had to be either the people or the cargo.  But it couldn’t be either, because it spread to places neither the people nor the cargo ever went.”  Gai Yi said.
“It is the people.  The people spread it whenever they can.  But of course it had to start from something else, because people don’t naturally have the plague.  At least it isn’t the cargo though.  We can cross that out.  But is the war truly won?   Wasn’t it just a bunch of raiders?  How many could you have killed?”
“The same thing happened all along the coast today and for the days to come.  After this they’ll be too afraid to attack anywhere, because there’s no way to tell the defended and the defenseless apart.  And once we repair and refit the ships, we’ll have a navy they can’t hope to match.  Rats were just streaming out to feed on the corpses.  It’ll take a while to clean the mess out--”
“The rats.”  San Lei Jong stopped him.  Then she repeated it.  “The rats.”
Gai Yi looked at her.  “What?  Are you okay?”
“On the ships.  There are three things on a ship.  The people.  The cargo.  And the rats.  The rats are on the ships too!”  San said.
“It can’t be the rats.  My master already thought of that, he checked, but the rats picked up from the western barbarians had been here for years before the plague ever came.”
“So it isn’t the rats.”  San said, more and more excited.  “So the rats that first came didn’t have the plague.  But then others came, and they did have the plague.  So what?  The rats aren’t the plague incarnate.  How could they be?  The plague spreads between humans too, but not all humans have the plague.  The rats just have the plague.  And then, and then—“
“And what?  They bite humans?  They wiggle their tails?”  Gai asked.
“They don’t do anything.”  San said.  “The rats don’t spread it.”
“But you  just said they did.”  Gai pointed out.
“The rats have it.  The fleas must spread it!  The rats don’t bite anyone.  The fleas bite the rats! And the fleas bite us!  And it’s the God damn fleas!  The rats didn’t have it until the fleas bit them!  And we didn’t have it until they bit us.  And the God damn rats carried them all the way across the ocean!  It all fits!  Gai, I can cure the plague.  I could end it all today!  We just have to kill all the rats!  We could declare war on the rats!  We can really fight back!  We really can!  God isn’t on their side!  God isn’t on their damn side. It was right there in front of us all along!  God didn’t start the plague!  We didn’t start the plague!  The Emperor did!  The Emperor did when he opened up the spice trade!  That’s what’s new!  We kept wondering, it began, so it had to end.  So where did it begin?  Something new had to happen, it had to come from somewhere else.  What is new in Liu-Yang, we who have farmed for ten thousand years.  What is new?  The spice trade!  It’s the spice trade!  We imported the God damn plague!”
Gai Yi sat back, looking at her.  “By all the gods I think you’re right.”
“I am right.  I know I’m right.  I can feel it.”  San Lei Jong said, trembling.
“You know what this means?”  Gai Yi asked.
“We’re going to save the whole world?”
“No, yes, who knows.  The point is we have a trick to introduce you with.”  Gai laughed.  And San laughed too.  “Just think!  A nun curing the plague!”  And then she laughed more and was hugging Gai for all her worth.
End of Book Two

Fae Lao grinned as he strode forward, meeting his friend halfway.  The two stopped and clasped hands with all their strength.  “I’d compliment you on securing my flank, if only you had done it in time to make any difference.”
“I am sorry.  I hear a lot of the Weh men wandered your way.  But it’s not like I could tie them down by defending the coast better or something.”  Gai Yi said.  “Besides, it looks like the Weh army was more helpful than harmful for you anyway.”
Fae laughed.  “You should’ve seen their faces.  Here they’d been holding out for the reinforcements, and the first time they saw them, it was flying over their walls.  Oh, it was a sight.  I think that’s what really broke them, not even the threat of killing a whole city in front of them the next day.  The fact that nobody was left to come help them.  It was a dagger to their hearts.”
“To think, you really took Daoyan.”  Gai shook his head, marveling.  “I guess the only question now is what we’ll do with it.  Ch’i isn’t exactly the most defensible buffer state.  It borders every other state in the Middle Kingdom.  And they’d all prefer for us not to have it.”
“Well, now that we have the capital, no one else can take it from us.  After that, I agree, we’re going to have to make some consolidations.  The border is ridiculous right now, but if we take Pi, it’ll level out pretty nicely.  We’ll have to think about moving the capital though.  Liu-Yang is just too far south.  Daoyan would be the perfect place, if we could just throw out all the current people and replace it with our own.  Hell, my army’s already trained in the mass removal of cities.  Shouldn’t be that hard.”
“Do you really think Hei will support a new war with Pi, now that we’ve just made peace with Weh?”  Gai asked.
“I don’t know.  If you ask me. . .well, from what I’ve seen. . .Hei’s not very interested in anything we do anymore.  From what I’ve seen. . .I think he’d be just as happy if the army was as far away from Liu-Yang as possible.”
“Then you know.”  Gai said.
“It’s fine by me.  If he wants to undermine his own reputation while I build up mine. . .”  Fae shrugged.  Fae wasn’t going to tell his friend that the assassination plot was already under way.  Fresh off his victory, Fae wasn’t going to wait for the Emperor’s suspicions to claim his head with some trumped up charge like what had happened to all the rest of the nobility.  Of course it would have nothing to do with him, just a son avenging his father’s death on some lone crazy crusade, killing himself right after out of grief.  But, since it was done, who but the conquering general and head of the distinguished noble family to save Liu-Yang in its moment of crisis?  With his army behind him, any other candidates would just be swept aside.  Then he would lead the war with Pi that the geography simply demanded.  And after Pi, Weh, already freshly defeated, and so on until Daoyan became the capital of the world.  A good thing he had started so young.  It would take a while to see this through to the end, and he’d likely be spending most of that time in the saddle on one front or another.  A good start though.  The first man to have ever taken Daoyan in modern history.  A good start for the legends.
“Ah.”  Gai Yi said, unwilling to reveal his trump card to his friend.  In the end they were not allies in this.
“Your honors, the Emperor would be pleased to receive you in the grand hall to thank you for your wonderful victories over the enemies of Liu-Yang.”  The purple and black cloaked officer bowed smartly.
“Of course.”  The two replied, bowing back.  Gai took a deep breath.  Well, this was it.  It would probably be his head if it didn’t go his way.  And if it did go his way. . .then he would be the Emperor’s new son.  Son and heir.  By virtue of the gods who had plucked him from the farms and brought him all this way,  so long as they hadn’t changed their mind, today would see him the son in law of Hei Ming Jong.  The next emperor or dead.  Lu Tai couldn’t fault him for not trying.  Sorry Fae.  You’re a god of war, you destroyed three armies together twice as large as your own and took an invincible fortress without a loss. . .But this time I’m one move ahead of you.
The two stepped forward in their best regalia as the trumpets and drums announced them.  Hei Ming Jong sat alone, the throne beside him depressingly empty, with all the court, largely dominated by purple and black guards, assembled to salute them.
“Greetings, Fae Lao, Gai Yi.  Each of you have vanquished your own kingdom, and brought peace back to Liu-Yang.  For this we thank you, and offer you whatever reward you should desire.”  Hei Ming Jong gestured to let them speak.
“Sire, I wish only the privilege to continue to lead my men to more victories in your name against all who would oppose us.”  Fae Lao saluted.
“Sire, I wish your blessing for the hand of your daughter.”  Gai Yi said just as sharply.
San gasped.  The court gasped.  Hei Ming Jong stood up.  Fae Lao turned to look at his friend in utter shock.
Gai Yi seized the moment.  “Of course you should meet her to determine for yourself if she’ll make a worthy match.”  And San stepped forward in bewilderment from the cloud of attendants who had buzzed behind the general like always.  There was no time to contest the issue now, it was either back him up or ruin her one and only chance to see her father face to face.  She  took a deep breath to compose herself and pulled the hood of her black robe back to reveal her face.  The two looked at each other in pure silence.
“You dare bring a nun in my chamber!”  Hei Ming Jong shouted, recoiling.  “Kill her!”
San jumped into her speech she had practiced over and over again in a rush. “We met before father!  Think!  When you came to bless the temple of holy wisdom!  Remember the girl who waved at you by the roadside!  Remember your son who asked after me!  I knew your son!  And he asked about me—but you would not believe.  You would not believe that your first wife was with child when you left!  I am your daughter, San Lei Jong, daughter of Da Fing Zhou!  Look at me father!  Look at me!  Am I not your daughter?  Can you not see my mother in me?  Can you not see yourself in me?”
Guards hesitated, looking at her, looking back at their Emperor.  The resemblance was impossible to deny.

“My daughter. . .”  Hei was horror struck, staring at her.  “Impossible.  Then why did she leave me?  THEN WHY DID SHE LEAVE ME?”  Hei shouted.
“She. . .”  San started to cry.  “Because you didn’t love her!  Because you left her first!”
“Didn’t love her!  I gave everything for love of her!  I did nothing but love her!  And she left me anyway!  I didn’t love her?”
“She always loved you!  Whenever she spoke of you her eyes lit up!  She never loved anyone else again.  She loved you until the day she died!  And thank God she did, so you couldn’t kill her!  At least her blood isn’t on your hands!  Only it is!  Only it is! Because you caused the plague too!”  San shouted back.
“I caused the plague!”  Hei shouted.  “I caused it!  So I killed my only son?  Is that it?”
“Yes, you fool!  You sent the treasure fleet all the way to the west, and you brought the western rats back with them.  The gray rats.  The rats that weren’t here before, that are replacing all the brown ones that used to live here.  You brought them back, along with all the spice.  And they brought the plague back with them!”
“The rats.”  Hei Ming Jong stared inwardly, horror struck.  “We never, ever thought of the rats.  A ship carries three things. . .oh God. . .oh my God. . .”
“God didn’t do any of it, father!  The Dao isn’t to blame for any of it!  If you had been more honest, mother would’ve trusted you!  If you hadn’t opened up the trade route, the plague never would have happened!  You did a lot of good things, but you did a lot of bad things too, and God can’t save us from our own mistakes!  You can’t blame God for your own choices!  But you can still change!  You can still change again!  Right now, you can still change back, you can make amends.  We can cure the plague, father.  We can kill the rats, and still keep the trade route!  We can rebuild the Church and restore God.  We can make peace with our neighbors again and plant our rice for the new harvest more bountiful than all the old ones.  If you just stop blaming God and be our Emperor again!  If you will become the father my mother loved and I wish I could love in turn!”
“Oh God.  Oh my God.  Oh God.”  Hei Ming Jong collapsed, cradling his head in his hands, suddenly feeling older and weaker than he had ever imagined, like a bolt of lightning had struck him down from the inside out.
“Emperor!  Emperor!  Are you all right?”  Men ran to him, the imperial guard rushing to his aid, suddenly finding their own future on the line.  Jin Yu turned to look at the woman who was ruining everything.  “You heard the Emperor!  Kill her!  Kill her!  She’s cast a spell on our lord!  She’s a witch, like all the nuns!  Don’t listen to her!  Kill her!”  The Imperial Guard charged, and San Lei Jong stood paralyzed and helpless.  So close.  I was so close.  I tried, Sister.  I really did try.
And the swords and spears crashed into each other, men shouting at the top of their lungs.  “To the general! Rally to the general!”  Gai was there, a whirlwind, a madman shattering spears and armor with every stroke, guarding her on five sides at once.  And then Fae was there too, twice as deadly, twice as fast, so dangerous the entire Guard seemed to flow around him, not even willing to enter the circle of death around him.  He hadn’t thought about it, he had just seen Gai in danger and moved.  “To the Reaper!  To the Reaper!”  His attendants shouted, and they rushed to protect their own lord with equal ferocity.
Imperial Guard started to stream from the entrance way, coming from all the corners of the palace, rushing into the battle as soon as others were killed.  “Kill them all!  Kill them all!  For the Emperor!  Rally to the Emperor!”  Jin Yu shouted, drawing his sword and rushing straight at Fae Lao, knowing he was the only one who had a chance at beating the flower of the nobility.  If they didn’t win here, if they didn’t kill that girl right now, they were all dead.  The people would rise up in vengeance.  Not one of them who had ever worn the purple and black would be spared.  It was victory or death.
Fae spun and met the strike as though he had seen it coming from behind.  His muscles bulged but the older man forced him back.  Fae stepped back, parrying, parrying again, the older, stronger man’s blows raining too fast to find an opening.  He fights just like you.  Fae smiled in appreciation.  In the end I trained you too well.  I had to give it my absolute all to win, I was always outmatched by that strength and fury and only my speed could ever save me.  Fae took another step back, and stumbled over a dead body, almost dropping his sword.
Jin Yu shouted in triumph and slashed a finishing blow to the head—and stopped short, Fae’s sword straight through his chest.  Fae grinned and kicked the sword out of him, giving him a small salute.  Tricked. . .tricked by a damn kid. . .and then he was dead.   When the remaining men noticed the battle came to a crushing halt.  Men in purple and black looked at the two generals and their respective mounds of dead.  Looked at the Emperor who seemed too stunned to notice any of it.  Looked at the battle hardened retainers who had just led two victorious campaigns.  They dropped their weapons and ran.
Fae Lao taunted them as they fled, laughing,  “That’s right, cowards!  It’s a little different when they fight back, isn’t it!  Keep running!  Run as far as you can, because we’re coming for you!”
“Oh God.  Oh God.  Forgive me.  Forgive me.  Forgive me.  Oh God.”  Hei Ming Jong muttered to himself, only dimly aware of the battle in front of him.
San Lei Jong trembled, but knew this was for her to do.  She made her way through the blood and bodies to her father, kneeling down beside him.  She took his hands from his face, holding them with her own.
“Father, will you bless me?  I have no ring or other bauble.  I have only my face and my word to vouch for me.  But will you bless me?”  San asked.
“Bless. . .I can bless nothing. . .I am a curse, a curse, a curse to the world.  I have done nothing but curse God and all creation, and avenged myself upon it. . .and it was me, it was me, I did it.  It was my fault all along. . .so many dead. . .bless you. . .as soon ask for the devil’s blessing. . .I am a Devil, a Devil, I’ll be reborn the worst lout--no--worse than any creature, only hell is fit to hold my soul!”
“Father, will you bless me?”  San asked again, turning his head to look at her.
“But what is your name?  What did she name you?”  Hei asked, staring at her.
“San.  San Lei Jong.  Is it a good name?”  She asked, hoping.
“San.”  Hei Ming Jong breathed.  “San Lei Jong.  Oh how I would have loved you.  I’m so sorry.  I’m so sorry, San.  I would have been the best of fathers. . .the best of husbands. . .I would have been.  If only things hadn’t happened this way.  I loved her so much.  It was all I wanted.  All I wanted.  I never wanted to rule.  I would have loved you so much, I would have done so much for you. . .forgive me. . .forgive me, San. . .I am the worst father to ever live. . .I abandoned my daughter and killed my son. . .and now only death and hell awaits me.”
“I forgive you.”  San said.  “But will you bless me?  Will you forgive God and save the Church which raised me?”
“Of course, child.  Of course. . .but not me.  I cannot rule any longer.”  Hei Ming Jong stood up, looking at the two generals watching, their bloody swords dripping heedlessly onto the floor.
“Gai Yi, you wish to marry my daughter?”  He asked.
“Yes, sire.”  Gai Yi said.
“San Lei Jong, do you wish to marry Gai Yi?”  Hei asked her.
“If I must.”  San grimaced.
Hei laughed.  Then he looked at Fae Lao.  Looked at the absolute fury on his face.  And he understood.
“Fae Lao, I gather I am to die someday soon?”
“Sire.”  Fae Lao said, watching everything be stolen from under him though he had done everything right.
“It is just as well.  I have no right to live anymore.  I’ve already received more happiness than I could ever possibly deserve.  My daughter.  A daughter.  I still had a child after all.”  Hei Ming Jong trailed off, then shook himself.  “Fae Lao, what will you do?”
Fae Lao trembled, balancing his soul on a pin.  I can kill them all.  Kill Gai.  Kill this daughter.  Kill the Emperor.  Kill the rest and claim the throne as the last man standing.  I can still do it.  I am the better man.  I could win.  I could at least try.
“Sire, I only wish to lead your army to further victories in your name.”  And Fae released his breath, released the anger, released the hope and the visions and all the plans.  So be it.  He would be the greatest general of all time.  The greatest Go player.  The greatest swordsman.  The greatest archer.  The greatest horseman.  The greatest zither player.  The greatest poet.  The greatest rhetorician.  And Gai could be the Emperor.  Gai could rule the world.  But he would be the greatest friend who had ever lived.
Hei smiled.  “Then you are far stronger than I ever was.”
Gai Yi looked at Fae, surprised.  “Fae, you would serve me?”
Fae Lao wiped off his sword and sheathed it, smiling with the pain of broken dreams.  “I only serve one thing, the absolute.  But I suppose there is more than one way to reach it after all.”

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