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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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 conscience 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.”
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?”
“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.
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?
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.”
“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.
“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.”