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Chapter 1

“Alright, let’s go over it again. What is the work of the Emperor?” The tutor
“To facilitate commerce. To administer justice. To make and uphold the law. To
negotiate with other nations. To defend our borders. To root out corruption or oppression
within the State. To. . .umm. . .be even higher than the archbishop when it comes to the
one true religion.”
“To defend the faith.” The tutor provided.
“Yes, that’s it. To provide heirs or in any case delineate who is next in line at all
times so there can be a smooth transition from Emperor to Emperor.”
“You won’t have to worry about that part for a while though.” The tutor said.
The boy laughed. “Right, so. . .let’s see. . .to maintain the army and public works.
. .to maintain the currency by keeping all the granaries full of rice unless in time of
famine. . .oh, yeah, to print the currency in the first place. . .”
“I think you’re breaking into smaller categories. Printing the currency and
keeping its worth from changing all fall under facilitating commerce.” The tutor said.
“Okay, so. . .to promote the arts and culture. . .to promote learning and scribery.”
“Scribery is not a word.” The tutor interjected.
“Well, to make sure there are scribes then.” The boy amended himself.
“You’re in a smaller category again. Should scribes exist for themselves or
something else?”
“Well, you need scribes to run the government.” The boy said. “So you need the
government to make scribes.”
“But what exactly do scribes do?” The tutor asked.
“Well, they keep track of the treasury, the revenue and the expenses. They write
all our laws and send them to the provinces, they write down court cases so judges will
follow a single rule and not be arbitrary, they keep the accounts so we know if officials
are accepting bribes or. . .the scribes do everything!” The boy gave up.
“Not everything.” The tutor laughed. “The scribes multiply the power of the
sovereign by communicating his will to the people and the people’s needs to him. We are
intermediaries. Ideally scribes do nothing at all. But this leads to a good question, what
are the branches of government and what do they do?”
“Well, there’s the scribes. They write things down.” The boy put up one finger to
account for them.
“Then there’s the military. They are the officers and the men currently in training
under those officers, plus all the men who have trained before and can be called upon to
come back and fight. . .There is a general of the left and a general of the right who are
given equal authority and men so that no one person can gain the support of the military
to overthrow the Emperor.” The boy held up another finger.
“Then there’s the priests. They teach the one true religion to everyone who will
listen and teach the people to respect the Emperor because he has the Mandate of Heaven,
and also they take care of charity, hospitals, monasteries, funerals, and have a yearly
stipend from the treasury to take care of all their needs. Each district has a bishop and
then there’s an archbishop who looks after it all and the archbishop reports to the


“Last there’s the. . .I don’t know. . .all the little people who collect taxes, customs,
make inspections, the ambassadors to the other countries, the servants who keep the
palace clean. . .I don’t know what category they fit into.” The boy said with his fourth
“The civil service.” The tutor provided.
“That’s all I can think of.” The boy said, hopeful.
“You forgot the nobility.” The tutor said.
“But they aren’t part of the government!” The boy complained.
“Not part of the government!” The tutor laughed. “Lin Su Jong, the nobility are
an enormous part of the government. The nobility provides their appointed revenues to
the central treasury, keeps order and justice in their territory, and provide men,
armaments, and supplies when the Emperor calls upon them in case of war. The nobility
also forms the largest portion of all the scribes and all the officers in the military. In
addition, they are local patrons of the arts, and by investing their wealth into joint stocks,
providing insurance, improving their land for more intensive agriculture, and other
works, they are pivotal to the economy.”
“But the nobility doesn’t do what we say.” Lin Su Jong complained.
“Of course the nobility does what the Emperor tells them. The Emperor allows
them a certain degree of independence because they are closer to their people and know
better what’s best for them in that particular area. Also because they create centers of
authority that can do the Emperor’s work, like collect taxes and hold courts. And also
because they make sure that the vast majority of wealth in the country is interested in
keeping the current ruler in power so that he will defend their ancient rights and incomes.
Without a nobility, the people, the merchants in particular, would have so much wealth
they could take care of themselves and it would be total chaos. Everyone in Liu-Yang
must need the Emperor or they will revolt against him. For the churches, they need our
annual support so that they can provide all their services, for the merchants, they need our
insurance and security and public works on the ports and bridges and canals, for the
military, only the Emperor can summon most of the forces and at any given time the two
generals are only allowed their fresh recruits, for the nobility, they need a ruler who will
ensure the stability of their inheritance. For the bankers, they need us to print and insure
their money. For the peasants, they need our justice, our oversight so that local rulers
don’t oppress them or overtax them, and to be protected from bandits and foreigners who
would seize their goods or lives. Everyone in the Empire needs the Emperor to be secure
in his life and property. Only then is there harmony throughout the land.”
“That’s what father said, that in the end the Emperor’s job was to be like the Dao.
To provide symmetry by making sure the rule of law applied to everyone and nobody
abused it, inside or outside the government—and to provide harmony by making
everyone rely on each other and help each other under the stable rule of just one person
because only one person can ever provide harmony because even the closest couple in
love will fight sometimes.” Lin Su Jong said.
“That’s right. In a family, the father has the power so he can provide harmony,
and in the state, the Emperor has power so he can provide harmony. If you split up power
everyone will just fight with each other and nothing can be done. In the universe all
Nature is kept harmonious by the will of the Dao, and so for us all people must be kept in


harmony by the person anointed by the Dao, the commander of the faithful, the
“But wouldn’t it be more symmetrical if everyone were the same?” Lin asked. “I
mean, if it were really symmetrical, how can one person be Emperor and another be a
“Symmetry isn’t unity.” The tutor said. “Symmetry is a beautiful pattern that
balances itself. You are symmetrical, but you still have eyes, a nose, ears, legs, arms—
you see? Your parts are very different but still symmetrical. It’s the same with harmony,
you aren’t one giant eye, you’re many different parts that work together and help each
other to form a whole.”
“Then what’s the difference between symmetry and harmony?” Lin asked.
“Hmm. . .” The tutor thought for a moment. “They are different but also the
same, because they both originate from God. They are two different ways we as humans
can perceive the perfection of God.”
“So it’s like symmetry and harmony are different but work together harmoniously
to form a perfect whole, the Dao!” Lin Su Jong said, impressed with himself.
“Ha! That’s good. That could be written in a sutra and not look out of place.”
The tutor smiled. Lin was smart, just like his father. He would grasp whole patterns after
seeing only the first few pieces. He would probably be a great Go player like his father.
The tutor looked up as the doors banged open, as though the thought had summoned the
very man.

“Daddy!” Lin Su Jong jumped up and ran over to his father who walked in
talking with a host of officials about grown up stuff. Daddy was always busy talking to
people because it was almost impossible to know everything you needed to know to run
the lives of all twenty million subjects as well as possible. But he still made time for his
“I don’t care if they’re making tons of money on the spice trade, there’s no tax on
spice. The tax is ten percent of the rice, our banks are filled with rice, not spice, Liu-
Yang is built on rice. The land produces rice. That is our source of wealth, and the
government’s source of wealth must rely on the country’s source of wealth. We rise and
fall together.”
“But sire, think of what we could do with taxes on the spice trade! We could
double the army! We could demand Tang dismantle his fortresses on our river—“
“I’m the one who ordered those fortresses built!” Hei shouted. “Has Tang ever
interceded in our trade? Once? Have those fortresses ever harmed one Liuyan?”
“No, sire, but just think, they could cut Liu-Yang, our very capital, off from the
sea. It’s disgraceful! Enemy soldiers on our own soil.”
“They’re not enemies!” Hei shouted again. “Get out of my sight. And don’t you
dare touch the spice trade!” The four or five officials closed their mouths on their next
words and bowed low. The Emperor’s temper was short at all times and their positions
didn’t last long unless they learned when to back down. Nobody was friend enough to
feel secure in his company.
“Hi Daddy.” Lin Su Jong said, smiling.
Hei Ming Jong looked down and smiled back. “Hi Lin. Do you know why we
shouldn’t tax the money journeymen make on selling spice?”


“Because they already paid taxes on the rice which they sold to get the spice?”
Lin guessed.
“Exactly.” Hei said. “By God. My eight year old child is smarter than all my
“Then why do they want to tax the spice too?” Lin asked.
“Because they don’t think it matters. They don’t care about justice, they want as
much money as possible, and they see that spice is making money.”
“But why don’t they care about justice?” Lin asked. “Isn’t that what we’re
supposed to do? Provide justice?”
“What is justice?” Hei Ming Jong asked. “Is it justice that these spice traders are
becoming richer than even the nobility? Is it justice that our insurance and our giant navy
protects them free of charge? You see, justice is whatever one person thinks it should be.
Everyone has their own idea of justice.”
“Then which is the right justice?” Lin asked.
Hei laughed. “Mine, of course. Or I wouldn’t believe it. My justice is you don’t
tax people over ten percent, because we don’t need any more taxes than ten percent. My
justice is allowing people to take risky journeys around the southern peninsula all the way
to the western coast and back to make a profit from it. Because of this spice trade, by the
time you become Emperor, Liu-Yang will be an entirely different nation. Anyone who
harms the spice trade harms Liu-Yang. Do you know that for thousands of years all
we’ve ever done is farm? That’s Liu-Yang. The Liu river and the Yang river. It’s even
our name. All we are is these fertile rivers which produce lots and lots of food. The
problem with that, is that no matter how much food we make, we just make more
peasants to eat the food, and so we end up just as hungry. Liu-Yang has more people than
any three other kingdoms put together. No matter how much food we make, all we ever
manage is to break even. Most everyone lives and dies very, very poor.”
“Then make them stop having babies.” Lin Su Jong said.
“Impossible. The peasants would be very unhappy if they couldn’t make babies
anymore.” Hei laughed at the thought.
“Well okay. Then how can things change?”
“With trade.” Hei said. “Trade is the key. Trade is the way out. The end of the
cycle. Trade is the answer. Take ten bowls of rice.” Hei said, sitting down next to Lin
and scribbling the scenario down. “Now, you have ten bowls of rice, and you need, say, 5
bowls of rice to just stay fed.”
“Okay.” Lin nodded.
“Now, what will you do with your other five bowls?”
“Save them for later.” Lin said decisively. “I’ll eat them when I’m hungry
Hei Ming Jong nodded. “That’s a good idea. Now we have five extra bowls of
rice. Enough to feed another person. Now say you have a kid, he can eat your five bowls
of rice and live too.”
“But then I’m out of rice.” Lin complained.
“That is bad, but luckily another ten bowls of rice arrives just in time. If your
lucky, ten bowls of rice will always arrive just in time for both of you to stay fed from
here on. You can eat rice forever.” Hei said.


“Well. . .I guess that’s good.” Lin said. He wasn’t sure what his father was
getting at.
“But say you didn’t save up your rice. Instead let’s say you just ate ten bowls
instead of five.” Hei said.
“But that’s wasteful!” Lin complained.
“You’re right. Now you have a kid and he just dies because he has no rice. So
from now on you eat all ten bowls of rice all the time and get fatter and fatter.”
“I don’t want that much rice!” Lin complained. “I only want five bowls.”
“Right, what can you do with so much extra rice? It doesn’t even taste good when
you eat that much more. Everyone agrees that they have no use for all this extra rice.
But then it turns out that there’s just twice as many people all eating rice forever, and
that’s the only difference.” Hei said.
“So what do we do with all these extra people?” Lin finally saw the connection.
“It’s just like eating twice as much rice, isn’t it! Except now it’s twice as many people
eating rice!”
“Right! Exactly! That has been the problem of Liu-Yang since the beginning of
time. We have more and more people all just eating rice!” Hei said. “And the only
alternative is to just eat more rice and have less people, is that any better?”
“No. I’d rather have more people than more rice, since people are better than
rice.” Lin decided.
“But wait, what if you could do something else with your rice? What if some guy
wanted your rice, and he would give you, say, a ball for it. You have five bowls of rice,
he has a ball. He could use the rice, and you already have enough rice. You could use a
ball to play with, so you can do something other than just eat rice. Will you trade your
five bowls of rice for a ball?”
“I don’t know. Just one ball for all five bowls?” Lin complained.
Hei laughed. “That’s the spirit. Say one person will give you a ball, another
person will give you candy, a third person will give you a pair of shoes, a fourth person
will give you a kite, and a fifth person will play a song for you that they made up
themselves. Now will you give them your extra rice?”
“Sure!” Lin said.
“Now you have all sorts of good things—but you have a son, and he starves to
death because you gave away your rice.”
“I guess that’s not so good.” Lin said.
“You’re right, it’s not so good. So instead you sell your ball to someone else for
five bowls of rice, and feed your son too.”
“But wait! I traded only one bowl of rice for that ball! How can it magically
create five bowls of rice?” Lin complained.
“I’ll tell you why. Because you went far away to find the guy with that ball and in
his land balls are all over, but where you’re from, balls are nowhere to be found. So a
ball is worth only one bowl of rice to him, but to the person you sold it too, it’s worth all
five extra bowls of his rice. So now you have all that stuff and rice for your son too.”
Hei said.
“But what about his son? If he gives away his extra five bowls of rice then won’t
his son starve?” Lin said. “In the end there’s only so much rice!”


“You’re right, Lin. There’s only so much rice. So we have to ask ourselves, do
we want all of our rice to make more people, or will we take all the extra rice we have,
and use it to get all sorts of other good things to make us happy? The richer people will
have both rice and good stuff, the poor people will have only rice or only good stuff, they
will have to make a decision. You said before, just tell them to stop having children, but
then they’d be unhappy. But what if we say, don’t have a child and you can have this ball
“. . .they’d still prefer a child.” Lin said, crinkling up his nose. “Balls aren’t that
great, daddy.”
“Alright,” Hei smiled. “What if we said, don’t have an eighth child and instead
you can have this ball? Or if you don’t like balls, insert whatever really good thing they
could have instead.”
“Well. . .I guess eight children would be a lot.” Lin said.
“It’s not that many, because so many children die of disease.” Hei said. “But
that’s not the point. The point is, at some point you have to ask yourself, what is good?
More life or better life?”
Lin thought about it. “Aren’t they both good?”
“Yes, they’re both good. If you’re rich you can choose both. But if you’re poor
you have to choose one or the other. There’s only so much rice.”
“Well in that case, I think I’d want to have a better life. Because life wouldn’t be
that great if all I ever did was eat rice. . .I’d just be like a pig or a cow, then, wouldn’t I?
And that isn’t that great.” Lin said. “I’d want to have a song and candy and a ball to play
with and a kite to fly and shoes to walk in.”
“It’s just like that. That’s exactly the problem. Right now most people aren’t
living like people, they’re living like cows or pigs, and that’s wrong. I don’t like it. I
want that to change. That’s what we have to change. All people do now is work very
hard to provide for their basic desires, just like any animal. Because Liu-Yang is so hot,
it’s much easier here than other places, also there’s a lot of water and the soil is very
fertile. That’s why so many people live here. But the problem is, even though life is
much easier here, because there’s so much of it, everyone is stuck working just as hard
and getting just as little as ever. It’s understandable when the northern barbarians live
like animals because it’s so cold all they can do is ride around on their horses killing their
sheep to stay alive. But we have a chance, we have a very good chance, to save up our
rice and trade it for all sorts of good things we can enjoy. We are much wealthier than the
barbarians, everyone in the Middle Kingdom is, because less land produces much more
food for all of us. We have to use that wealth and for once, instead of just making more
and more peasants, we should make better and better peasants. And the only way to do
that is to give them a choice, to give them the opportunity. If a peasant wants, he can go
on one of those ships and try and get rich so he can get everything he wants. Or a
peasant can decide to forgo children and concentrate on saving up his wealth so that the
children he does have can have better lives. Either way we’re finally breaking free of the
cycle, we’re doing more than just refilling our rice bowls from year to year.”
“But if people were willing to choose better lives all along then how come we
haven’t already chosen better life over more life?” Lin asked.
“Well, in the past, there were a lot fewer people, so the more people you had, the
better, because they would just turn some useless wilderness into another farm and we


would have more rice.” Hei said. “It went like that for thousands of years.” Hei said.
“And also, in the past, nobody had any kites, balls, or shoes, so why not just have more
rice? People had to figure out how to make kites, balls and shoes, and somebody had to
be willing to give them rice for it. But the big thing everyone wants—well, it’s silk, so
they can have clothes that aren’t hot—but the next biggest thing everyone wants, is spice.
So their food can be preserved, for one thing, especially meat. Without spice meat gets
rotten and so you can only eat meat the same day you kill your cow. But killing a cow in
winter is a waste because they’re very skinny in the winter. With spice, you can kill the
cow when they’re fat, get lots of meat, and then save the extra meat for the winter. Also
spice makes everything taste better that you do eat. The problem was the only way to get
spice is from plants that don’t grow here, they only grow far away, even further west than
Mae-Dong. Because Mae-Dong is the furthest west state of the Middle Kingdom, they
would make lots of money buying spice from the west and then selling it to the rest of us
—but they had to carry it all overland which is very slow and carries very little spice.
With ships, you can carry much more spice much faster. And until everyone has enough
spice that they can use as much as they want every meal, the more spice you can carry the
more money we make. You see? But we never got around the southern peninsula and
back safely and consistently enough until we figured out how to make better, larger ships.
So until now there was no choice in the matter. All Liu-Yang could ever make was food
which made more peasants which made more food which made more peasants. But now
it’s food or spice, and that spice can turn into anything else in the Middle Kingdom,
because everyone in the Middle Kingdom wants it. That’s why we can choose better life
over more life now and not before, even though we wanted to all along. By the time
you’re emperor, instead of worrying about the next famine and how you’re going to keep
your granaries full of rice, you’ll be worried about making sure all the land stays
cultivated so that there’s as much surplus rice as possible to trade with and make into
wealth for all your people so they can live better lives. Lives with time to think, time to
play, time to talk, time to make new things and new ideas. Lives with time to breathe and
look up once and a while. Lives like ours, where a father can just suddenly sit down and
draw diagrams to his son, because he isn’t going to starve if he does.”
“Is that why I’m your only son? Are you saving all your extra rice to give me
more good things?” Lin asked.
“No.” Hei Ming Jong said. “No. . .that’s not why.”
“Because I think I could trade some of my things for a little brother.” Lin said.
Hei fought to keep his voice under control. “You’re my only son because your
mother died giving birth to you, and I loved her too much to have another child with
anyone else.”
Lin crushed his lips together in worry. “You mean I killed mother?”
“No, Lin, no. You didn’t kill mother. God killed mother.” Hei said. Because
God kills everything I touch and everyone I care about. Because God hates me and he’s
already stolen two wives from me and if I marry again she’ll just die too and I’m too sick
and tired and I can’t go through this a third time, that’s why you’re my only son, because
I can’t love another person and see them die too like I know they would because it
already hurts too much as it is.


Chapter 2

“Let’s face it, when it comes to the military, all our emperor thinks about is cost.”
Shen Lao said, pouring tea for himself and his guest.
“I wouldn’t even give him that much credit. I think he keeps us weak
intentionally out of fear.” Hu Ran Shea replied. “How do you explain this policy
otherwise? Continuously collecting new boys for the military and laying off the current
ones. Since the beginning of time being a soldier was a profession for life, not some five
year stint.”
“The Emperor says the army needs to change into a format that allows for the
most possible troops in times of need and the least possible troops when they are not
needed. Every volunteer who enters the army serves for five years, and in return is given
a plot of land, but in return for that he must come when called for once more. The
Emperor says it is a great way to keep all the land in cultivation even with so many
peasants flocking to the cities in hope of getting rich off the new spice trade.” Shen Lao
said in a neutral tone.
“How many people live through the round trip? Half?” Shea asked.
“Oh, more than that. Two thirds at least. The main problem is the diseases the
sailors pick up docked in the western ports. Then there’s the constant barbarian piracy at
the straits, and then another line of Weh pirates that buzz around our coastline. The
monsoons are predictable, so storms aren’t much of a problem. All in all the trip takes
around six months, you leave with the spring monsoon, trade all your goods and repair
and restock your ship, then come back with the fall monsoon.” Shen Lao said.
“What fall monsoon?” Hu Ran Shea asked.
“It doesn’t get past the Mae-Dong mountains, but to the south of us, where the
ships sail, there’s a fall monsoon as well as a spring, blowing in the opposite direction.
Something to do with their proximity to the equator.” Lao explained.
“Oh, you mean how currents flow in the opposite direction on the other side of the
equator.” Shea said.
“Right, and that means hot water is flowing out and cold water flowing in, and the
difference in heat causes a seasonal monsoon until winter cools all the water down or
summer heats all the water up. On the other side of the equator the exact same thing
happens, but at the opposite time of the year. So traders have to go at the very end of our
spring monsoon and at the very beginning of their fall monsoon, and the trip is about six
months.” Lao said.
“So at the time inbetween the sailors, who have sold all their goods and are just
waiting around with nothing to do until they get home—“ Shea said.
“Exactly. They pick up all the local whores and muck about until they’ve got
every disease imaginable and if they don’t die there, or on the way back, they die a little
after once they’ve gotten home. And that means the cities are full of very rich people
who are willing to buy anything you can think of—thus peasants will go there to make
them stuff to make a living—but also breeding pits for all the new diseases these traders
have brought back with them—which means all the peasants that do go to the cities die
soon after. They’ve never been around so many people, they have no defenses at all,
they’re just lambs to the slaughter.”


“Why not ban peasants from leaving the land?” Hu Ran Shea asked. “You can
bet my peasants aren’t allowed to just wander away without my permission. I need their
“I suggested that to the Emperor, he said it was no use, it can’t be helped.” Shen
Lao said. “The peasants can disappear into these massive cities and you could never find
them if they ran away, the city of Liu-Yang has a million people in it, one or two new
peasants can never be noticed in that maelstrom. Furthermore, he thinks there are too
many peasants anyway and wants them to move to the cities, come what may. However
many die can always be replaced in a few years.”
“That’s true. Our women breed like rabbits.” Hu said. It was the common
wisdom of all the nobility that peasants’ sexual appetites were beyond description, due to
their vulgarity and lack of education.
“It’s a good point, as it is, our excess population just starves to death, or our
babies are just killed at birth, especially if they’re women and thus can’t work as hard.
Why not provide a high risk lifestyle which uses this untapped resource? With the wealth
our cities can produce, many people who would have to die if they remained peasants, are
only very likely to die by moving to the city. And for those who survive the city, we’ve
created a new source of wealth for the Empire. Liu-Yang’s land is almost entirely under
cultivation, the only place left for wealth to be found is the cities. The cities are the
future of Liu-Yang.” Lao predicted.
“Funny that the spice trade itself isn’t the focus of the economy, it’s catering to
the desires of the spice traders.” Hu Ran Shea noted. “Only gamblers and desperadoes
who expect to die go on those spice runs, so the moment they come back with all their
wealth, they just throw it away on some adventure and have to go back and trade for yet
more spice to continue their run. Some of these people have successfully made and lost
their fortunes four or five times.”
Shen Lao laughed. “God bless them. It’s true, the actual spice traders aren’t
making the money, the insurers of the ships who get paid a healthy percentage after every
successful trade, the quiet investors and bankers who are never even seen, the ship
builders, the shop keepers who sell extravagant goods to returning journeymen, these are
the true profiteers. And behind almost every bank or joint stock company which gather
goods for sale to put on the ships is the nobility. The question now is whether we can
ship something more valuable than rice all this distance so we can get yet more spice.”
“Aren’t we already doing that? Buying silk from Ch’in, then shipping it all the
way around the peninsula to sell to the western barbarians for spice? Even though the
route is so circuitous, it’s faster than the old land route.”
“The problem with that is Ch’in sells the silk at such a high price that it’s almost
impossible to make a profit reexporting it elsewhere. We need a product we make
cheaply but can sell for a lot. Rice is just too...the poor buy our rice, not the rich, so the
only profit traders make is selling the spice back to the Middle Kingdom. If we could
find a way to make a profit on both legs of the trip, the wealth would become
“Rice wine. We make it for cheap, but they probably have nothing like it.” Hu
Ran Shea suggested. “Or why not this very tea we’re drinking? Do they have tea?”
“Unfortunately they have remarkable soil. They have plants that create rich dyes,
plants for tea, plants for other drinks we’ve never heard of, plants that fuzz the mind,


even plants for a new type of clothing which is much cheaper than silk but almost as soft.
I’m afraid the only crop they lack is one that produces food. They grow absolutely
everything else. It makes it very difficult to sell them anything but rice. Whenever we
offer something else, they say something like, ‘yes, yes, it is very nice, but all we require
is rice, how much rice do you have?’” Shen Lao put on a foreign accent for added effect.
“Ha!” Hu Ran Shea laughed. “They must think we’re the barbarians, when they
have so much we want and all they want is our rice. Ha! The Middle Kingdom taken so
“There is one thing we could sell.” Shen said. “Crossbows. The problem with
that is they’re smarter than the southern barbarians, sooner or later they’d figure out how
to make them for themselves. It’s always unwise to sell something that can be copied.
Rice wine is a good idea. Just so long as the product is consumed so they have to keep
coming back to us for more.”
“Damn, the fortune we could make with silk if only we could make it ourselves.”
Hu regretted. “Silk’s invincible. They’d give us anything for silk.”
“Just be glad Ch’in is landlocked. We can’t have everything.” Shen Lao
“Karma.” Hu agreed with a shrug. “But did we come to discuss business or
“Is there any difference?” Lao smiled. “Well, getting back to the origin of the
discussion, then, this egalitarian method of recruiting for the military is endangering our
position. It’s better when the nobility provides the army, otherwise we just become a lot
of rich people who can’t defend ourselves from the Emperor or even the people
themselves. We have to keep our hold on the military or we go from rulers to subjects.
All of our traditions and revenues will disappear the day we can’t defend them.”
“The Emperor decided the nobility was not trustworthy because it provided so
few troops in the war.” Hu said. “How were we supposed to know he would win? By
the time we were informed there was a war, it had already been lost in the swamp. At the
time he was just some rebel with a few holdouts, we had to think of our future and try to
save ourselves.”
“Of course we couldn’t join the war at that point.” Shen Lao agreed. “It was
suicide going up against Ch’i, Tang, and Pi all together. There was no point wasting our
men and our own power for a dead Emperor. But Hei Ming Jong somehow won, and
now he seeks his military through other means. We bet on the wrong horse. The
question now is how do we get back into our customary position?”
“Well he still needs us as officers because we’re the only people who can
calculate, read, and write. He also needs us for cavalry because we’re the only people
who can afford horses. It’s not like the nobility isn’t represented.” Hu said.
“I know I know. But I’m not content. Not until we provide the foot again. The
Emperor has to need us, not just find us useful.” Shen said.
“It’s simple, father.” Fae Lao said. “I’ll become Emperor, and then we will make
the rules.”
The two nobility laughed. Shen Lao tousled his son’s hair. “How did you get in
here? Your mother was supposed to look after you while we men talked. Listen, son,
you can’t say something like that. It’s treason, and the Emperor has a giant network of
spies who are always listening for us to say something like that.”


“So what? I’m not afraid.” Fae Lao said.

“Listen, son, when you say something like that, nobody will do anything to you.
They’ll think you got the idea from me, and they’ll execute me for treason, and your
mother, and maybe even all my friends. So even if you’re not afraid, if you respect your
father and your mother, you will not say anything disrespectful of our Emperor. He has
the mandate of Heaven and his son stands in line to inherit after him. And the Emperor is
only 30 himself, he will live for a very long time yet.”
“Fae! Why are you in here?” Lei Lao remonstrated, grabbing her wayward child.
“I told you not to disturb your father.”
“But I wanted to listen!” Fae complained. “You never let me listen when you’re
saying anything important.”
“Enough from you. Out! Out.” Lei bowed in apology to her guest. “I’m so sorry
to trouble you.”
“No trouble at all. It’s refreshing to see such energetic children. I’m sure he’ll
honor your family name in the years to come.” Hu Ran Shea said, half bowing back from
his seated position.
“Oh, thank you.” Lei bowed again. “I’ll make sure you are left alone for the rest
of your conversation.” Then his wife slid the door closed again.
“A nice family you have.” Hu said politely.
“Yes, I love them very much.” Shen smiled back just as politely. “Did I tell you
Fae is remarkably good at Go for his age? He can also play the zither. I let him ride
geldings as well as mares he keeps them so calm, and his archery is flawless at the range
his muscles allow.”
“That’s some prodigy you have there!” Hu whistled, impressed. It was to be
expected, though, Shen Lao was a genius himself, with all the talents and manners
expected of a nobleman. Noble blood could only be expected to excel at everything.
“In two years he’ll be 14 and enter the officer training school.” Shen Lao said. “I
expect he’ll become a General before all is said and done. It isn’t honor enough for him,
but it is the highest rank possible, so it will have to suffice.”
“Ha! If he’s so good perhaps he can become Emperor after all.” Hu joked.
“I’m sorry, but let’s not talk about something like that.” Shen said. “Even as a
joke, it is very distasteful.”
“Right, sorry, then back to the recruiting process. How is the Emperor affording
to pay for his own army anyway?”
“Much of the land belongs directly to the Emperor rather than the nobility,
especially the land around all the major cities which form administrative centers. In the
end the nobility are provincial. Scribes, even though they are paid servants, consider
themselves the true nobility. We only have power because it’s too hard to keep in
communication with so many people so spread apart and far away from anything
important for the state to run things directly.” Lao said.
“Yes I know. But what with the Emperor refusing to tax the spice trade, and
giving away land to all these volunteers, it just doesn’t add up. Did he find some secret
buried treasure?” Hu asked.
“I guess you don’t need much of a tax base when the military is so small. Bridges
and the like support themselves with tolls. In the end the Emperor just keeps the
expenses low. He doesn’t have any taste for luxury or show.”


“He doesn’t need it. The people still love him for winning the war. He doesn’t
need any legitimacy beyond that.” Hu said.
“You’re right. Weak emperors buy the love of the masses, strong emperors
simply command it. And he is a very strong Emperor.” Lao said. “Very strong. If we
can’t find a weakness he’ll control everything, even the provinces. It’s worrisome. Who
could expect a second son to be such a born ruler? Hei Ming Jong was a sleeping
“Can’t be helped. If not for him we’d already be out of power and Ch’i would
rule the world. And the Emperor was the one who encouraged the spice trade we’re
getting rich off. It’s hard to complain about his policy so far.” Hu said.
“I guess you’re right.” Shen said, giving up and drinking the rest of his tea.
“There’s no way to change his mind now, his position is too strong and ours is too weak.
We’ll just have to bide our time. Things will change, they always do. For now, would
you like a game of Go and some of our sweetmeats? You’ve come a long way and I
would hate to think you haven’t enjoyed your stay.”
“Why thank you, I’d love to play. Perhaps I could watch your son play as well.”
“Perhaps. If he doesn’t do anything childish again tonight, perhaps I’ll let him
play you. You’ll be amazed.”



“Alright, let’s talk about the problems you’ll have to face as Emperor.” The tutor
said. “I’ll give you a scenario and you tell me what to do about it.”
“Alright.” Lin Su Jong nodded. It was like a game, being given a story and
getting to make your own decisions which influenced what happened next in the story
and led to new decisions and so on. It meant you had to think very carefully about every
decision you made to avoid a dead end.
“Southern barbarians attack Tang, Tang asks for your help.” The tutor threw out.
Lin Su Jong thought about it for a while. “I tell them I’m sorry but I can’t afford
to help them, if they want, they can strip the men from their fortresses and I can promise
to respect their autonomy and forbid any Liuyans to go anywhere near them until their
guards can come back.”
“Very good, Lin. Give and take at the same time is absolutely the essence of
diplomacy. Let’s see, Tang decides to leave the forts for a while to fight the southern
barbarians. The nobility insists that we seize the Tang fortresses while they’re
undefended.” The tutor said.
“I tell them no, we can’t break our word.” Lin said.
“The nobility claim the emperor has become the pawn of Tang and so long as we
don’t have control of our own soil we can’t possibly be a sovereign nation. They mutter
that no true emperor with the mandate of heaven would throw away the dignity of his
people or waste an opportunity to better ensure Liu-Yang’s safety.” The tutor says.
Lin Su Jong thought about it. He could kill them for saying it, which would
probably stem criticism until Tang returned and the issue was past. Or he could ignore it
and hope the issue would pass before the nobility did more than complain. Or he could
try and argue with them and convince them that it was genuinely the right thing to do.
That was hopeless. “I ignore what they say and hope the issue passes.”
“Alright.” The tutor nodded. “A fair decision. But let’s see. A massive
earthquake levels a major city, thousands die, hundreds of thousands are left homeless
from the inevitable fires that follow. Because of a lack of sanitation disease rages
uncontrolled in the surrounding area. A million people end up dying from the
aftereffects. The nobility claim this is God’s punishment and proof that you have lost the
mandate of heaven, they assemble their forces and the people support them due to fear
and ignorance.”
Lin Su Jong was shocked. A million dead! “. . .I guess I messed up somewhere.”
Lin said, chagrined. “I guess I really did lose the mandate of heaven.”
The tutor nods. “Alright, say you resign, then. A few months later you’re
executed for trumped up charges and the nobility elects a new emperor more beholden to
the interests of the nobility. Taxes are raised, merchants are strictly regulated so that they
will no longer compete with the nobility, and business weakens. The loss of revenue is
made up for by higher taxes on peasants—peasants complain that the price of goods has
risen due to the weakening of the merchant class and they can’t afford to lose yet more
money to taxes. The peasants revolt, the nobility takes swift action and crushes them—
meanwhile Ch’i and Pi see the chaos on their border and swiftly invade in order to return
‘balance and harmony’ to the land. Tang decides not to help us because we didn’t help
him, and after all, the true Imperial line is already dead. Ch’i and Pi conquer Liu-Yang


against a divided and haphazard defense of the nobility and a disinterested populace.
Liu-Yang is soon after destroyed as an entity in history.” The tutor paused to drink his
tea, watching Lin’s reaction.
“But. . .All that because of a barbarian raid?” Lin Su Jong was shocked. How
could he have been so terrible! How could Daddy ever trust him with the Empire if he
was just going to destroy it?
“No, Lin, not all of it because of a barbarian raid. The barbarian raid is a catalyst
to induce sleeping dragons to awaken, mix together, and destroy. Liu-Yang has many
sleeping dragons, and you must keep them asleep. At most you can only allow one or
two of them to awaken at the same time, it is absolutely critical to see a dragon waking
up and stop it before that happens. Once it’s happened there is a chain reaction and
there’s no stopping it. The seven headed dragon, the Orochi, is the world-destroyer. But
it only takes three to destroy something as small as Liu-Yang, don’t you think?”
“The world can’t be destroyed, it lasts forever.” Lin complained. “The Orochi is
just a story.”
“Actually even the best scholars don’t know if the world is periodically destroyed
and recreated, or if it lasts forever. There are many ways to look at it, after all, we suffer
from death and rebirth, so why not the entire world? But then again, our souls last
forever, so why shouldn’t the world last forever? Some things last forever and other
things don’t. What lasts forever are absolutes, universals, internals. Transitory things are
external, limited, relatives. Can you tell me this world, which is always changing shape,
always in motion, clearly not everywhere because you can look off it towards the sun and
moon and stars—can you tell me this world is absolute and universal?”
“. . .no.” Lin said. “I guess it’s just really big and doesn’t change much. . .”
“Right, but however long-lived it is, it’s something else to live forever. The world
may very well be destroyed someday, and for all we know, a seven headed dragon will
destroy it.” The tutor smiled. “But I’m more interested in the metaphor, not the
specifics. Can you tell me what Liu-Yang’s sleeping dragons are?” The tutor asked.
“The restless nobility.” Lin put up a finger. “I should’ve executed them the
moment they started complaining.”
“Maybe, maybe not. Let’s just worry about the problems before we think about
the solutions.” The tutor said.
“Okay. The enmity of Ch’i and Pi.” Lin put up another finger. “The ignorance of
the people which will lead them to believe whatever they’re told.” Lin put up another
finger. “The alliance with Tang which can drag us into a war we don’t want, and makes
everyone complain about their fortresses on our soil.” Lin put up a fourth finger. Lin
stopped to think about it for a while, put up another finger. “The weakness of an emperor
who let it all happen without even trying to stop it.” Lin put another finger. “Natural
disasters which are impossible to stop and could come at any moment.” Lin stopped to
think for a while longer, then put up another finger. “The barbarians themselves.” Seven
“That’s good. Let’s say you execute the nobility, that removes one dragon, the
ignorant masses being incited to revolt. But it makes the nobility even more restless.
You have one sleeping dragon awake for the foreseeable future. The Tang forts issue
becomes sleeping again, because nobody is allowed to talk about it. The second dragon


wakes up with the earthquake. The third dragon wakes up if you do nothing about it—so
what do you do instead?” The tutor asked.
“This time I summon the army to come rebuild the city and provide food, water,
and shelter for all the refugees. I quarantine the city in case of a disease and I go there
personally so that the army will be in full force protecting me and already deployed.
Now the nobility will think twice about revolting, and the people will see that I care.”
Lin Su Jong said, having thought out a better choice already.
“Very good.” The tutor nodded. “Ch’i and Pi, seeing you have things in control,
remain sleeping dragons. You’ve kept it to a maximum of two dragons awake at the same
time. The crisis passes.”
Lin nodded, pleased with himself. “If I think it over long enough I’ll make the
right decision.”
“But suppose something unexpected happens? A cult previously predicted the
earthquake or something like it would happen, the leader is believed to have miraculous
powers and prophesies from various gods. The peasants rally around him as he takes on
popular causes like taking all the money from the rich and giving it to the poor, he
promises them miraculous powers that will see them victorious in battle against all the
odds, he gives drugs to people and they fall into ecstatic visions and belief in him grows
—orthodox churches are burned and the peasants claim that all the disasters that befall
Liu-Yang are because the rulers believe in the Dao instead of the true gods and only the
cult of the true gods can placate them with proper rituals and sacrifices so that no more
earthquakes or plagues occur again.”
“You mean I didn’t really keep the ignorance of the peasants asleep just by
stopping the nobility from taking advantage of it!” Lin Su Jong said, surprised again.
“The nobility refuse to help you put down the peasant revolt because they don’t
like you for executing some of their highest members. You have to rely on peasants to
fight for you even though they share the polytheist religion and not your religion—they
either don’t come or don’t fight hard—you can’t call to Tang for help because you
refused to help him, what do you do?”
“I gather what men I can and put down the peasants anyway, they don’t know
how to fight or how to organize.” Lin said. The only other choice was to try and make a
deal with the peasants, but that would make him look weak, which would wake up Pi and
Ch’i again.
The tutor smiled. “Very good. Through personal excellence you might make it
through anyway, like your father did. At least until the next flood or earthquake. Let’s
turn to something else, then. Inbetween times of crisis, when many different bad things
happen at once, you have the potential to go on the offensive instead of the defensive
against these dragons, how will you take advantage of this sente?”
“You mean I should try and kill the dragon entirely so it can’t wake up and hurt
me anymore.” Lin Su Jong half-asked.
“That’s right.” The tutor nodded.
“Well, I could try and convert the peasants to our religion.” Lin said.
“No good, the peasants value their customs and traditions more than anything
else, it is all they have, after all. If you interfered with the only meaningful part of their
lives they would surely revolt.” The tutor said.
“Alright. . .well. . .I could abolish the nobility.” Lin said.


“No good. They would instantly revolt if you did and plunge you into a civil war,
which, even if you won, Pi and Ch’i would take advantage of.” The tutor said. “Besides,
without the nobility, there would be no way to collect taxes from our peasants or uphold
the law against bandits, murderers, and thieves.”
“Then. . .go to war with Ch’i and Pi, conquer them so that they can’t keep taking
advantage of me when I’m weak. Fight them when I’m strong, and when they’re weak,
since otherwise they’ll fight me when they’re strong and I’m weak.” Lin said.
The tutor nodded. “A bold move. That’s something that can truly be eliminated,
if you succeed, but you gamble everything on it, and create new problems you didn’t
have to deal with before. Instead of Pi and Ch’i, you would now border Mae-Dong,
Ch’in, and Weh as well, who would be afraid of you for being so aggressive. You would
likely have to defeat them too before you were truly safe. It would take a lot of luck to
win that many wars in a row.”
“I’m the Emperor! Why can’t I do anything?” Lin exclaimed in frustration.
“Because you care about your people and don’t want Liu-Yang to be harmed.
Otherwise you could do anything, but since you care, you can only do the right thing.
That is the limit of your power.” The tutor said.
“Then what’s the right thing? Why can’t I solve any of these problems?
Everything I do turns all the way around and does the exact opposite of what I wanted!”
Lin complained again.
“That’s karma.” The tutor smiled. “You pretty much summed it up.”
I’m not smart enough to do this. Lin decided. I’m just not smart enough. This
guy’s always three steps ahead of me. When I grow up I can’t rely on other people telling
me these things because their motives will always be something other than mine, when I
grow up I have to figure these things out for myself, I can’t rely on a tutor like this. But I
can’t do it myself either. I’m going to be a terrible emperor. Just one mistake is enough
to destroy Liu-Yang, and everything I’ve thought up so far has been a mistake, and all
this in just an hour or two, what if I had to make decisions for thirty years? I’ll never
make it. I’ll destroy everything. I have to tell daddy to have more children because I
can’t possibly become emperor. I’m not like him, I’m not a miracle worker, I can’t figure
things out like him, I should just become a poet or something, something that doesn’t
require any intelligence or skill so I can’t possibly screw it up. That’s all I’m good for.
That and killing my mother, I was really good at that. And making my father sad, I
managed that terrifically didn’t I? I was born screwing things up and I’ll die screwing
things up and I’ll drag the whole world down with me, I just know it. I have to tell
Daddy to have another son before it’s too late.

“. . .and so the Li dynasty fell from internal divisions and barbarian horsemen,
which the Li army had no answer for. Not even the longest walls could stop the guards
from being bribed to open the gates to the barbarians, and with most of the east
welcoming the barbarians as saviors who would give them the opportunity to regain their
independence instead of foreign invaders, the Li dynasty was only left with its core tribe
to stop the hordes. After the barbarians looted everything they could, they took most of
the Li people as slaves and their nation was wiped out forever, never to be reborn.” Hei
Ming Jong closed the book. His son was trying to learn how to read, but having to


memorize all those characters took an enormous amount of time and most books were
still beyond his reach.
“That’s terrible. What happened to the slaves?” Lin asked.
“Well, the men were generally castrated and given all the dirtiest, hardest work.
The women were generally made second or third wives and allowed to join the tribe.”
Hei said.
Lin blanched. “Why didn’t they try and stop it? How can you allow that to be
done to you?”
“People will do anything to live. They’ll live under any circumstances, under any
conditions. People always want to live. The courage to die when the time is right is very
rare and praised as exceptional by all the philosophers.”
“Who would prefer to live like that instead of die and be reborn? Isn’t any other
life better than that one?”
“Even though we know we’ll be reborn, we’re afraid and aren’t sure. There’s no
proof we’ll be reborn because nobody remembers their previous lives. Death and rebirth
is only inferred, we can’t be sure of it.” Hei Ming Jong said.
“You mean you don’t believe we’ll be reborn?” Lin asked, frightened.
Hei Ming Jong paused, thinking about it. “I know this, matter cannot be created
nor destroyed; it only changes shape. That’s absolutely certain, we see it every day
around us, burn a log and it turns into ash, smoke, light, and heat, even though the wood
disappears everything is conserved. Water evaporates and turns into clouds that rain back
down and so our rivers never drain out even though they keep flowing into the ocean.
Rocks are crushed into smaller and smaller pieces and pushed further and further down,
but then they get squeezed back together and volcanoes throw them back onto the
surface. Cycle after cycle sees everything changing but eventually ending up where it
began. It’s just a simple question of time, then. If you have infinite time, and matter is
constantly changing shapes over time, then eventually it will have to end up exactly the
same shape as before, in fact, not only once, but given infinite time, it will have to end up
exactly the same way it was earlier infinite times. Seeing as how we see cycles occurring
all the time around us, it’s clear that things move in circles, why, even the planets move in
circles around the sun, and the moon moves in circles around the earth, everything is
circular, not linear—that means infinite time won’t just go on and on into some endless
final state, it will start repeating—just like in long division it repeats. Divide a number
and it eventually goes into some final remainder which keeps repeating, reinforcing itself
because 7 in one decimal necessitates the 8 in the next decimal which necessitates the 4
in the next decimal which necessitates the 7 in the next decimal—you see? The initial
conditions create an environment either for a repeating state, or an endless progression
towards a final state that never quite reaches—that’s called an asymptote in geometry.
Depending on what initial conditions you set in geometry, you get one of those two
solutions. But the Dao set our initial conditions, and we can see all around us that it
prefers a repeating state, not an infinite progression. Since we are no different from
everything else, since the Dao is the will of the entire universe and has only one will
towards everything, we, just like rocks, just like water, just like the orbits of the planets,
just like how our history is always the rise of a dynasty, the fall of a dynasty, the interim
wars, the rise of a dynasty, the fall of a dynasty, the interim wars—just like everything, I
have to believe we repeat as well.”


“What?” Lin Su Jong asked.

Hei laughed, kissed his son’s forehead. “The universe is forever, so everything in
the universe is forever too, nothing is ever lost, we always come back, in as many
different ways as you can imagine, everything that can happen, has happened, and will
happen again. We will be reborn as many times as we die, life and death are just a
change of state, existence is forever.”
“So in another life I’ll see mother too?” Lin asked. “Isn’t that possible? And if
it’s possible, it has to happen eventually?”
“That’s right. Eventually everything possible will happen, good and bad.” Hei
said. “And one life only good things will happen, because that’s possible, and it will be
so good it makes up for all the others.”
“Daddy. . .I wanted to ask you something.” Lin said, finally facing up to his
determination that morning.
“Oh?” Hei asked.
“Well. . .earlier today. . .I couldn’t do anything right. I kept being given these
questions and I got every single one wrong. And I think it would be best if . . . if I didn’t
become Emperor after you. Because Liu-Yang deserves a better ruler than me.” Lin
swallowed. There, it was done.
“Don’t be silly. You’re just a child. When you grow up you’ll get all the right
answers. That’s why you’re learning now. It’s alright to make mistakes now, how could
you know better? It’s not just you, everyone is really stupid and wrong, but we get better
over time. Some people are born evil and get better at being evil over time; other people
are born good and get better at being good over time. And you know what? I think you
were born good, and you are getting better at being good every day.” Hei said.
“But what if I were born evil? I ki—“
“No, you didn’t.” Hei said firmly. “I’m sorry I ever told you that, if you won’t
understand that you did absolutely nothing wrong. You want to know whether you’re
good or evil? Ask yourself some questions—do you torture animals because it’s fun?”
“No!” Lin said, aghast.
“Do you humiliate people because it’s fun?”
“No!” Lin said. “How could I make fun of anyone when they’re all better than
me? And even if I were better, I would want them to like me for it, not hate me!”
“Do you order people around because it’s fun?”
“Well. . .maybe. . .I do like getting my way. . .” Lin fidgeted.
“That’s not what I meant.” Hei said. “Do you like making up some stupid
arbitrary thing for people to do, just to waste their time and see how helpless they are and
how powerful you are?”
“No. That’s stupid.” Lin said. “Why would anyone enjoy that?”
“Do you lie to me or anyone else?” Hei asked.
“Well. . .that is. . .” Lin fidgeted again.
Hei laughed. “Alright, say no more. When I was a child, I only lied for a good
reason, so I hope you’ll do the same.”
Lin blushed. “I’ll stop. I don’t mean to, it’s just like. . .I suddenly do it and it
simplifies things that don’t matter anyway. . .”
“Listen, Lin, lying is a terrible thing. It betrays people’s trust, it renders important
things worthless and meaningless, it steals away other people’s ability to make their own


decisions—it destroys everything valuable, and leaves nothing in its place. But--” Hei
“But?” Lin asked.
“My father was very strict, and would punish me for disobeying. I told the truth
whenever I could, but I didn’t always want to do what my father told me to do, and so I
would disobey and cover it up with a lie, when I thought I could get away with it.” Hei
said. “Usually it was with my older brother or my little sister, we would conspire
together to have fun against father’s wishes. If I had just followed his wishes, almost all
my best memories would have been stolen from me. I wouldn’t trade those memories for
anything. When I lied, I was not taking something away from someone else, or trying to
affect how someone else acted, I lied only to protect myself and the people dear to me, to
protect my happiness, to keep my father from taking things from me, from controlling
“But everyone says you should obey your parents and not bring shame to the
family. Children are supposed to honor their parents, wasn’t your father supposed to
control you? Just like you’re supposed to control me?” Lin asked.
“Yes and no. Suppose I ordered you to torture a squirrel to death, would obeying
be doing me honor and avoiding our family’s shame?”
“I don’t know.” Lin said.
“Should you do your family and your parents honor instead of shame?” Hei
“Yes, that is a child’s duty.” Lin nodded, back on firm ground.
“Very good. I am glad you don’t intend to shame me or your ancestors. So why
won’t you torture a squirrel?”
“Because. . .there’s no honor in that!” Lin protested. “The squirrel is helpless, it
did nothing to us, why hurt a poor squirrel when it carries the same soul as ours, when we
could be reborn a squirrel ourselves?”
“Suppose I order you not to eat beef. It is my wish that you never eat beef again.”
“Well. . .okay. . .” Lin said, confused.
“Suppose you eat some beef anyway, at some friend’s house, have you shamed
our family?”
“I’m not sure. . .everybody eats beef. . .” Lin remained confused.
“But you disobeyed my orders. Why aren’t you ashamed?”
“I guess I am ashamed then.” Lin said.
“Alright, say you’re ashamed, your friend is eating beef with you, do you feel
ashamed for him? Has he brought shame to his family?”
“No, of course not.” Lin said.
“Then there is no symmetry to honor and shame, then it is relative and thus
meaningless.” Hei said with finality.
“But his parents didn’t order him not to eat beef. If they did, then he would also
be shaming his family—“ Lin protested.
“So somebody could do something, and you would not know if it were honorable
or shameful, and could not judge a person’s actions at all, because you aren’t sure what
particular orders they are supposed to be following. Again an absolute has become
relative and thus meaningless. Go back to the example of the squirrel, you seemed to be
certain of that. You see your friend torture a squirrel to death, you go up to him and ask


him, “why did you do that? That was too cruel.” He replies, “It can’t be helped, my
parents told me to do it, I must torture squirrels or bring shame to my family.” Do you
think better or worse of his parents now than before?”
“Worse, it’s unfair to make my friend do that.”
“Then by obeying his parents he brought shame to his parents.” Hei said.
“I guess he did.” Lin said.
“So let’s forget this nonsense of who ordered what, the only thing that matters is
whether your act was honorable or shameful, and it is immediately apparent to everyone
which is which. If there is any meaning to honor or shame, there can be no possibility of
confusing the two. When a parent commands a child to do something shameful, a child
should disobey, to preserve the very honor of his family. That is self evident. If a parent
orders a child to do something arbitrary, however, what should be done? Whether you eat
meat or not has nothing to do with honor or shame, it has nothing to do with anything.
Arbitrary orders have no authority, in fact, they destroy authority, because perhaps later,
important orders will not be obeyed, because a child will assume they are arbitrary.
When I give an order, for instance, I forbid you from torturing little animals, what stops
you from torturing little animals?”
“I don’t want to torture them, so of course I won’t.” Lin said.
“Right, good. You enforce it yourself, by your own will. In fact, I shouldn’t even
have to forbid such things from you; they are clearly terrible on their own. Suppose I
order you to stand very still?”
“Then I stand still.” Lin said.
“Right, good. You enforce it yourself, because you trust that I have a reason. Say
there was a snake and it would bite you if you moved. You saved your life by trusting
me. Orders like that children should obey, categorically, without question. Say it is a
more removed danger though—suppose I tell you not to drink this water, or, be silent and
move to a different house. Perhaps the water was poisoned, or an assassin has been
spotted in the palace. So let us abstract further—earlier you said it was a child’s duty to
bring honor to his parents and avoid shame. Well, it is a parent’s duty to raise a healthy
child in mind, body, and spirit. Any order touching on that duty should be obeyed,
because a duty is absolute, and if you make it impossible for me to do my duty, then you
destroy me. If anyone stops me from doing my duty, they are my enemy, they are
actively hurting me by denying me the ability to live my life as it’s meant to be lived.
Just as it is imposing on a child by forcing them to bring shame to their family because it
goes against a child’s duty, it is imposing on a parent by making it impossible to do their
duty of creating a healthy child in body, mind and spirit. If you refuse to learn, if you
continuously do reckless, dangerous things, if you abandon yourself to drugs or drink or
women or power or prestige or wealth or any worthless thing, and rot your soul, your
pride, your value away—then you do me wrong. By ruining yourself you ruin me,
because I am supposed to protect you. I have to protect you; it is my duty to protect you.
If you don’t allow me to protect you, I can no longer be your parent, I will disown you, I
will wash my hands of you, no child of mine will stop me from being their parent and yet
claim me for their parent.”
Lin nodded. “I understand.”
“Very good. Orders like that I should not have to enforce, though I will. You
should enforce them of your own free will because they are for your own protection. As


you just mentioned earlier you couldn’t answer any of the tutor’s questions and were
wrong about everything. Even the best and brightest children are too stupid and ignorant
to take care of themselves, that’s why parents have to take care of them, and that’s why
children must trust their parent’s judgment over their own when it comes even to their
own welfare. There is no way you could love yourself more than we love you, and at the
same time we are much more capable of protecting you than you are, so orders touching
your own welfare are not open to debate or disobedience. I will enforce them
immediately and fully, just as though there was a snake hissing at your ankles, even if
you don’t see the threat, because I do. But if you trust me you will enforce these orders
yourself and I should not have to do anything.”
Lin nodded. “I trust you daddy.”
“Good. Finally let’s go back to this matter of eating beef. Do you have any
reason not to eat beef, save that I told you not to? Is there any point to not eating beef?
Does it do anyone any harm if you do eat beef?”
“No. . .not really.” Lin said.
“There you go. The command is arbitrary. Arbitrary commands have no
authority, no legitimacy. They are senseless, stupid commands that attempt to control
others for the sake of control. The only reason anyone obeys them is fear of punishment.
Punishment is only necessary to give force to a forceless command, the very nature of the
command shows that even the parent realizes it has no legitimate right to exist but must
be artificially supported by some external imposition. The previous orders we discussed
are adopted freely by you, but these orders are weapons against your free will. Lying is
also a weapon against another’s free will, it gets people to do and think what they would
not do and think if the choice was left to them by giving them full access to the
information needed to make their choice. A child cannot punish his parents, he is too
weak. But a child can lie to his parents. An arbitrary order starts a war between parents
and children, parents punish their children, children lie to their parents, the punishment
grows, so do the lies, there is no end to the war, there is no family, only hatred and
conflict. All true orders enforce themselves, punishment is never needed. My father was
very strict and made many commands I felt were arbitrary—I disobeyed them, and kept
them secret, if I were caught, I only thought to myself that I should be more secretive and
clever, I never decided I should obey my father. When I grew up I was strong enough
that I didn’t have to lie to avoid punishment, I could just refuse to be punished, so instead
of keeping it secret, I simply told my father of my intention to disobey and left him to
decide what he would do about it. I ended up banished, but quickly found a way to
support myself without my parents. A child has no such luxury, he needs his parents if he
is to live, his only choice is to lie and sneak about. A father with such a child has only
himself to blame. Now am I such a father? Have I given you any such reason to lie to
“No! It’s nothing like that. I don’t lie to you—just cooks and teachers and,
well...when I do lie to you it isn’t about what I do, it’s just I’m always lying because I
pretend to be a worthwhile son and I’m not! I’m so stupid and never understand what
people try and tell me, but I turn around and always act brave and just and smart and it’s
all a lie. It’’s because...I’m afraid if I told the truth you wouldn’t like me as much.”
“So I should like you more than you deserve?” Hei asked. “Is that fair?”
“But I want you to like me!” Lin protested. “Who else do I have?”


“Do I even really like you? Or do I like the imaginary Lin I think you are? Why
on earth do you take credit and feel liked just because I like some imaginary other-you?”
Hei said.
“I don’t know. It would just be too cruel if you didn’t like me.” Lin said. “I’d
rather be smart and good and strong and everything you hope for even if it’s a lie than
disappoint you.”
Hei shook his head. Lin still didn’t see the difference between externals and
internals, there was no use trying to distinguish them. “Listen, Lin, you can’t pretend to
be smart and good and strong every moment of your life, understand things so well and
talk to me so well and remember your lessons so well and ask such good questions, come
up with all the right answers, even all the right emotions to go along with your answers—
and that be a lie. Nobody lies that well. You’re right, I think you’re smart and good and
strong and the best son ever—and I don’t think it’s a lie, even if you tell me it is. You
would have to lie a lot better than you do now, to make me think you aren’t smart. So
how about you stop worrying about that. I don’t know what it is, my sister kept asking
me this when she was a kid, and now you keep asking it too, I love you, and that’s not
going to change. Love doesn’t change, it’s an absolute. It’s here to stay. So you don’t
have to worry about it anymore.”
“Alright.” Lin said.
“Well, we’ve strayed a long way from the original question, which is whether
you’re evil or not.” Hei smiled. “But if you don’t hurt others, don’t bully others, don’t
mock others, and don’t trick others, I’m pretty sure you’re safely in the good category.
For a kid, that’s about all the evil you can perform, and it looks like you called all of said
choices ‘stupid’, which would lead me to think that you not only aren’t evil, you don’t
have any earthly idea why anyone would be evil. You’re so non-evil it’s not even a
choice to you, it’s just ridiculous on the face of it.” Hei laughed. “You know, I pretty
much thought the same thing when I was kid, “what’s the point?” “why on earth would I
do that?” It’s a privilege to think that way. A lot of people have to work very hard to get
where we are and struggle over decisions we never even worry about. You have the gift
of the good will, and the will is everything, you never chose for your mother to die, so
how can you possibly be to blame for it? Only your will counts. Cherish your good will
and even when terrible things happen, you can get through them. I promise. If I can
manage losing my wife, you can manage losing your mother, because we both have a
good will that knows we never meant for her to die. It couldn’t be helped. It was just
“Am I so much like you, Daddy?” Lin said. He held his breath in hope.
“Yes, very much. Like the very best in me.” Hei said.
“Am I like mother any?” Lin asked, hoping again.
“Maybe...You’re named after her, you know. After three people, really. Su comes
from your uncle, the King of Tang, and my friend. You have my last name, of course.
Your mother was Qiao Lin Fu, so you have her middle name. She said it was only fair to
have your first name, since I had your last. Always the diplomat, your mother.” Hei
smiled to himself. “But she was a girl and you a boy, after all. And you’re young and
she was old. And she never got a chance to share her life with you, so it’s harder...but she
was very smart, very beautiful, and very understanding to everyone around her. She was
the kind of person who remembered everyone at a party and made sure each of them


received a gift, that her servants were well cared for and that nobody around her was
suffering if she could somehow prevent it. The sort of person who made sure everyone at
a table felt respected and valued, a born diplomat. The sort of person nobody ever
thought one bad thought about, or wished any ill. A person without any enemies at all,
everybody was so busy liking her they never even got around to envying her for her
position or her wealth or even her looks. A person nobody even bothered spreading
rumors about, it was so hopeless getting anyone to believe them. So are you any like
her? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Lin smiled. “Impossible. If I’m like you I’ll never be like her, you make
everybody mad.”
“Yes, well, everybody makes me mad first. It’s entirely their fault.” Hei smiled
back. “For now just listen to your teachers, learn how to read, write, and calculate,
memorize the sutras, know your history—and all of a sudden you’ll find out you’re a lot
more like a prince then you thought you were, and all of a sudden people will start asking
you questions and expecting you to lead the way and following you –and then you really
will be a prince, as good a prince as any.”
“Alright.” Lin nodded. He thought he understood. Everything possible had to
happen eventually, so this time, Daddy only had one kid, because one kid was going to be
enough to make up for all the rest. He would just have to be that good. That was his
karma, the way to balance the imbalance, the way to make it work after all.


Chapter 4

“Sister Jun! Sister Jun!” San Lei Jong came running in her knee length smock.
“I saw the emperor’s son! I really did! He passed right by on the road! He was so cute!”
Sister Jun stood up from her gardening and shook her head. “Listen, San Lei
Jong, you’re twelve years old now so you have to act with more dignity. You shouldn’t
be running around outside unsupervised, you should be praying and studying like the rest
of us.”
“But that’s so boring!” San complained. “I already know everything about God,
and you say yourselves that God doesn’t listen to our prayers, so why on earth should I be
praying to God all the time?”
“Praying purifies the spirit and brings us closer to God, the true prayer doesn’t
bring God down to our level, it raises us up to God’s level. Without prayer you will end
up like everyone else, just an animal seeking to fulfill its animal instincts, is that what
you want to be?”
“Phooey, if animals get to play and run around then I’d rather be an animal than a
nun. At least animals enjoy being alive. If we’re born wanting stuff, why not go get it?
Why on earth do the opposite? That’s like a stubborn baby just trying to make trouble to
get attention. “Look, God, I’m not going to act according to my instincts like everything
else, I’m going to do the exact opposite instead, I am special!” But we aren’t special, we
are just like everything else, the Dao doesn’t pick favorites, it has the same will for
everything in the universe—so why not be like animals? We are like animals.”
“We aren’t like animals.” The nun insisted, scolding. She couldn’t control San
like other children because of the secret even San didn’t know, so all she could do was
argue with her. San was constantly taking advantage of her special privilege, too. It
made for such a headache. How can you control children without discipline? She was
completely wild. “We’re the only people who can comprehend God and align our will
freely, reasonably, through our own knowledge of Good, with the Dao. With symmetry
and harmony. Pigs and cows just go through their motions, but we can give value to our
motions, purpose to our motions. The only possible value or purpose to anything, which
is the absolute, which is the Dao.”
“Pigs, cows, and humans all have the same purpose, to be happy.” San insisted.
“We’re just like animals, and all of you are unhappy because you refuse to admit it.
When I grow up, I’m going to do whatever I want and get whatever I want and I’m never
going to feel guilty about it.”
“San? Is that you? Stop troubling sister Jun and come help me with this dinner.”
Da Zhou called from afar. Cabbage and fish and rice were simple but seasoning them so
that they tasted good was more complex.
“Yes, mother!” San said. She stuck out her tongue at sister Jun and ran towards
her cottage. “Mother, mother! I saw the Emperor’s son today! He rode on a horse
beside his father on the way to the blessing of a new temple!”
“Really? The Emperor came all this way to bless the new temple? That’s really
something. I hope there will be some miracles there soon enough to show the Emperor’s
blessing mattered.” Da Zhou said, keeping her voice very calm.
“Oh, that’s silly, everyone knows the Dao doesn’t make any miracles. Why
would the Dao intervene with itself, disrupt the very symmetry it chose to make? If God


contradicted its own will, the whole universe would collapse, because only God’s will
holds it together!” San Lei Jong countered.
“Ah, you’re too clever for me, San. Most people don’t care about God unless
God can give them something, and they won’t care about our Emperor unless he can give
them something too. People are very selfish like that. So I hope something good
happens, even though of course it is not a miracle, just so people will love God and love
their Emperor like they should.” Da Zhou said, keeping her voice cheerful and
“You know what, though? You know what? I think the emperor’s son looks like
me! Maybe my father is related to the Emperor after all, since his last name was Jong
too! Don’t you think? Do you think the Emperor would meet with me if I told him my
last name was Jong too?” San asked, excited. It was rare getting to see anybody outside
the convent, much less the Emperor himself.
Da Zhou dropped the pan onto the counter with a loud clatter, only a few inches
so the fish didn’t fall. “Clumsy of me.” She said, her voice less sure of itself. “Listen,
San, don’t say anything to the Emperor, don’t even go look at the Emperor, or his son.
They’re noble people and they have no time for people like us. They are very important
people and they would feel insulted if you said anything like that to them.”
“Awww.” San pouted. “They looked nice to me. Are you sure they wouldn’t
even want to see me? We have the same last name after all—“
“No, they wouldn’t want to see you at all. They want nothing to do with people
like us, they would be very mad at our entire convent for letting you bother them, so
please don’t go see them or talk to them again.” Da said, her hands clenched around the
“Alright, if you say so.” San said, pouting.
“There, that’s better. Now let’s make sure we get all this cooked and not drop it
again until it’s done. I’m sure the sisters don’t want to eat dirt with their fish.” Da Zhou
“That would be funny! Maybe we should drop the fish, mommy!” San smiled at
the thought of the fussy nuns eating dirt.
“Goodness! The ideas you come up with! You are a regular devil, San. The nuns
are very kind and good to us and it would be a shame to do anything bad to them in
return. There’s such a thing as gratitude, San.”
“I think they’re a bunch of fuddy-duddies. They could use a good mud pie.
Maybe they’ll learn to laugh again.” San said.
“The nuns laugh lots of times, thank you very much. But certainly not by eating
“When’s the last time a nun laughed?” San challenged.
“Why, just last winter when someone thought of that intricate lace pattern—“
“That was five months ago! Five months!” San said. “Five months, mother!”
“Really, has it already been five months? Well, nevertheless, we aren’t putting
dirt in our fish. The ideas you come up with—“ Da repeated, flustered. Anything to get
San’s mind off the Emperor. God, what if the Emperor visited the monastery? It would
all be over then. Her life would end, all her worst nightmares would come true.
“But mother, you came up with the idea.” San protested.


“Well, in a sense, but I had no intention of doing it—“ Da said. “You were just
born for mischief. When are you going to settle down like a lady?”
“Never! Never never never. I don’t want to be a lady. Ladies are boring.” San
“You say that now, but men don’t like girls who don’t act like ladies.”
“Who cares? I don’t know any boys anyway. We never even see any. Who cares
what they’ll think of me?” San complained.
“You say that now, but you’ll care later, but by then it will be too late to change.”
Da scolded.
“Oh well then. I guess I’m doomed.” San said, pickling the cabbage. Whatever
mother said, the moment she was free again, she was going to see the Emperor’s son. It
was the first exciting fun thing that had happened in a year or two, and she wouldn’t miss
it. If they were going to be mad, oh well, it was worth at least trying. They didn’t look
like mean people, whatever mother said. I bet they’d be intrigued that her last name was
the same as theirs. Why wouldn’t they be? Who wouldn’t want to find a new relative?

“There is only one absolute, it’s not the Dao, the Dao is just made up. The only
absolute is power.” Fae Lao replied to Fu Shi. He was just so full of karma this and that
and it was getting on his nerves. “The priests made up the Dao to control everyone else
with their sutras. The priests admit themselves that the sutras were written by priests,
they say the priests ‘saw God’ and so their wisdom is holy truth. But who has ever seen
God? I haven’t. You haven’t. Nobody has. Why should we believe someone else has,
then? There is no God. That’s why nobody sees one. God is just an excuse to gain
power over others. The only thing that has ever mattered is power. That’s what everyone
really cares about, no matter what they say. That’s what everyone lives for. We live to
become as powerful as possible. Strong people achieve that goal, weak people fail, and
that is the only difference in people. I am going to be the strongest. There’s no such
thing as karma, nothing else controls my fate, I choose my fate—but my fate is to
become the absolute strongest. I will be the very best at everything. No one will be my
better. No one will ever tell me what to do.”
Fu Shi smiled, catching Fae in a trap. “You say that, but no matter how good you
become, you’ll always just be a noble and you’ll have to do what the Emperor tells you.
In the end you’re just a braggart.”
Fae Lao shrugged, picking up a rock and skipping it across the pond. His father
was meeting with Fu Shi’s father, his father was meeting with all the other nobles.
Because his father understood power and strength. Fu Shi’s father was just another weak
person, another tool for his father. And that made Fu Shi even weaker. It was useless
even discussing it with him.
“What, no answer?” Fu Shi jibed. “Will the Emperor abdicate because you can
skip a stone?”
Fae Lao said nothing, he just leaned back and watched the pond. It was more
interesting than Fu Shi at this point. He wished father would finish so they could get
back home.
“Whatever.” Fu Shi complained. “If you can’t defend your positions then don’t
make them.” The silence irritated him.


Fae Lao closed his eyed. Fu Shi had a point. He was an idiot if he didn’t
understand yet though. “I will be the strongest.” Fae Lao said again. “Figure the rest out
for yourself.”
Fu Shi stared at him. “You mean, you think you will--?”
“I think nothing. That’s your assumption.” Fae Lao said. Finally he understood.
“Right. I see. Well, you’re an idiot if you think you can get away with it.”
Fae Lao closed his eyes again, feeling the sun against his skin. There, he’d
defended his position.
“You know what? This is boring. I’m leaving.” Fu Shi walked away. Well, they
finally agreed on something. Fae had figured something out very early. Only weak
people tried to influence others, because that meant they depended on someone else.
Only weak people tried to acquire things, because that meant they depended on those
things. And only weak people tried to find companions, because that meant they
depended on their companionship. Fae Lao had no interest in acquiring anything at all.
To be strong was to be the best. To be the best was to be the strongest. And the strongest
person in the world was the Emperor of Liu-Yang. So that was what he would become.
He wouldn’t just become an Emperor, he would become the greatest Emperor of all. He
would become the Emperor that finally united the Middle Kingdom once more under his
dynasty. After that, all he had to do was make his dynasty stronger than the three before
his, and he would be the greatest man who ever lived. Only then would he be content.
The only respect he cared about was from people whose respect mattered, the other great
men. Only surpassing them mattered, everything else was just a petty pecking order like
any barnyard chickens did. Since there were very few great men alive at any moment,
the respect he really cared about was from the great men before him, and the great men
who would follow him. To gain their respect he would have to do something
monumental, so that’s what he would do. Only a few names were ever remembered,
Ch’in, Li, Tang. The rest faded and were gone. Lao would be the fourth name. His
father was already doing it, becoming as powerful as possible. But that ‘as possible’
limited him, you were born with a potential and at best you could only reach it. It took
great men a great moment to truly become great. Fae was sure many great men had lived
and died in absolute obscurity for lack of a chance to do anything. But he was not one of
them. He was the eldest son of one of the strongest noble houses in the most powerful
nation one hundred and ten years into a period of civil war in the Middle Kingdom which
was past due for a new dynasty. The moment had been born for someone to take it. He
had the luck to be born at the right time, his father hadn’t. The instinct was the same.
The bird of prey instinct that separated the strong and the weak. Fae skipped another
stone across the lake. Too easy. Everything was too easy. Time needs to pass sooner so I
will be old enough to do something hard. Everything I do is pointless until it becomes
hard for me to do it. Only then will I be reaching my potential.
“Fae? We’re done here, let’s go.” Shen Lao called from the doors to the mansion.
“Yes father!” Fae called, stretching. He wondered how many signatures father
would get before he felt ready to petition the Emperor. He wondered what the Emperor
would do about it. From all reports Hei Ming Jong was much stronger than even father.
Hopefully he’ll be dead by the time I’m ready. I’m sure his son will be much easier to


“Did he sign the petition, father?” Fae Lao asked, falling into step towards their
guards and horses. It would have been more polite to stay the night, but the Shi family
was too minor and Shea Lao wanted to reach the Tsu-Ning before nightfall. Always so
long to do anything. Always the slowness of transportation and communication. It made
almost any organization impossible. Well, no matter, if it made it harder for him, it was
just as hard for his enemies, so it made little difference. Except the impatience and
irritance it all was. But those were unimportant feelings thus not worth feeling.
“Father?” Fae asked again, trying to keep up with the taller man’s stride. In a
few years I’ll be just as tall and then I won’t be so invisible. But oh well. Fae shrugged
inside himself. “Does Shi think you can transfer the military training to the nobility?”
“Yes, he did. It’s a fair compromise, after all. And it would save the emperor
money, which is all he seems to care about. Once we train the foot then all access to the
current military has to come through us, even if the reserves only answer to the Emperor.
It’s a fair enough compromise and the Emperor would be wise to take it.” Shen Lao said,
casually grabbing his horse from a steward and mounting him in one smooth motion. “I
won’t let peasants take over Liu-Yang, and neither will Shi, and neither will all the rest of
the nobility, and soon the Emperor will know of it.”
A peasant military. Fae Lao shook his head. They’ll all just break and run at the
first scent of battle anyway. If the peasants don’t revolt first and make us slaughter them
—or even worse, win, and turn Liu-Yang into an ignorant, dirty, violent anarchy. What
could the Emperor have been thinking? If he’s such a military genius, why does he make
such an obviously bad military policy? You’d think he could at least get this right.
“I hope you were polite to his son, we need their support however minor they
happen to be. Minor houses add up.” Shen Lao said.
“I tried to be, father, but he was ignorant and rude.”
Shen Lao grimaced. “So that means you should be ignorant and rude too? So that
means a Lao should become a Shi? Is that how you’ve represented my honor?”
“Sorry father.” Fae quailed, thankfully on his own horse and far enough away
that a blow was more trouble than it was worth. “I...I’ll try harder father.”
“You aren’t forgiven.” Shen said severely. “I try to teach you what it’s like to be
a nobleman, and you act like a dirty fishmonger in return. Very well then, once we get
home, you can avoid all ignorant and rude people until you join the military, does that
suit you better?”
“I’m sorry father. It won’t happen again.” Fae promised, frightened of the threat.
He hated being away from important things. It made his life even more useless than it
already was. He hated being a child. So stupid to argue with Fu Shi, what was the point?
Who cares if you proved yourself better than Fu Shi? Anyone is better than Fu Shi!
Even caring proved you were only slightly better than him anyway. From now on you
never try to show up anyone, no matter what. Fae told himself. You are to be the best,
not any particular’s better. Better was petty. Only best mattered. Prove you are the best
and no one will question who is better. From now on you only prove yourself the best.
So childish and now you’ve angered father and rightfully so, you’re interfering with his
diplomacy and for such a petty, worthless object, proving Fu Shi’s Dao was wrong—who
cares? Who cares what he thinks anyway. So stupid.
“I don’t care if it will happen or not.” Shen Lao said. “Guards, we’re going to
split our entourage from here. Half of you will escort my son back to his nursery where


he belongs. The rest of us will proceed with the tour as planned.” The captain of the
guard laughed along with most of the men. Fae kept his face calm but he burned with
shame inside. “Alright lad, don’t get lost now—home’s this way.” The captain said,
turning his horse the opposite direction from where they were going. Fae burned more as
the rest of the men laughed. Let this shame remind you to never care about better again.
Next time you try and be better, remember this laughter, and forget it. Your only goal is
to be the best. The absolute only goal of your life. Fae jerked his horse around with the
only anger he allowed himself to show. He bit his cheek and didn’t look back as his
father rode away to important things.

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

“Hey now, little missie. What’s your business here? Don’t you see it’s getting
dark? Why are you out here on your own?” A guard, lounging in a loose picket around
the temple, asked her. Just a normal girl going up the road. But strange that she’d be on
her own.
San bowed her very best ladylike bow. “I. . .I wanted to see the new temple and
the Emperor and I wasn’t sure how long you’d be here so I ran as fast as I can, I’m from


the nearby convent, and it’s just for a short while so nobody will miss me, so please can I
“Well, not just everybody who wants to see the Emperor can see the Emperor.”
The guard laughed. Just a little girl acting like any little girl would, he supposed. God
knows I would jump at the chance to see the Emperor if I lived out in the country.
“But I’m not just anybody!” San protested. “I really do want to see him—I bet
he’s drinking tea right now, I’m not interrupting anything really am I?”
“Well then, wouldn’t you be interrupting his tea?” The guard smiled.
“Well yes, but. . .” San blushed. What on earth could she say to get any further?
She didn’t want to mention her last name until she saw the emperor, if she just told the
guard they’d probably think she was just lying and ignore it. . .
“What’s wrong?” Lin Su Jong asked, noticing the altercation and walking up.
Father was talking to the priests like he always did and it was all over Lin’s head so he’d
decided to enjoy the gardens instead. “Oh! Aren’t you the little girl I saw waving by the
The guard was surprised. “You know her?”
“Oh, not really. It’s just that she was here when we came in.” Lin said.
“That’s right! I live at the convent and I wasn’t far away at all, so I thought it
would be so great if I could come and see you, I mean, you’re the Emperor’s son!” San
rushed out as quickly as she could, jumping at the chance. Karma that he came out just
right now. There was no way the guard was going to let me through but karma found a
The guard shook his head, “I suppose there’s no harm in it either way, just so
long as you stay in sight.”
“Of course.” Lin nodded. He turned his attention to the girl, she acted younger
than him but she looked older. Well, best to be as respectful as possible either way.
“You’re right, I’m the Emperor’s son. My name is Lin Su Jong. What’s yours?”
San gave a sideways glance at the guard, biting her lip. Lin looked up, the guard
looked studiously away, and so Lin walked back towards the temples and away from any
eavesdroppers. “Okay, so what’s the big secret? Is your mother sick, poor, did you come
to beg a favor? I’m sure father will do whatever he can. If you tell me I can tell him, he
acts mean all the time but he’s really a nice person.”
“Oh it’s not that!” San blushed, realizing what Lin thought of her. A beggar. I
guess if you’re the emperor almost every commoner comes to beg. It seemed so sad
when she thought about it. Just one person with everything and everyone else begging
for a tiny little with nothing of their own. “It’s my name, see. You asked my name, and
it’s, well, my name is San Lei Jong. Jong, you see. My name’s just like yours! I knew
the guard would never believe me but you will, right? You’ll believe me. Why would I
“Of course I believe you, if that’s what you say your name is.” Lin was amused.
There had to be thousands of Jongs all over. The Middle Kingdom was so interbred that
almost everyone was family somehow or another.
“But it’s not just that—I noticed on the road, don’t you think—don’t you think we
look just like each other? I mean, we have the same color eyes and all—“ San said.
Lin laughed. “We all have the same color eyes—black. Only barbarians have
weird colors.”


“Yes, but, it’s not just that. It’s the hair, the face, everything, don’t you think?
Don’t you think we must be related?” San asked.
“I’m sure we are.” Lin said. “We’re all related after all.”
“No I mean, really related. I mean like, maybe my father and your father are
cousins, or uncles, or something. Don’t you think? It’s just I don’t know much about my
father but his name was Jong and don’t we look alike?” San insisted.
“I don’t know. I guess we could be. I’d have to ask father if he had any cousins
or uncles with children or anything. . .” Lin said, confused. He was a boy and she was a
girl, but she was right, they did look very alike. Not exactly alike, but it did seem
strange. “But then, why would you be here? I’m sure all the Jongs are nobility.” Lin
blushed. “I mean, not that it matters if you aren’t noble. . .” Terrible manners to remind
her that she was just a peasant. So rude. It just slipped off my tongue before I could stop
it. Come to think of it, how many distant relations did he have? Grandmother died
before he could remember, aunt Yue was way off in Manching. . .did he even have any
cousins or anything? Lin thought maybe most everyone had died and it really just came
down to him. The only heir there was. Did he have any relatives? He would have to ask
father what happened and why nobody else was born. Of course uncle Rin died before he
could even marry, so. . .but the generation before that surely. . .and well of course there
was the Fu side of his family but they weren’t Jongs, they weren’t the relatives that
mattered. . .
“Do you think? Do you think we could go ask the Emperor if he knew my father?
I would thank you forever and ever. I’d pray for you every day if you did. Wouldn’t you
hate it if you did not know anything about your father?” San asked.
Lin smiled. “I guess it would be a lot like never knowing your mother.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. . .I didn’t know. . .I guess I did sort of know but I forgot. . .the
Empress died, didn’t she. . .right after you were born. I’m so sorry.” San felt terrible
now. What did her feelings matter compared to his? He was infinitely more important
than her. And her father was still even alive, at least she thought, she could at least still
maybe meet him again. Find her father and know who she really was. And here she’d
tried to make him pity her. He’ll despise me now. I guess mother was right. I don’t
know how to act in front of nobility. So stupid.
So much death in my family when I think about it. Lin thought. My mother dead,
my grandparents all dead. My uncle dead, and no other relations, or just very distant
relations. And Aunt Yue I’ve only seen once and I don’t know her at all. She’s a Queen
so of course she can not just come visit whenever she would want to, but even so, it is
strange I have such a small family in the nice it would be to have a sister like
this, someone to talk to and trust because she would always be on my side, because it was
her the end I don’t have any real friends because I’ll always be the master and
they’ll always want to be the master. . .I wish she were related to me. I wish father would
marry and have more kids so I could have brothers and sisters.
“I’m so sorry.” San said again, getting on her hands and knees and bowing her
head to the ground. “I’m so sorry I forgot, I didn’t mean to. Please don’t be angry.
Please don’t punish mother or the nuns they told me not to come...”
Lin looked up, astonished. “No, stop, it’s okay. I didn’t mean it like that. Look,
you are getting your clothes dirty. Isn’t that silk? Isn’t it hard to clean silk? Please get
up. Why ruin such pretty clothes?”


San stood up shakily, still looking at the ground. “You are really not mad?”
“No, why should I be? To be honest, I was just thinking how nice it would be if
you really were my cousin. My family is the end.”
San stood there, confused. “I am...I am really honored...but if you are lonely,
could you not just...I do not know, doesn’t everyone want to be your friend? Not like me,
I’m the only kid in the convent, everyone else is an adult and they’re always mad at me,
except mother, but even then she can’t be my friend she has to be a nun too like the rest
of them and, well, I just really wanted to. . .to think maybe I was related to you and have
another friend but of course that was just silly daydreaming but why should you be lonely
you’re the prince aren’t you?”
Lin smiled. “I am the prince. But because I’m the prince, everyone is afraid of
me or hates me or wants to trick me or something. Of course the teachers and servants
are all kind to me, but they aren’t friends, I can’t talk to anyone really except father, the
nobility I can’t possibly be around because they might take me hostage or something. .
.and, well. . .in the end. . .who’s left?” Lin shrugged. “Just because you’re powerful
doesn’t mean you aren’t lonely. I think maybe it means you’re more lonely. You can’t
trust anyone in the end, because they care more about power than you. Of course it will
all be better once I join the army. Then I’m an equal like all the others and I’ll make lots
of friends, just like father did.” Lin brightened up at the thought. Except father’s friends
died in the war but that’s a terrible thought and now things are peaceful and father’s in
control so my friends won’t have to die and instead we can just talk and play Go and flirt
with girls who will love us because we’re part of the army that protects them and not just
because I’m a prince with no skills and no real worth.
“If I were prince, I’d just order people to be my friends.” San reasoned.
Lin laughed. He tried to intone a deeper voice. “I order you to be my friend, San
Lei Jong.”
San smiled. “Of course Sire!” And saluted.
“Don’t you mean cousin?” Lin asked.
San smiled even wider. “Of course, cousin! See? I bet it’s that easy! All you
have to do is ask, right?”
“Maybe.” Lin admitted, it was a pleasant thought anyway. “About your father,
I’m sure I can ask my father, but I don’t know when I would see you again.” Lin
shrugged, disappointed because she seemed like a nice girl.
“That’s all right I guess.” San swallowed her hope and was content. Silly to think
she’d really get to meet and talk to the emperor. Even tea was more important than
seeing her. “I got to meet you, right? If I ever do meet girls my age, they’ll all be so
jealous.” She smiled at the thought.
“I’m glad then. But then, they should be jealous of me, for getting to meet you,
instead of the other way around.” Lin said, trying to make up for the insult he’d given at
the beginning.
San shook her head. “You act so old! How can you—I don’t know—be—aren’t
you younger than me?”
“I have very wise teachers. If you had them, I’m sure it would be the same.” Lin
said, slanting praise off himself like always.


“But I do have wise teachers! All the nuns are supposed to be very wise and
they’ve taught me all about the sutras and the Dao and such, but I guess it doesn’t show,
really, in the end. . .” San got flustered, then embarrassed.
“Lin!” Father’s voice called from the temple entrance. “Come on, it’s about
nightfall, time to come back inside.”
“Yes father!” Lin answered immediately. He turned back to her. “I guess you
should get back home too. I promise I’ll ask, you have my word.”
“Thank you. I know you will. . .I’m sure we’ll meet again someday and then you
can tell me all about it.” San said, wishing with all her might that she could see the
Emperor directly and that maybe he’d recognize her somehow. Foolish childish silly
idea. This is already more than you could possibly hope for.
“Good night then.” Lin bowed.
“Good night.” San bowed back, looked down at her dress and tried her best to
wipe off the dirt. Mother would be mad. Silk was hard to clean.


Chapter 5

Gai Yi blessed the sun for finally setting and ending the day. Home was still a
couple of miles away, but at least the digging would stop. His legs would be fine so long
as they gave his arms a rest. Older men were so lucky, their arms got very strong and
everything became easy, but every day he was pushed to his limits, the moment the
foreman noticed he was speeding up or doing well, he quietly passed down the order for
him to work harder or longer, and so Gai Yi never got less tired each day. So tired and
sore each day that all he wanted to do was get home and sleep. Of course he was hungry,
he was always hungry, and mother or one of his sisters, probably little Fin Yi, would be
waiting with rice and water and cabbage—but he was so tired that even that didn’t sound
appealing, he had to eat, or tomorrow would be even worse, but it sounded like just one
more chore on top of all the rest. All of the irrigation canals had to be finished before the
spring monsoons and the planting, and the planting was even harder work than all the
rest. There was only a very short time and everything had to be set perfectly while the
fields flooded. Hundreds of acres of rice, planted stalk by stalk, by hand, the precious
seeds saved from last year’s harvest waiting as though a shrine in the foreman’s stone
building, to keep any water or rats out. It was the sturdiest building in the village,
everything depended on it. And what made it so much worse is that the irrigation canals
had been fine, there wouldn’t have been any problem, except the stupid sons of whores
cowherds hadn’t kept them away from the fallow land that had been waiting years for this
season and the cows had gone through and destroyed everything, all of it had to be
redone in the next month or there would be no more rice and they would all starve, while
the herders would laugh and have their fat cows and pigs and sheep and whatever else
they wanted, and milk and butter and cream and anything imaginable. It was just a
mistake, of course they’re so sorry, it was just fate, both of the boys were sick that same
day and couldn’t come, but thought that each of them would cover the other, and so no
one was tending the cows, so sorry, it was just the gods. Perhaps, the herders suggested
smugly, one of your women has been loose or you have been breaking some oath sworn
to one of the gods, and now he is punishing you. What can we do about that? It can’t be
helped what happens between men and their gods. Sons of whores. They didn’t even
bother to check, who cares? What harm can befall a cow? It’s so stupid, it isn’t the cows
that need guarding, it’s our rice. We should be the ones herding the cows. Then it never
would’ve happened, whatever the gods wanted. Then we wouldn’t have to trade what
little we have for the right to use the cows to till the soil before the floods, or to lug all of
our ko of rice to the nearest market where the wholesalers would buy it all. Unfair that
we need them but they don’t need us. Who knows though, maybe there will be thieves,
next time maybe someone will steal their cows and slaughter them and sell their meat in
the cities, right before spring, right before the birthing time so there will be no mothers to
take care of the next generation, and then they can worry about next year and feel this
constant cramp in their bellies. Maybe next time, so sorry, it must have been the gods,
but they’ve stolen away with all your cattle when you weren’t watching. Maybe wolves
ate them all, no hope of finding them now, what can be done when the gods make up their
minds? If the irrigation canals still stood, then he could’ve practiced his letters again.
Everyone in the family thought he was lazy but he wasn’t, it was just so hard to
memorize so many different characters, it wasn’t fair because they knew he worked hard


on everything else, but how could they judge, they never even try to learn, so how can
they know how hard it is? They think reading is magic and leave it to magicians, but it
isn’t magic, it’s just hard but once I learn to read I can go to the city and I’ll be free and
rich and everything will work out. In just a few more years all of this will be behind me,
and if I do well enough, I can go back and save my sisters and bring them to the city too,
where they can marry someone and be taken care of. Someone completely opposite from
father, someone not drunk. Someone who doesn’t gamble. Someone who doesn’t only
care about himself, but not even then, father cares about himself least of all, he doesn’t
care how humiliated he is, or how hungry he is, or anything, because mother hides away
money actually we’re all better off than father, but even so, that’s no excuse, there’s no
excuse having a wife and children and then not caring one whit about them, like we don’t
even exist. If all he wanted to do was drink and gamble, then he could’ve done all that
before we were born, why did he have us? He just didn’t even think about it. It never
even occurred to him what would happen to us. Or maybe he cared once but it was too
much work caring and so he gave up and drank instead. Maybe drinking is more fun than
caring about life and working all day just for the next bowl of rice that gets you to the
next bowl of rice and so on. But because of him I have to work instead, of course my
older brother tries to help, but he has his own wife and his own home, and it’s impossible
to do it all, so it’s up to me, I have to be the father and take care of mother and our three
sisters but I’m too young, I’m only 12, I just don’t have the strength for this work.
Someday I’m just going to faint, right there in the field, just faint and never wake up, too
hot, too thirsty, like what happens to others, someday that’ll be me and one minute I’ll be
working and the next dead, and I won’t even notice it as any different from any other day,
except this time I’ll faint and die and then at least I won’t have to worry about anything
anymore, but it doesn’t help because it just means I worry about it now, what will happen
if I die, I worry about it whenever I have the time to do so, how on earth Fin Yi will ever
manage because she already weighs way less than she should, she’s eight years old but
she still looks like a five year old, and mother has to feed the smallest child the most
because that’s when children are weakest and when the diseases strike hardest, so no
amount of begging gets Fin any more food. In fact, after the baby, I have to eat the most
because if I get weak it’s all over. So the baby, then me, father of course has to eat—and
then finally Fin and Rei Yi can eat, eight and 10 years old, but both such waifs, no bodies
at all. And how if they never get to eat will they ever grow breasts and without breasts
who will want to marry them? I hate it. I hate all of it. I wish I didn’t have to eat but I
do, and Fin Yi sits there, she even cooks the food for me and talks to me and thanks me
for working so hard all day, she has to sit there right next to all that food and not eat any
of it, she has to watch me eat it and she must hate me so much for every bite I take but
what can I do? It’s still so long until the harvest, maybe I could find a way to work for
some pig meat or something on the sly. . .or maybe I could just kill a pig or a cow...surely
those herders deserve’s done all the time by others...of course I should just go out
and kill a cow and carve it up into little bits and feed it to my sisters and then go kill
another when the first runs out, and another and another, as many as we want or need,
and then we could all be happy, whatever father did. It would serve them right for
destroying our ditches which is our way of life, why not steal theirs? Maybe some day
when I’m not so tired and haven’t worked so hard, I’ll go steal a cow. I’m not sure how
to do it but I will if I have to, once I ever get a day off, some time to spare. Gai


fantasized how he would bring a sled and cut all the meat into strips and load it up, higher
and higher, a whole mountain of meat, and bring it home at night, salt it and put a little
beef into every bowl of rice every day after that, day after day, and how happy and
healthy everyone would be. It would be so easy. Just so long as he didn’t get caught.
And everyone in the village would think him a hero, they wouldn’t turn on him, the damn
cows were to blame for it all anyway. Absolutely risk-free.
The sun was already set but he could see his house clearly in the darkness. That’s
stupid, why did they light a candle for me? I can find my way back in the dark, what a
stupid waste of a candle. I need those to study with and they’re just burning them for
nothing. Don’t they have any idea how important that extra time at night is? By all the
gods, as though it weren’t hard enough, they have to make it even harder. But when he
opened the door, taking off his platform sandals which were essential to navigate the
mud, he found that it was even worse than he’d thought. The candle wasn’t for him,
father had brought a guest back with him from the tavern. Now everybody had to stay up
to entertain him or bring shame to the house. Damn it father I’m tired and I need to
sleep, I don’t want to handle this right now. Now I have to kick him out or else no one
will get any sleep and he’ll probably eat tomorrow’s food and how will we replace that?
We have to offer him anything he wants now that you’ve invited him in, the gods
watched over all travelers and required they all be treated well. Have to find a polite way
to kick him out and get to sleep quickly. I’m almost asleep just standing.
“Gai my boy! Gai! Come over here and sit down. Lu Tai, meet my son, Gai Yi,
this is the boy I wanted you to meet.”
Lu Tai stood and bowed politely, Gai bowed back, trying to imitate the other’s
grace. “I am Lu Tai. A follower of the four gods who rule the heavens. I confess your
father beat me in a game of chance, and obliged me to read the fortunes of all his family
in return.”
“If you can tell the future, how can you lose a game of chance?” Gai Yi asked
angrily. By all the gods, father, couldn’t you have at least won some money, or food, or
some god damned candles to make up for the ones this visit is wasting?
Lu Tai smiled. “It’s not that easy. To know the future, you first have to know
much about the past. When you were born, under what star, what particular events
happened, what comets, what eclipses, the year proceeding—when your parents were
born, and so on. It is no easy thing, astrology, many years of practice and dedication to
the gods is required, before they bless you with their wisdom.”
Mother nodded. “For the past couple hours he has read our fortunes only after
careful investigations. The gods are never direct but speak in signs, omens, auguries, all
the priests agree on this. Some read how bones crack, others how birds fly, others watch
water or fire, but the heavenly gods are the strongest and their signs the most sure.
Without their astrology we could never know when it was time to plant or harvest, their
calendars are truly miraculous aids for us, and are proven time and again to be exact in
their predictions.”
Gai Yi bowed again. “Forgive me, I am very tired and know very little about gods
or omens. I am sorry, but it is very late, so if it would please your reverence, maybe it is
best for all of us to go to sleep.”
“No, boy! No! He won’t get off that easy. A deal’s a deal; he has to read your
fortune before he can go.” Father protested, proud in his moment of triumph.


“Really, I don’t mind. Right now I need sleep, not my fortune told.” Gai Yi said
again, already knowing it was hopeless. He couldn’t defy father in front of a stranger, it
would shame his entire family and they’d never be able to look anyone else in the face
“Sleep can wait! This is a special opportunity, boy! Now, answer the good
priest’s questions, I can’t wait to see what’s in your cards. My first son’s already a
respectable farmer, you know, has his own share in the crop and his own wife, I’m sure a
baby will be coming any month now. I raise my sons proper, you see? So let’s see what
future he has in store!” Father insisted.
Gai Yi nodded, sitting down on the floor. Mother swept it clean every day and
dusted out the hay carpets they all slept together on, there was no other furniture except a
small table to serve food on that people could sit around—or Gai could spread his books
over, or friends could gather and talk around. All the cooking was done at the communal
oven and beyond that what else was needed? Of course Rei had to fetch all the water, it
was pretty much all she did from sunrise to sunset, water for cooking, water for washing
—of course everyone went to the river to bathe. Other homes may have had some altar
for their ancestors, or some fine tableware, or a closet for extra clothes, or any other
personal wealth they could be proud of and display to others—but other homes had a
father who made money instead of drank sake all day. Nobody had an inch of wool more
than what they wore. And silk was just a daydream. Two windows let the air and light
in. Generally people stayed outside when they could though, indoors it became too hot
and miserable until nightfall, and besides, if you stayed indoors there was only dirt to
look at and no company besides yourself. Gai Yi was the only person who had any use
for solitary time, struggling over his penmanship. At least the village headman allowed
him to borrow the Satvas, the sacred lore, for him to copy. Actually, if he was ever good
enough, they would even pay him to make copies, but for now they were content to let
him practice for free. The headman had to know how to read and right, not just to
properly conduct the rituals that appeased the harvest gods, but also to assess the taxes for
the Emperor and keep business accounts for any wholesalers who bought up their crop to
sell to the city. When the crop was good, the surplus could be sold for various useful
things, iron goods, spices, silk, jewelry, needles for sewing, whatever the village couldn’t
make themselves. And Gai Yi was sort of the unofficial apprentice of the headman, at
least that’s what they hoped of him—Gai didn’t intend to stay in the village though, the
city had unbounded promise for someone who could read or write. A merchant house
could use him, he could make copies of their transactions and contracts, or he could even
work for the government, so much more money in the cities than the village, so the
headman would have to be disappointed.
After the various questions were given and answered, Lu Tai inspected his palm,
and gave a few prayers, Lu opened his eyes with a look of surprise. “This is odd, your
fortune, it isn’t like the rest.”
“Oh?” Gai asked, caught between curiosity and exhaustion.
“ have a heavy fortune...war and death surrounds you.” Lu Tai said.
“Have you any plans of joining the military?”
“No...none that I know of.” Gai said, confused. Wasn’t the military for the
nobility? How could that possibly be his future?


“You will be in high palaces and temples...” Lu Tai said again,
impressed with his own words.
Gai smiled. That was even more ridiculous.
Lu Tai took a sharp breath. “You are not ordinary, Gai Yi. You are a child of
destiny. This is very strange. I have never seen a future so powerful as this. I...I can
hardly believe it myself.”
“Perhaps I answered the questions poorly,” Gai said. “It is hard to know when
exactly I was born, yes? The reading must be off, my apologies.”
Lu Tai stood up, ignoring Gai and bowing to his father. “This child, you say he is
twelve years old? Your second son? I will buy him from you.”
“Buy him?” Mother said, astonished.
“Buy him? This is an honest house, sir.” Father said, angry. “And we are honest
folk. Honest folk! Buy him! We are honest folk!”
Lu Tai bowed again. “My apologies, of course I did not mean as a slave. I mean
as my apprentice. I wish to hire him. The future I saw requires for me to teach him—he
has been practicing his letters, yes? With my help he will learn all this and much more
very quickly.”
“But what will we do without him?” Mother said quickly, her eyes wide. Rei and
Fin watched quietly with their own fear.
“You could teach me my letters?” Gai asked, despite himself.
“Yes of course, to read and write, to do figures, all of this is required if you are to
be an astrologer.” Lu Tai said, smiling, the bait taken.
“Buy him, eh? Buy my son? Well then-!” Father harumphed, completely
confused. He had some vague idea that his son’s work payed for all his rice wine, but he
wasn’t sure how much it was all worth. How much money was he making? How much
was he worth selling? “Well now, it would have to be an awful lot! He’s my son, you
know. And he’s destined for great things.”
“No, you can’t, we all need him.” Mother interjected, as quickly as possible. She
couldn’t directly defy her husband, but if they lost Gai, it was virtually a death sentence.
“Whatever he is making as a farmer or a laborer, I will double it, paid by the year.
In fact, we will visit you with the money each year so you can even see him again. Does
that sound fair?” Lu asked.
“Double it, eh? Well, I’ll be. That’s right fair of you.” Father said.
Gai’s hope turned to despair. No matter how much money he got, if father knew
about it, all of it would be wasted the very next day. It wouldn’t last the week. Much less
enough to support them all year. He couldn’t go. An incredible chance, and he couldn’t
go. The gods always played games like these so they could laugh at us. It was just the
way of fortune and her turning wheel.
“I’m sorry, but that would be impossible.” Gai Yi said. “Your predictions must
have been wrong, sorry for all the trouble, but I can’t leave.”
“Nonsense, son! Nonsense! If he says it’s true, it’s true. And double the pay is
right fair of you, right fair. What’s the problem then?” Father insisted. Worse and
“Your sisters will be heartbroken.” Mother plead, looking at Gai.
Gai looked at Lu with a sense of desperation. A chance of a lifetime but I can’t
take it, can’t you see? I can’t leave them alone with him. And I can’t tell you in front of


father. Why don’t you understand? Didn’t you meet father at the tavern? Don’t you see
that he’s a drunk, a gambler, a shiftless no-good who will waste all the money and then
my mother and sisters will starve? I have to stay to watch over them. Why can’t you see
that without me having to say it?
“Gai, perhaps you’d like some fresh air to think it over.” Lu suggested, standing
up and walking outside. Gai breathed in relief and followed him.
“Alright then, I know you want to leave. What is the problem then? Do you want
more money? I’m a priest, not a merchant.” Lu Tai asked.
“I can’t go.” Gai said, his bones tired. “Father. . .can’t be trusted with money.”
“Is that it then! I should’ve known. But all of you acted so respectful of him, I
thought. . .oh well. . .I think I understand.” Lu looked at the moon silently as clouds
drifted past it, too wispy to block it out, just enough to gather in the moon’s light and
make a sort of drifting halo. Both of them stood silently, helpless, thinking of the father
left inside.
“Your father, is he in debt? I could have him arrested, brought away.” Lu Tai
“I couldn’t. . .in the end he’s still my father and. . .I don’t. . .want to hurt him. It’s
not his fault, it’s just. . .who he is.” Gai Yi sighed.
Lu Tai folded his arms behind his back, thinking again. “Your older brother, he
lives nearby, right?”
Gai looked up, an ember of hope rekindling. “Yes.”
“He could be trusted to take care of your family, he wouldn’t spend it all on
himself—if the money were his?”
“Yes.” Gai nodded. “But how can we trick father?”
“Easy, I said twice what you were being paid. Nobody has said what you were
being paid. For all he will know, what he receives is twice what you were paid.” Lu Tai
said, nodding to himself. “Very well then, once a year, we will visit, and your brother
will be paid the lion’s share. Are we agreed?”
“Why are you willing to do so much for me?” Gai asked. “All of this. . .it’s all so
“You do not believe in your future.” Lu Tai halfway asked.
“No.” Gai said, wishing he could say otherwise.
“That’s all right. I do.” Lu Tai said. “The gods have shown me something I
could never have dreamed of, but the gods don’t lie. Somehow, in some way, you will be
the next Emperor of Liu-Yang. I must do my part to make it so.”
Gai Yi blinked. The man wasn’t joking, and he didn’t look insane. “There must
be some mistake.”
“Mistake or not, isn’t it enough that I believe it to be true?” Lu Tai looked at him,
smiling. “Isn’t that a good enough reason for me to help you?”
“It is a mistake.” Gai Yi insisted. “You will be disappointed in me. It’s dishonest
of me to accept this offer, based on your mistake.”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong. You will still have to be my apprentice. You will pay
your way in the studies you take and the help you give. My travels, they go beyond Liu-
Yang, we wander as the gods take us, across all the Middle Kingdom. It is not so easy a
life you’re conniving out of me.” Lu Tai smiled.


“It is a mistake.” Gai Yi said one more time. “But I accept, so long as you know
it is.”
“Very well then. It’s a little cold out here. How about we go back inside and tell
them the news?” Lu Tai suggested, putting a hand on his back to show him the way.


Chapter 6

“When the air is cold, it sinks, when the air is hot, it rises. Fire is nothing more
than heated air. This we can know because when you seal a fire away from the air, the
fire dies. Therefore air is prior to fire—air is a substance, fire is a state of a substance.
Those who worship fire are wrong, the heavenly gods are clearly more powerful.” Lu Tai
said, sitting across from Gai Yi in a cart pulled by a peddler going in the same direction
as they were. Early on Gai discovered that Lu Tai hardly ever had to pay for anything,
that someone or other always recognized his robe or staff and would offer him whatever
they had, if he would bless their house and intercede with his gods to help them. Not so
much to make it rain—Liu-Yang’s water came more from the winter snows in Tang and
Ch’i, which melted and flowed into the rivers, which then flowed all the way to the sea,
along with dozens of tributaries that bled off in various channels. The fact that in the
spring it also rained a good deal only made Liu-Yang that much wetter, so that many
times, it was the excess, not the privation, of water that was the farmer’s worst problem.
Usually people wanted healthy children, a good crop, or perhaps someone’s or another’s
love. That was the limit of their desires, and it made Gai Yi feel awkward, that just a
while ago all he had wanted was meat on his table, and that his own sisters were still, no
doubt, the same way. There was so much to know about this world, so much to find out,
so many good things to have, it was incredible how little of it he had lived on before.
Incredible that anyone could live on so little for so long and be content.
“Now we all know that the sun evaporates water and turns it into a sort of watery
air. This watery air is what makes the clouds, and when enough watery air gathers
together, it becomes too heavy and comes back as water to the earth, this is why the rivers
can always flow downwards and never run out. Snow, sleet, hail, all of these things are
the same as rain, only colder. Now, everything that is cold becomes denser, and
everything that is hot becomes rarer. In other words, everything that is cold becomes
heavier, everything that is hot becomes lighter, because in one case there is more of a
thing, and in the other there is less of a thing, in the same amount of space. Since the
cause of rain is that the watery air becomes too heavy for the other air to keep it floating,
and it must fall back down as water—and because colder air condenses it and makes it
heavier--it is always more likely to rain when it is cold than when it is warm. Now, if
clouds are lighter and warmer, they can float over mountains, but if they are colder and
heavier, they will not make it over the mountains. Since watery air is heavier than other
air, most watery air will never get over a mountain. Instead the watery air will
accumulate as the winds gather more and more of it to the mountains but cannot get over
the mountains, until it is too heavy for the other air to support, and it will rain. Because
of this, one side of the mountains will always be wet and fertile, and the other side will
always be a desert. Which side will be fertile and which a desert, is determined by the
winds, which will blow the watery air against one side or the other. And wind is
determined by the differences in heat of the air. Because hot air rises, and because there
can never be a void, colder air will slide underneath it, and other air will slide where the
previous air left, and so on forever, so that the wind is always blowing to make up for the
hot air which, by rising, goes so far north or south that it cools again, and then another
wind is created by the cold air sinking and hot air having to rise up and replace it. Now,
locally, wind, rain, and the like will seem at random, because there are too many little


things to keep track of. But overall, the heat of the air is caused by its nearness to the
equator, because the equator gets most of the sunlight, which is hot, and so the giant
winds all blow in the same way forever, and since mountains have always been
mountains, wet land will always be wet, and dry land will always be dry. Air, water,
earth, all of it wishes to go down, water goes as far down as it can, even digging holes out
of the earth over time, which is the cause of canyons. Earth of course falls down
whenever you pick it up, and denser earth will displace lighter earth, which is why soil is
on top of the earth and bedrock beneath. Even earthquakes are just this, the struggle of
different portions of earth pushing each other so that they can get further down. And cold
air will jostle its way down because it is heavier than the hot air, but even the hot air
eventually pushes its way back down whenever it can as well, so in the end everything
that exists has some weight to it, and the meaning of weight is the will to go down, and
the only reason one thing is above another, is because it is lighter and so has been pushed
up against its will by something else. Two things cannot occupy the same space, just as
no space can be unoccupied, and in this manner the earth has been stratified—earth,
water, air. Everything is made out of these three substances, which are all equally
primary, because we see water turning into earth and also into air, and we see air turning
into water which then turns into earth, and we see earth melting into a kind of water, and
then the water evaporates into air. Now, of these processes, they are determined by cold
and heat. Earth is the coolest, water the middle warmth, and air the warmest. Fire is just
the hottest air. Heat earth and it melts, heat it more and it evaporates. And vice versa.
Now, all heat comes from the sun, which is a giant ball of very hot air. It must be made
of air because only air can be that hot, and there is no substance but earth, water, air.
Because the sun is so very hot, it is the furthest from the earth, it has been pushed very far
away by everything inbetween. But we know even this air wants to go down, because the
light and heat of the sun is always coming down to us.”
“But what about the moon?” Gai Yi interjected. “It’s not air, but it’s very far
Lu Tai smiled. “The moon is a strange case, just as some light rocks float on
water, some very light rocks must be able to float even on air. This is proven because
powerful winds can pick up rocks and various things. Now, for the moon’s earth to be
suspended so high—though not so highly as the sun’s air—it must be floating on very hot
air which keeps it up there. One can imagine that whenever the wind becomes too strong
it could pick up these light rocks and that they would be carried up to the moon, and that,
after a long time, all these light rocks on the earth were eventually carried up by the wind,
and so no more exist on the Earth, but all of them float high above and make up the
Gai Yi nodded. It was strange, but it made sense. And Lu Tai was right about so
many other things, he was probably right about everything. After all, he had studied a
long time under previous masters who had thought very hard about all these things.
“Now, as for the planets and comets and stars and all these various things, they
are even farther away and hotter air. The sun must be the coolest of these stars, because it
is the furthest down, and all the rest are much hotter. Because air is the hottest substance,
it can get infinitely hot and will always just be air, and that is why stars can be as far
away as they wish. Since all of these things are very far away, we cannot feel their heat.


But the gods are kind enough that they don’t make things for no reason and no use, but
allow the planets and stars to give us signs, and it is our job to interpret these signs.”
“How do the gods make signs out of the heavens when all their motions are set
and the night sky is always the same?” Gai Yi asked.
“The gods were so wise that they knew everything that would ever happen and
therefore arranged the night sky to form signs since the very beginning of time to fit all
the specific times that would follow. This is called fate, and even the heathens believe in
it, though they call it by a different name, it is so self-evident.”
“You mean karma?” Gai Yi asked. He’d known that the nobility had some higher
religion than the rest of the people, but nothing about it.
“Yes, karma. But the heathens are entirely ignorant about everything. They can
predict the eclipses, comets, and all the rest just like us, but they never try to find the
signs inside them, and so they bumble like a blind man through the future. If the future is
set, then clearly it can be predicted, and clearly knowing the future would help us,
therefore why don’t they learn to predict the future? They are so proud and rich they
never ask about these things and that is why so many disasters befall them.”
Gai Yi bit his cheek. He wouldn’t mind being so rich and powerful that a disaster
could befall him. Only by having a lot could you lose a lot. But he kept the thought to
“Now, just as air, due to heat and cold, moves in set patterns, so too does the
water—this is called the currents, and it, along with the wind, is what allows us to cross
the oceans and wander about the world—“ Lu Tai continued.
“You there, priest!” A farmhand called is the cart went by. “Please, will you
come visit my home? My son came back from town and now he’s terribly sick.” Other
farmers stood up from their work and hailed him as well.
“Priest, please, my daughter is possessed by spirits, please save her!”
“Priest, the rats have been multiplying everywhere, please, make a warding or
they’ll eat all our grain.”
“Priest, bless my wife, she’s having a baby soon, please keep her healthy!”
The cart driver looked back, seeing if the priest wanted to go on. Lu Tai shook his
head and stood up, rubbing his back. “Well, son, I guess it’s back to work now. After we
make our rounds I’m sure there will be a hot meal and a stack of fresh hay to greet us.”
Gai stood up obediently and thanked the driver. “Is it always like this?”
“More or less. The peasants always have the same problems, always have, always
will. It’s just their fate. But maybe a few of them can be helped, just like you.” Lu Tai
“I don’t think all of them can be destined to become Emperor.” Gai joked.
“Hsst. Don’t speak of that around others. It’s treason, and so long as you don’t
believe it, sacrilege besides.” Lu Tai rapped him on the head.
“Sorry!” Gai winced. It hurt. Whatever could be said of his father, he wasn’t
used to getting hit at home. But Lu Tai believed it was the perfect solution for almost
anything. If he made a mistake in his lessons, his letters, his figures, if he spoke smartly
or too often. Gai was so used to being the real head of the family that it was hard
yielding that authority back over again. But he didn’t mind, it was a price well worth
paying. He barely had to work at all, Lu Tai gave him everything, and he was learning so
much so quickly. He was hungry, but not as hungry. They were usually in poor


circumstances, but that was fine. Everything was better now. He didn’t even have to
worry about his family because they had been paid a royal fee and now everybody could
be happy so he could be too.
“Please, sir, if you could help my son. There must be some mistake, he’s a good
lad, he would never blaspheme the gods. Can’t you intercede for us?” The first farmer
was also first to the cart. “It will only take a little while, there must have been a mistake,
see, the gods must have missed by a house or something, he’s done nothing wrong. He’s
only fourteen, chaste, sober, and hard working. It’s costing so much to take care of him,
and we rely on him besides, please, we’d fall apart if he...if we lost him.” The farmer
said, mopping his brow.
Only fourteen and taking care of his family. Gai Yi winced. I could’ve been him.
“Please father, let’s help him.” Gai asked. Lu Tai had adopted him, so the words were
only natural. Besides, it made for far less questions from strangers if it was kept simple
like this.
“Very well then, take me to him.” Lu Tai sighed. The same story so often. The
reason why so many daughters were killed at birth, the farmers always needed sons and
more sons to work the land, and there never seemed to be enough to take care of the girls
left at home even then. The women would help as much as they could, but what with
sewing clothes, tending the vegetable gardens, cleaning, fetching water, nursing the
babies, watching the children, cooking the morning and evening meals, and taking care of
the sick or injured—all of it so necessary but none of it producing anything—they were
always that extra burden that broke the father’s back. Everyone loved their wives and
daughters, but in a sense they were also hated. Since the women relied on the men, they
were clearly inferior to the men, and that meant they should be obedient, quiet, and
respectful. If they weren’t, all the other men and even women would make fun of the
unlucky husband, which meant invariably he would have to beat his wife to prove
himself to the village a true man. Then he’d always feel guilty, because he did love her,
which would make him even angrier because she made him do it, causing the cycle to
just repeat forever. And since the men were so often away from home, the women had to
stay at home, for fear of cuckolding, and any slightest rumor of indecency would drive
men into a frenzy. The babies came out of the mothers, so that part was assured, but for
men they could never be sure, and like a worm it ate at them day and night. For the
daughters, it was different but also the same. Since men were worth more than women,
when a boy and a girl left their respective homes, the father of the girl had to give over a
dowry to make up for the unequal trade, and so every daughter you had, that was three
cows, or a ko of rice, or an acre of your land, or some terrible price, the better the
husband, the higher the price—some terrible price you had nightmares over because if
you couldn’t scrape together the dowry, you would have to marry her off to the known
drunkards, sleazes, and abusers—or send her off to town where she’d invariably become
a whore—or take care of her for the rest of your life. And the rumors that went around
unmarried older women were so terrible it was almost better to kill her than to live with
that constant shame. They were either witches, harlots, or both. Women jealous of their
men’s affections--because without them, so also went the men’s support, for herself and
her children--hated unwed girls like vipers, because invariably they were younger,
prettier, and easier to get than other wives. Wherever he went, it was always the same,
just more or less of it, one way or another. Gai Yi would have to harden his heart quickly,


or it would overwhelm him. The traveler’s horizon included all the suffering in the
“Thank you sir, I’m sure it will clear right up. He’s always been faithful to the
gods.” The peasant bowed deeply, pointing and leading the way back to the village. A
long walk, but Lu Tai was used to them.
“Doesn’t your village have a local priest, headman, or something?” Lu asked.
“Why hasn’t he been treated already?”
The peasant bit his lip. “The local priest has tried, but nothing has changed. The
gods do not listen to our priest. The rats grow large on our crops, and the priest can’t
make them go away. Now my son is sick, but the priest cannot cure him. Perhaps the
priest is to blame for all of this. It’s certainly not my son’s fault. He’s always been
“Of course.” Lu Tai said, placating the farmer. It wasn’t like the son’s virtue was
in dispute. The gods were jokers, giving out fortune to good and bad alike. If it were so
simple, if good things only ever happened to good people, then of course there would
only be good people, the rest would die or quickly change their view of things. Why, the
barbarians believed in entirely different gods, and yet they made up the large population
of the world. Perhaps the gods warred with each other, plaguing one another’s people or
causing droughts so that more rain would fall on their land—or perhaps the gods cared
very little about most people, and only intervened when someone special, people who
were on the path to godhood themselves, was born into the world. Or perhaps there were
gods even of rats, gods or devils or whatever they were, perhaps gods of even death, war,
hate, terror, lust, famine, all the evils of the world, and those gods fought tirelessly to
spread their own essence over the earth, and it was all the good gods, the ancestors of the
dead, the heavenly gods, the spirits of the rivers and mountains, the gods of the harvest,
marriage, and all good things, perhaps it was all they could do to preserve even the ones
that do live. In any event, there was enough chaos in the world that it was clear the
heathens, the believers in one God that controlled everything, were ludicrously wrong.
Such a god would have to be insane, that was the only explanation they could tender for
this earth.
Soon enough they reached the peasant’s small hut. Lu Tai mouthed a prayer and
entered, Gai Yi following behind. His job for now was simply to witness everything Lu
did. There was so much to learn that he would only mess up whatever ritual Lu Tai was
doing, if he tried to help.
The wife bowed and stepped aside. “Please, if there’s anything you can do. He
grows sicker and sicker. Nothing I do helps.”
“Of course.” Lu repeated, going to the far side and kneeling down beside the boy.
He had been expecting the runs, if the water wasn’t clean enough, or the farmer’s pox,
because for some reason the herders didn’t get it, or the bloody cough. Perhaps the high
fever people got when they didn’t clean out their hay beds enough. So many different
illnesses. He might have been able to help with those. This was something he’d never
seen before. Huge black swellings like extra limbs were pushing out from the boy, the
smell was absolutely terrible, and the boy groaned senselessly in pain.
“How long has he been like this?” Lu Tai asked, his eyes wide.
“Ever since he came back from town, he went to buy some spice to preserve our
meat with.” The peasant answered, mopping his brow and looking at his son with dread.


“How many days?” Lu Tai asked again, taking off the blanket and looking at the
boy’s body, the black swellings all the way down his legs.
“Just. . .a week. . .just a week ago, I think. There must be some mistake—“ The
father said again.
“Of course.” Lu Tai cut him off. “This spice, where did you put it?”
The mother looked up. “We gave it away, we traded it for some eggs because
we’ve been so busy taking care of him we were running out of food. . .”
“Damnation.” Lu Tai muttered. Perhaps there was a curse in the spice, that he
could burn off. But now someone else had it, working the same poison no doubt. Lu Tai
drew a circle around the boy to draw the attention of the heavenly gods, praying for them
to spare this child’s life. But inside he was horrified. He had never seen this before. He
had no idea what was causing it, or what could possibly cure it. The boy was so sick it
was impossible he was still alive.
“Will he live?” The mother asked, watching with a tiny shred of hope.
“That is for the gods to decide, I can only ask.” Lu Tai said. “Should he die, it is
best that you burn all your beds. In fact, burn the entire house, burn all your clothes, burn
it all. And go somewhere far away, your son is cursed, and this place with it. Everything
in this house may carry some part of this curse, and wherever else this spice goes,
perhaps all of it is cursed too. If anyone else gets sick, tell them to burn it out, that is the
only way to stop these things.”
The parents nodded, looking at their three other children beside them with
dawning fear.
Lu Tai turned and saw Gai Yi staring at the body. “Gai, I want you to go to the
river and take a bath. You’re all dusty from the road.”
Gai nodded, wrenched his eyes away. How could such a thing exist? The smell
was so terrible. His skin was sweating just trying to get it off. The moment he left the
hut he felt better, and the further away he went, the better he felt, until he was running
towards the river, desperate to wash the smell away.

Lu Tai watched him leave then turned back to the parents. “I must tend to the
others now. Remember, cleanse it all with fire. It can all be replaced. Save nothing, not
even your silk.” He would take a bath as soon as possible as well, it was the first defense
against these malaises, for whatever reason. And Gai should not have had to see that. Lu
Tai’s skin was itching to get out of the hut, the air outside felt like a rebirth, the smell had
been so bad. The family had obviously gotten used to it, they probably couldn’t even tell
the difference, but for him, it had been almost unbearable. Or maybe they noticed it too,
but didn’t dare mention it, because it would confirm what was already so obvious, their
son was dying. He would be dead any day now. And as these things went, perhaps they
were next. And now perhaps me. Lu Tai shook the thought away. I didn’t’ touch him.
And we were only there for a couple minutes. It couldn’t spread that fast. Whatever
demon inside him. It couldn’t spread that fast because the rest of the family still looks
healthy. But it still scared him. The other diseases always came with something, bad air,
bad water, bad food, bad something, that you could avoid. But this, there was no telling.
The poison could be anywhere, and Lu Tai didn’t know if he had avoided it or not.
As he was walking towards the pregnant mother’s hut, a pack of rats were fighting
over the garbage that every house accumulated and then threw out far from their homes,


finding that sufficient. Far too many. Half of them different from the ones he was used
to seeing. Gray and larger than normal. “These rats, where did they come from?” Lu Tai
“I don’t know.” The husband said, squinting at them. “There weren’t any like
those when I was young. . .but now they’re everywhere. They kill the other rats, we find
their corpses all over. They just appeared one day, and our headman can’t do anything
about them. They eat all our seeds the moment we plant them.”
“So they’ve been here for years?” Lu asked.
“Yes, five years at least.” The man answered, shrugging.
Scratch that then. Lu Tai discarded the vague thought and turned back to the job
at hand. After this he was taking a bath, then they were leaving this village, however
dark it may be. He didn’t know where the poison was, and he wasn’t staying to find out.
They could eat tomorrow.


Chapter 7

“My lord,” Shen Lao bowed. “I’ve come to the capital to present a petition of all
the nobility.”
“You are welcome, Shen Lao.” Hei Ming Jong greeted. “I hope you have not
made such a long journey over the towers, because they stay.”
Shen Lao bowed again. “Not at all, lord. How can Tang forts threaten us when
your own sister is the queen of Tang? The alliance of Liu-Yang and Tang has kept the
peace these ten years, which is a very long time, in this fragmented age.”
Hei looked at the nobleman again, puzzled. The one major issue ever since he
had ascended the throne had been those stupid river forts which ensured joint ownership
of the Yang between the two countries it flowed across. The source was in Tang, the
mouth in Liu-Yang. Both nations relied heavily on trade, and that river was the cheapest,
most efficient way to transport their goods to anywhere in the world. Both nations’
capitals were built as inland ports embracing both sides of the river, and both were ready
to fight to the death before that trade route was cut off from them. As messy as ‘sharing’
sovereignty was—not only in Liu-Yang but also among the warmongers in Tang—it was
the only viable solution, and most of all, it had proved itself these past ten years as having
actually worked. Once Tang owned all the Middle Kingdom, and Yangching, as it was
called then, was the capital of the southeastern district, the midway point between the sea
and the capital of the world. No one really knew when the Tang Dynasty ended, because
the Tang dynasty was still going. The kings of Tang were the direct descendants of the
former emperors, Manching was still the capital of Tang—but around two hundred years
ago, the old system had broken apart, where officials were appointed shifting
administrative districts all over the country, always far away from home, and never for
more than two years. Emperors seeking to expand the Middle Kingdom into the southern
peninsula while simultaneously defending against pirates from the east, and riders from
the north, became so desperate for wealth that they began to sell off positions in
perpetuity, granting the right to inheritance. In return, the officials were required to send
vast sums of wealth and armies to throw into the wars—as always and forever, so long as
the Middle Kingdom was rich and the barbarians were poor, the barbarians would invade.
At first, when people through custom were still used to obeying the Emperor and were
wary to be the first to overtly try their luck, everything seemed fine. But gradually, the
second or third generation of these permanent districts saw themselves as rulers, giving
only lip service to the Emperor. The Emperor didn’t dare to demand more, for fear of
instead getting even less, until, after a crushing defeat against the Southern Barbarians,
officials all across the Middle Kingdom announced Tang had lost the mandate of heaven
and that they would send no further tribute nor men to the Emperor. This was when most
historians dated the end of the Tang dynasty, now over 100 years ago. But even that was
in doubt, because at first the Tang emperor had many adherents all across the land, from
habit, loyalty, or hope of a restoration of their old fortunes, and the Emperors of course
continued to lay claim to the whole Middle Kingdom. The breakaway states were so
busy attacking each other to carve out their own new kingdoms, that Tang was still the
dominant state for another fifty years. Of course the alternate argument could be made,
that the Tang dynasty fell long before the first rebellion, because they lost the power to
control their subjects and were entirely ignored when it came to laws, taxes, or anything


but religious ceremonies. At some point even the Tang Emperors abandoned any claim to
their own dynasty and concentrated on keeping their deepest heartland, Manching and its
surroundings from their newly made aggressive neighbors. That Tang had hoped to
expand once again to secure the best and most fertile soil, along with the deepest and
widest river in the Middle Kingdom, only made sense, and in a sense it was still all
rightfully theirs. Hei Ming Jong shook his head. His grandfather had been the original
Jong, and they were outright usurpers, he had been a great general who had rebelled
against the Fu family, who had themselves rebelled against the Tang. His son now had
the blood of both lines, Jong and Fu, which made his claim strongest of all—except Tang
could still claim all of them were illegitimate and that only Tang deserved to rule—the
fact that now the Jong and the Huang lines were united under Yue’s sons only made it
more complicated. Both could claim not one but two bloodlines that rightfully ruled Liu-
Yang. Thank God my sister is not one of those viperous women whose only goal in life
is to advance the position of their children, thank God we love each other more than all
the Middle Kingdom combined, or there would be a succession war that would dwarf the
blood shed in the one ten years ago, because this time both sides would be Liuyans.
Perhaps the only solution will be to marry my Lin off to Yue’s daughter, what is her
name? Fimiko. Fimiko Lorelai Huang. Full blooded cousins, but it can’t be helped, not
when the marriage could prevent a war.
“...If you will just read the petition, you’ll see how reasonable and just the
requests are, especially since they ask nothing new but simply the restoration of the old
ways that have defended our Empire for so long.” Shen Lao licked his lips nervously,
noticing the Emperor hadn’t been paying him the slightest attention. Was he so
confident? Or did he just not realize the veiled threat that was being made? “My lord!
Please!” He said as loudly as he dared, offering the scroll yet again.
Hei blinked. “Oh, I thought since we had agreed about the towers, there was
nothing left.” Of course he hadn’t thought that, but he had hoped. “Very well then, give
me your petition. Am I to believe that you will put your newfound opinion concerning
the towers in writing and, along with all the other signers of this petition, recognize the
treaty we have made and both sides have honored for the last ten years?”
Shen Lao bowed again. “Of course sire.”
Hei raised his eyebrows. This petition had to be something dramatic, if such a
concession was offered in return for it. He read through it quickly, looking for a moment
at the long list of nobles, many whose names he recognized, many he didn’t, clearly too
minor to be worth his notice. “Do I gather the nobility is unhappy with the training of
our army?” Hei asked, putting the petition back down.
“Yes, sire, if you wish to put it that way.” Shen Lao said, half bowing again.
“Your son, he is slated to join the army this year, is he not?” Hei asked.
“Yes, sire. I’m honored you take such notice of my family.”
“Of course, you are one of my ablest deputies, and I have heard that your son
promises to be a great leader of men.” Hei said. In Go especially, the masters he played
against spoke with delight about the Lao family prodigy who had already invented moves
never used successfully before in the openings. Of course the boy still lost, there was no
way a child had the patience or wisdom to play a perfect game of Go with the placement
of every stone, but some masters had with delight taken the very same moves and done
far more with them than the child had managed to himself. All of them agreed that if he


kept training, when he was older, he would be 9-dan, the very highest rank. At best Hei
could have been 8-dan, and what with having to rule the Empire, he hadn’t had enough
time to become even that good.
“I’m honored.” Shen Lao answered again.
“Well then, why don’t we hold off on this matter for now? Your son, he will be
the test between my method and yours. If you find that he has become an able warrior
and general, will you concede that the method is satisfactory?” Hei Ming Jong asked.
“My apologies, sire, but I must believe that any method at all would reveal my
son to be an able general.” Shen Lao said, feeling cornered.
“My apologies then, for not making myself clear. Supposing your son emerges as
a leader fit to become my general of the Right, will you be content with the training that
makes him so?” Hei Ming Jong repeated just as politely.
Shen Lao looked at his opponent in the face, seeing the trap that had been laid for
him. It was a bribe, for him to turn against the rest of the nobility. Since he was the
ringleader, if he changed sides, the whole issue would fall apart. But even if he didn’t
accept the bribe, Hei Ming Jong would probably appoint his son General anyway. Not
only did Fae Lao merit the position, but by giving it to him, the rest of the nobility would
believe he had been bribed, he would be discredited, and the issue would fall apart
anyway. It was the perfect move. And to top it off, Hei had also gotten him and the rest
of the nobility to permanently accept the Tang fortifications lining the river. He had
gotten everything and given nothing at all. And for the first time Shen Lao realized that
the Emperor was not only a good ruler, the Emperor was a better ruler than him. That he
had been soundly, thoroughly, and effortlessly beaten. That the speech that had
immediately become a legend that Lu Huang had given to the Ch’i emperor, that Hei
could never be beaten, that he was a thousand times better than anyone else—that it was
true. The petition had never had a chance. Best, then, to accept the pretense that
preserved his face, and not admit there had been any hint of a bribe at all.
“A test then. If my son proves acceptable, then I can only admit to your greater
wisdom on this issue.” Shen Lao bowed again.
“My thanks, in that case, we can both hope that your son doesn’t disappoint you.
I shall require your acceptance of the towers in writing by this evening. Please make
yourself comfortable until you wish to make your journey home.” Hei Ming Jong waved
his hand, and the audience was adjourned.

“I have a question, father, how can there be more or less of a thing in the same
space unless there is a void? But you said earlier that there is no such thing as a void,
that nature always fills in a void the moment it attempts to form. But if everything is
already filled up, how can you put more into it? So wouldn’t there have to be a void, that
we can squeeze stuff into?” Gai Yi asked, the two of them walking for lack of any other
travelers on the road. They had left the other village quickly and fallen asleep on leaves
on the side of the road. They had no reason to fear thieves because they had nothing
worth stealing.
“Yes and no,” Lu Tai said, obviously pondering the question himself. “Void
means a total absence of anything, but things can still be relatively more or less filling.
Everything is always pushing at each other, in the wish to go down, so that whenever a
body moves out of the way, other bodies push into their place. Just like in a large crowd,


where everybody is pushing towards the entertainers, to get as good a view as possible, if
anyone moves in any direction, others will replace him, by either pushing that person out
of the way, or being pushed into the way by others behind him. So it is not, in fact, that
things move merely because they wish to forestall a vacuum, it is because they are all
pushing that no vacuum has a chance to form. The effect of motion, not the cause.”
“I still don’t understand. Either something exists or it doesn’t, right? If it exists,
it absolutely fills up the space it does, right? If the space is absolutely filled, how can it
be relatively more or less filled?” Gai Yi insisted.
“Hmm.” Lu Tai thought again, both of them walking without any knowledge of
where they were going or when their next meal would come. “I don’t believe a thing can
be absolutely filled, if that were true, it would become immovable, because it would
weigh an infinite amount. Or, if there is such a thing as an absolutely filled space, it
could only be at the center of the earth, because that alone is motionless in the universe.
However, the reason for that is not its infinite weight, but, we believe, the fact that it is
being pushed at equally on all sides, the center of the universe is precisely the center
because it is the average of all the forces of the universe acting against it. Now, as to the
rest of the universe, clearly they do not weigh an infinite amount, or they would be
motionless, but motion can be seen in everything. You see, it is evident, that there is
neither infinite density nor infinite rarity, which is a void, because we see instead this
pushing match between all things, and in that case, all things must be relatively able to
push and be pushed by each other.”
“But what Is there, if not the body, and if not void, that allows the body to get
denser or rarer? There must be something everywhere or there will be void somewhere,
if there is something taking up the space, then the space is taken up, right? If you can put
more into the space, then obviously the space wasn’t taken up, so there must be some
void even in that something, and so on.” Gai Yi said.
“Listen to yourself!” Lu Tai laughed. “If not body, and not void, what is there?”
Lu Tai picked up a rock. “This is body, but not ‘absolute body’, as you would say.” Lu
Tai dropped the rock. “What we just saw was the rock pushing all the lighter bodies out
of the way, until the earth stopped it, which weighed as much.” Lu Tai picked the rock
back up. He threw it as high as he could into the air and it came down somewhere in the
trees. “How did the rock go up? Isn’t that impossible?”
“You threw it.” Gai Yi answered. “You made it go up.”
“Even though it was heavier than the air?” Lu Tai asked, sounding confused.
“But you pushed it harder then it could push down.” Gai Yi said
“With what? Here is my hand, still connected to my body. My body had nothing
to do with its body and it still went up.” Lu Tai protested.
“With force—“ Gai Yi said, and stopped.
“There you have it, boy. What is the something that isn’t body and isn’t void, that
fills everything inbetween?”
“How is it that bodies are separated and rarefied?”
“. . .with heat. Heat makes the earth melt and the water evaporate.”
“What, then, is heat?”
“The force that fills up the rest of the space! That’s why air is the hottest!”


“There you have it. When things ‘fill up’ or ‘empty out’, something isn’t turning
into nothing, nor nothing turning into something. A new balance is made, one thing
acquires more body, another more force. The sun is very light, it floats far above us, and
yet it’s so hot it can set things on fire and so bright it blinds us to look at it. Do you think
that kind of power is free? Or coincidental? No, the sun is only made of shreds of air,
very thin shreds, with heat connecting all the shreds together.”
“But if you add a body to a fire, doesn’t the fire get hotter?” Gai asked.
“That depends. If you add a stone to the fire, doesn’t that weaken the fire, while
heating the stone? If you add warmer things, lighter things, then the heat inside of them
adds to the heat of the fire, and the result is a lot of heat being made and in return,
whatever log or other body you put in the fire, is only ash or entirely gone. But if you
add colder, heavier things, like dirt, the fire dies, and all you’ve managed is to make
warmer dirt for a while.”
“I guess so.” Gai Yi said, giving it up. No matter how hard he tried, Lu Tai
always had the answer. It was like magic.
“You are getting the hang of it, though. “Something exists or it doesn’t, right?”
That is the first principle of all thought, that something cannot both exist and not exist at
the same time—that there is no such thing as a contradiction. There are two ways to
prove something false—it can either contradict itself, or contradict reality. Earlier, you
were trying to show that the argument was contradicting itself, that there was empty
space but no void, but words are tricky, slippery things, and it is easy to find
contradictions in names but not in fact. People play all sorts of games with that: “Illness
is an absence of health, right?” “Right.” “Then how can you be ill, if illness is an
absence, and not a presence?” That’s why it is always better to see if something
contradicts reality first, and itself only second. Many people have contradicted
themselves by first stating something which is false, then true, or first true, then false—
and yet both the false and true is then discarded, simply because there was a
contradiction. When if you had looked to reality, you could have proven the false only
contradictory, and gained the truth untarnished for the both of you.”
“But isn’t that the whole point, knowing reality? I mean, it’s because we don’t
know reality that we have to argue about it.” Gai Yi asked.
Lu Tai shook his head. “You must enjoy these word games. We know portions of
reality, the point is to find the other portions we don’t know by proving one necessitates
the other, through reason. Therefore nobody argues over the reality we all know—that
we exist, for instance, or that the universe exists, because we clearly interact with it, and
that we have certain properties, because we feel them, or that the universe has certain
properties, because we see them. What we learn is why such and such is the way it is,
and not something else. We are students of necessity, of fate—the will of the gods. Any
tree can sense there is a sun, but only we can know why the sun is the sun, and could not
be anything else. Once we find the reason for a thing, we are infinitely wiser than the
person who finds the thing. Because the thing may change, or fall out of sight—but the
reason remains forever. The beauty of reason is truly phenomenal, because by knowing
just one thing, just one, truly and wholly, everything else can be reasoned out, can be
found necessary for this one thing to exist, because otherwise it would not exist. The
universe is without contradiction, therefore, all of it must be one, and any part of it must
contain all of it, because only in this exact universe could this exact thing exist, and this


exact thing can only exist in this exact universe. The reason behind anything is the same
reason behind everything, because there is no such thing as chance, but only necessity,
because if there were chance, if there were the possibility that the same thing could
happen two ways, there would eventually be a contradiction, such as the sun turning into
the moon, or it would go backwards instead of forwards in the sky, or it would cool the
earth instead of heat it. If mere chance causes the patterns we see before us day by day,
then how are they preserved? There are patterns, we can see them, therefore something
is preserving them, and that means they must be, because they are made to be that way
and no other. Because of that, because we know all things occur by necessity and not at
random, by knowing the little portion of reality we do know, we can find the absolute
truth about all the rest, if we just think carefully enough, and look closely enough, at that
which we do know.”
“That’s why you can tell the future by looking at the motion of the stars?” Gai
“Of course. Everything is connected.” Lu Tai said, smiling that Gai had
understood. “Ah, it looks like a cart is coming, see the dust?” Lu Tai couldn’t resist.
“There cannot be dust without a cart, nor a cart which does not kick up dust. Therefore
by just seeing the dust, I know there is a cart. And that means I can go back to sleep,
wake up, and eat, and for just a while not be bothered by your questions which are all
word traps and meant to discredit me.”
“I’d never make fun of you.” Gai Yi protested.
“Only because your word traps never work,” Lu Tai laughed. “But have it your
way, maybe you’re just so foolish all your questions are just semantics and you can’t
think of any better ones.”
Gai Yi opened his mouth again, closed it, his eyes widening.
The cart was full of dead bodies. They were all covered by black bulbs.


Chapter 8

San Lei Jong sat on the bank overlooking the creek. She was there to fetch water,
but the water wasn’t going anywhere, she would fetch it sooner or later. It was nice,
getting older, because she was able to carry more and more in a single trip, balancing the
jar on her head with one hand. Which meant in the same time she was assigned to do a
task, more and more of it became leisure instead of work. No need for the sisters to find
out she could do it faster than before, though. They’d just end up assigning her more
work if they did. She’d probably have to fetch twice as much water or something. The
need for water was unrelenting, and not standing water, which was dirty and poisoned, it
had to be flowing water. Every summer when the rice fields were flooded and the whole
landscape became a series of ponds marked off by ridges which denoted each farmer’s
plot that they walked along to take care of their rice, the mosquitoes multiplied and
people got sick and died. It couldn’t be helped though, without water the rice would not
grow, without rice we’d all die anyway. San chewed on a reed, watching the water flow
and the sun shine. Spring already, the rains would be coming any day now, and the land
would glint like a thousand mirrors against the sun. The nuns didn’t farm the rice, the
labor was too hard and demanded too much time, instead they hired farmers to do it for
them, in return they got a share of the crop, best of all it was tax free, as feeding the
Church was already paying the government, because then the government didn’t have to
feed them. There were millions of farmers out there who didn’t own their own land, oxen
and plows were too expensive to own, and so it ended up that all the other farmers
became indebted to whoever could rent them out, that debt eventually led to a foreclosure
of their land, and that gave rise to the system of sharecroppers and nobles, which was
natural and inevitable. There was always an interchange, however, of prosperous farmers
managing to buy their own land, or wasteful nobility managing to become penniless.
Penniless nobility always ended up in the army, though, not farmers. They still had their
pride. Only now the military payed its soldiers with a plot of land, so they would end up
being farmers anyway. Free farmers, at least. She guessed the nobles might be able to
accept that.
Even though she hadn’t seen the rest of the country, she knew all about it. All the
sisters, her mother especially, were intent on her having the best education possible. She
could read and write, like all the sisters. One of their jobs, of course, was to copy the
sutras. The wet weather corrupted the paper very quickly, so it was always having to be
replaced. Not like Ch’i, which was high up and mainly dry. Their capital had the
greatest library in the world, and all the greatest scholars went there to live and study.
That’s why it was Daoyan, the city of God. The Church made all of its doctrinal
decisions from their. Of course the Emperor was the last word on their religion, but
usually all the Middle Kingdom tried to cooperate with each other. Only one hundred
years ago Tang had ruled it all and the Church was of course united, and everyone knew
someday it would be united again, and then the Church would have to iron out whatever
wrinkles had developed between the various kingdoms in the meantime. Most everyone
still believed in their myriad of gods, even worshipping disgusting things like death or
hatred or revenge like they were gods, with their various insane customs, like sacrificing
what little they had to their gods for good fortune which never came, or having ritual sex
to encourage the fertility of the land, or for the rain to come, or for their herds to multiply,


or just anything they could think up. That meant the Church had no time fighting against
itself, everyone rich or smart or powerful believed in the Dao, and that meant they were
all on the same side, as far as the Church went. Even though Ch’i and Liu-Yang hated
each other now, Daoyan was still Daoyan. If the peasants were ever going to be happy, if
true harmony was ever going to exist between the different classes, they had to be
converted to the faith. There would be time enough to debate what exactly that faith was,
after the real work had been done. Most of the Middle Kingdom were no better than
barbarians, as things stood. And so long as it stayed that way, there was no telling but the
people might side with the barbarians, and kill us all, or revolt against us and the
barbarians take advantage of the revolt, or just anything. Until they understood karma
how could they be anything but evil? Until they knew why the good was good, why there
was any reason to be good, how could they do anything but evil? It was dangerous, this
great divide between the elect and the masses, like the uroborus biting its own tail, or a
scorpion stinging its own head. They had to work together if anyone was going to live.
But I wonder if he ever asked? She lay down and watched the clouds. It’s been
almost two years. He never came back. Maybe he asked and just never found time to
come back and tell me. He’s just a kid after all, he probably can’t go where he wants.
But shouldn’t the Emperor want to come back, if we are related? Wouldn’t he want to
see me himself? He must have asked and it turns out we’re not related. That’s the only
reasonable conclusion. That or he never asked, even though he promised. What’s a
prince’s promise to a little girl? Nothing. It’s not like I can demand or expect anything
from someone like him. He could have just forgotten about it entirely. Except he
wouldn’t. She knew he had asked. He had been a good person, and everyone knew his
father was a great Emperor, that he had saved Liu-Yang and brought it ten years of peace,
such a long time. Even though it wasn’t exactly peace, they were always fighting pirates,
but peace with Pi and Ch’i, which had seemed impossible. But they didn’t dare to attack
Liu-Yang so long as Hei Ming Jong would be the opposing general. That’s why they
don’t attack, even if they hate us. They can’t attack because our Emperor is the greatest
general in the world and they would just be destroyed. Not just that though, the Emperor
loved his wife so much he never remarried, even though any girl would love to have him,
even princesses from the other kingdoms. Even though thousands of girls would lay with
him just for a night, without any requests at all, still he remained celibate just like a
priest. The priests of the temple, when she talked to them, all agreed that he was the most
godly Emperor they remembered, a fervent student of the sutras who never missed a
sermon if he could help it. He never drank, gambled, or even held giant feasts, hunts, or
other excesses like parades or contests. He wore silk, of course, but mainly just black
with little embellishment, and disdained jewels, perfumes, and the like as women’s trifles.
With such a father the Emperor’s son had to be good too, he wouldn’t do anything so
petty or unfair as betray a promise when it was so easy to fulfill it. No, the answer must
have been that I’m not related, that the Emperor doesn’t know my father, that I’m just
some ‘Jong’ out there and mother won’t tell me about him because it’s too shameful or
something. Maybe he was a thief, maybe he’s in jail for life and that’s why he’s never
visited, never wanted to see his daughter’s face. Maybe he’s dead. She sighed. The
same thoughts so often. But it was unfair, not having a father, or any siblings, or even
any friends. Always alone in this adult world without any boys at all, like they were
some exotic foreign species, she could only hope to see once or twice in her life. They


always lectured her on how to attract boys, but how could she possibly, if she had no idea
what they were even like? Without any father or brothers, how could she know how they
thought? What they meant when they said something? When it would be okay to hug
them or touch them? It wasn’t fair. What if she messed up and led some boy on when
she didn’t mean to, or pushed some boy away when she didn’t mean to, and the one boy
she could ever love was lost and she’d be stuck a nun forever? I don’t want to be a nun,
I’ve been a nun all my life and it’s already boring. Fourteen now and I’ve barely talked
to a boy. Girls my age are already getting married, at least they’ve met someone by now.
Danced with one. Kissed one. San traced out her reflection in the water. I don’t even
know if I’m pretty. No boy has come around to tell me one way or the other. Whatever
mother says doesn’t count. I don’t even know a boy’s name. Lin Su Jong. But it’s not
like I’ll ever see him again. Not if it hasn’t happened already. Still, she was still young.
Girls were hardly ever married this young, mostly at sixteen, eighteen, or even twenty,
though that was stretching things. It just mattered whether a suitable match could be
found and when. She could wait, she didn’t mind waiting, having her own child now
sounded daunting, when she had been a kid so recently, was still thought a kid by
everyone around her. But she already knew everything there was to know here. The only
way to do anything but wait was to start trying out something else. Like go to town and
see the ships flowing in and out, white sails everywhere carrying the commerce of a
dozen nations, see the merchants selling all their kinds of goods, all the different fish they
had caught, or silk from Ch’in, or rubber from the eastern islands, or iron or silver or gold
or gems from Mae-Dong, or porcelain from Weh, the absolute masters of those thin
beautiful vases, pots, and dishes. Or lanterns from Tang that could control how much oil
they burned at any one time, or compasses, or matches, or fireworks, or astrolabes that
could tell you your position at sea, or clocks, sewing needles, or just anything. Since
Tang only had to float the stuff down the river, the cost of transportation was nearly zero,
so whatever Tang made was cheap and plentiful in Liu-Yang, in fact much of what Tang
made was designed for Liuyans, their own fleet only going up and down the river,
compasses and telescopes and the like were made expressly for our own mariners. In
return Liu-Yang of course sold rice. Rice and now spice. Tang could buy their rice from
Pi, but the nearness of Liu-Yang meant it was much cheaper here. The spice was new,
though, not just a luxury but a wonderful preservative that even the poorest people
needed. And so long as Tang kept coming up with new wonderful random things, spice
flowed like a torrent from the Liuyan ports up the river to Manching. Sometimes it didn’t
even bother to disembark, the product was payed for upfront, and the ocean vessel just
loaded its cargo onto the Tang river vessel, and off it went. So much in the cities, and all
of it moving around like it just had to get somewhere and there couldn’t be a moment’s
rest or delay. It was not for her, she liked relaxing and thinking and not worrying about
anything, but it would still be neat to see. Everything is changing and moving and
growing, and here I am just on the sidelines. Forgotten to the world. Like the sky, it
doesn’t even know I’m watching, it doesn’t even know how beautiful I think it is, or that
I love it.
“San, are you there? San?” A voice called, strangely tense.
San stood up, brushing at her clothes. Had she waited too long? She guessed she
was in for another lecture and more chores. Can’t be helped, she sighed. Had to happen


sooner or later. “Yes, sister Qi? I’m here.” San quickly picked up her jar to show she had
been working.
“San, bring the water up to the church. There’s something we have to tell you.”
Sister Qi gathered herself and delivered the words. “It’s your mother, San, she’s sick.”

“Where is it coming from?” Hei Ming Jong asked. “This plague, where did it
start? Can we quarantine it?”
The scribes stood at attention, looking through their records. “The first cases
seem to have been in Jae-Dong, sire. But it’s spreading everywhere, and not just in a
circle, but in strange leaps and hops. Like. . .”
“Like it’s following the rivers.” Another finished. “Jae-Dong is a port off the Liu
river. Every city inland has it now too. And all the farming communities inbetween.
Soon enough it will cover the whole of the north.”
“I don’t understand, why just the river? Has the river been poisoned?”
“Impossible, the Liu river is too big, billions and billions of gallons of water
continuously flowing to the ocean, to poison that much water, not all the poison ever
made in the world could do that.” A scribe rejected.
“Is there a sickness in the water? Like the sickness of still ponds?” Hei asked.
“How can that be? The river is always moving. Besides, this plague is different,
entirely new. It can’t be the same.”
“The wells, has anyone gotten sick based on drinking from the same wells, can
the underground water have a sickness?” Hei asked, throwing out ideas.
“It can’t be the wells, there are many villages that get their water directly from
streams, but they have the plague too now.”
“Does it travel from a man to a woman?” Hei asked. “You say it came from a
port, their are always whores at all the ports, for the men who have been away too long,
could it have come from them?”
The scribes shook their heads again. “Children, even babies, the elderly, it strikes
them even harder than us. . .if there can be such a thing as harder. . .it can’t be from men
and women.”
“It’s new, it’s entirely different.” One man said, a fear in his eye. “I’ve seen it,
sire, black swellings like extra limbs coming out in every direction, the terrible smell,
whole villages sick with it, nobody able to even get water or clean up their own filth,
everyone just lying there dying, flies and birds feeding on the corpses. It’s too horrible
for words. It’s not just a plague, it’s not like the rest, where it’s from the water, or the air,
or from women, or from something. It’s everywhere, it’s anywhere, it kills everyone. It’s
the plague. The black plague. Soon enough it will come for us too. Liu-Yang is also a
port, even if it’s an inland port. It will come for all of us. I might have it right now.”
The other scribes stepped back unintentionally, a circle opening up around him
instantly. “Impossible. Ridiculous. He’s gone mad.” They muttered. One or two
stepped back in place to show they weren’t afraid. Others didn’t.
Hei Ming Jong watched the man’s eyes. In his thirties, just like me. A young man
who has already achieved his goals and now hopes to enjoy them. Scared, for himself,
and his family. Haunted, just like me. Just like my memories are haunted. Haunted by
what he saw. But not mad. He’s telling me the truth. The truth these others won’t say.
That they don’t know what to do, that they don’t know why it’s happening, that it’s going


everywhere, hitting anyone, without distinction. Hei Ming Jong shivered. Why me?
Why is this happening to us, now? How many will die before this ends? Or maybe, or
maybe we’ll just all die? If there’s no stopping it, if it hits everyone, if there’s no cure. .
.maybe it’ll just kill everyone. Maybe I’ll just sit here and watch my entire Empire die
and then I’ll die too, and God will write the last chapter of humanity. But that can’t be.
We can’t all die. How will we be reborn if we all die?
“The plague, this black plague, is it all here? All in Liu-Yang?” Hei asked, trying
to find some limit to its power.
“. . .no.” One scribe said after searching through his reports. “The priest here. .
.he was traveling to Daoyan to study, he sent us this via the churches, he says. . . ‘bodies
covered in black bulbs are being buried daily. They say it started in the cities, and spread
back through the farms. They say one day it wasn’t anywhere and the next it was just
there, spreading faster than they could quarantine it, jumping out in places at random. It
must be true of Pi too, then. . .maybe everywhere. But the date, it’s later than our first
cases, it’s been here for at least four months now.”
“So Jae-Dong was the first case, and now it’s spreading up the Liu river, all the
way into Ch’i. But not slowly across the border, but suddenly at the city, not
progressively outward, but with jumps.” Hei concluded. Trying to find a connection, a
source, a pattern. There had to be a pattern somewhere. Nothing happened by chance.
There was no such thing as miracles, everything was connected to everything else,
harmoniously, symmetrically, as the Dao wished it. A single cause led to a single effect,
the same cause to the same effect, everywhere. The effect was a plague traveling upriver,
starting at the cities. The cause, then? If not the river, something else traveling upriver,
starting at the cities. The sailors? Or the cargo? What was the seed?
“The sailors, do they have the plague more than the others? Did they have it
“Some sailors do, some don’t. The traders always seem to leave right before the
plague hits. It never quite catches up to them.” One said.
“So it must be the cargo. Are we agreed? The cargo is the only thing traveling
the river, other than the people, other than the water itself. The cargo carries the plague.”
Hei said.
Some nodded, others shook their heads, unsure. “If it’s the cargo, that would
explain the cities, sire, but what about the farms? What are they buying? It has to be the
“But we just agreed it can’t be the people, because the sailors aren’t getting it.”
Hei said, frustrated.
“It can’t be the people or the cargo.” The same scribe as earlier said. “It’s an act
of God. God’s come to kill us all.”
“Everything is an act of God, son.” Hei said, taking pity on the man. So much
like me. I was once a scribe too. I might have grown up to be him. “And then again
nothing is, because God is the nature of nature, and nature acts through itself. There is a
plague, very well, since it began, it must also end, nothing that has not existed, can come
to be, and yet be itself indestructible. Anything that can change will change again, that is
karma. Absolutes are eternal and always, without beginning or end. God is the absolute,
this plague is a thing of flux, so how can it be of God? Something is causing this plague.
If we find it, we can stop it. I will not just sit here and watch my people die. Go out and


find more, talk to people who saw it, go to Jae-Dong and ask about the very first people
who got it, come back in a week, and tell me whatever you can. We must find the source
of this plague and quickly. And for God’s sake don’t let any ships from the Liu river
enter the Yang river. They are forbidden. Whether it’s the people or the cargo, it has to
be stopped.” Hei dismissed the men, not knowing much more than he had before.
For months, maybe even a year, it had been killing his people and he hadn’t even
known. Nobody had known. So many people dying in the cities of one disease or
another, nobody took notice. And most villagers never leaving their village, so who knew
what particularly was going on in one or the other? So much time wasted, time given to
the black plague to spread out and hide itself, to move quickly and escape any net he
could cast. Because we didn’t even know we were at war. Just like ten years ago.
Defeated before we even knew who we were fighting. Just like ten years ago but I don’t
know how to fight back this time. This time I can’t help at all. And just like ten years
ago millions of people are going to die, only this time I don’t know how to save them.
This time they really will die. Millions. We don’t even know how many. Maybe
everyone. Maybe all twenty million. Or maybe all the Middle Kingdom. Or all the
world. If we can’t stop it what will? God is indifferent, whether we live or die is
indifferent, only the absolutes are maintained, not us, we are just a thing of flux, just like
this plague. Between the plague and us God sees no difference, the Dao isn’t on
anyone’s side. There is no reason for us all not to die, we can always be reborn later.
Cycles can be completed in any number of ways. Maybe this will be the way the world
ends, and it will have to begin all over again. Maybe I was born in time to see the end of
the world.
A scribe came running back, one he had just dismissed. “What is it?” Hei asked.
The scribe waved a scribble on a sheet of paper. “Sire, my apologies, but this was
delivered to me just now, my assistant got it but too late for the meeting, so he gave it to
me now. I thought you should know, it’s too late, sire. It’s too late to ban the ships from
the Liu river. The plague, the black plague, this is the first report that it’s right here. Liu-
Yang has it, sire, Liu-Yang itself.”


Chapter 9

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

Gai stared at the question and broke it down bit by bit. He started to write. “The
seasons are caused by the difference in heat our hemisphere receives from the sun due to
the tilt of the Earth’s axis in relation to the sun., which is 23 degrees. This is known from
measurements of the sun’s noontime elevation in degrees over the horizon taken at the
winter and summer solstice. During the summer, our northern hemisphere is pointed
towards the Sun, during the winter, the Sun is on the other side, and our hemisphere is
pointed away from the Sun, whereas the southern hemisphere is pointed towards it.”


“Solar and lunar eclipses are due to the fact that the sun and the moon subtend the
same ½ degree angle in the sky, therefore they can happen to cross each other. During a
solar eclipse, the Moon is exactly inbetween the Sun’s light and the Earth. This only
happens occasionally because the moon’s path across the sky is at a different angle from
the sun’s, and also because the moon is smaller than the sun, therefore the moon’s
shadow (which is the solar eclipse), only covers a small portion of the Earth at any
moment, so from any one place, it is not often seen, or imperfectly seen. During a Lunar
eclipse, the Earth is exactly inbetween the Moon and the Sun. The Moon is always full
because the side of the Moon pointed towards the Sun is the side that reflects the sun’s
light, and in this case of Moon-Earth-Sun, clearly the same side is also pointed towards
the Earth that is pointed towards the Sun. However, Earth’s shadow can prevent any light
from the sun to reach the Moon and therefore it is eclipsed. This is more common
because the Earth is larger than the moon and therefore its shadow covers a wider region
of the space the Moon could potentially be in.”
“The phases of the Moon are due to this same fact, that the moon’s light is
reflected from the Sun’s. Knowing this, it is self-evident that based on the relative
position the Moon has to the Earth and the Sun, it will reflect varying amounts of sunlight
from the Sun to the Earth. If Earth-Moon-Sun, the side of the Moon facing the Sun is the
opposite side that is facing the Earth, therefore it is a new moon. If Moon-Earth-Sun,
then the side facing the Earth is the exact side facing the Sun, therefore a full moon. If
the moon is at a right angle of a Sun-Moon-Earth triangle facing north it is a third quarter
moon, if the moon is at a right angle of a Sun-Moon-Earth triangle facing south it is a
first quarter moon.”
Now the questions were getting harder though. And he wasn’t sure if he had
fulfilled the ‘how is this known’ requirements of the questions above. His answer to that
part in his mind was always, ‘it’s obvious.’ But he didn’t think they wanted him to write
that down, so he decided to just not write anything down and hope what he said was
“The size of the Earth, in direct measurement, can be deduced from the angle of
the light from the sun on different portions of the Earth.” Gai Yi paused, trying to
remember. “The difference in angular elevation of the sun at the horizon recorded from
the top of Weh, and from the bottom of Liu-Yang, is approximately 20 degrees. Since the
Earth is a sphere, we gain the first proportion, 20/360, and, knowing the distance from
Weh to Liu-Yang, which is 1500 miles, we gain the second proportion, so that
20/360=1500/x. Cross multiply and you gain 20x=360*1500. Simplify and X=27,000
miles. This is the circumference of the Earth. Judging by the shadow the Earth casts on
the Moon during a lunar eclipse, it is 1/3 the size of the Earth. Now, judging by the
shadow the Moon casts on the Earth, which is ½ of a degree, and knowing the
circumference of the Moon, which is judged to be 9,000 miles in circumference, or 2866
miles in diameter, we can use the small angle equation to find the distance from the Earth
to the moon. The number of arc seconds in a radian is 206,000, the number in ½ of a
degree is 1800. This gives us all the numbers in the equation save the one we seek.
Therefore, Dearth-to-moon = (206,000*2,866)/ 1800 This comes out to be 330,000 miles.
Now, based on the angle of the light which strikes the moon, we can find the distance
from the Earth to the sun.” Gai paused and chewed on his quill, looking at the clock.
Would he be able to answer all the questions? Crunching all these numbers was taking


time, as was setting up and remembering the equations and the thought process. Okay,
concentrate, you know how to get this distance, just take it step by step. “Now, since we
can have a right triangle of Sun-Moon-Earth, such as when the sun rises with the moon at
the meridian, such that the Moon forms the 90 degree crux, and we know the distance
from the Earth to the Moon, and the angle the Earth forms in relation to the Sun and
Moon, at around 85 degrees, we can form a simple proportion. The angle of the Sun in
relation to the moon and earth must be 5 degrees, because the angles of a triangle equal
two right angles. Now, if 5 degrees is to the shortest leg, the distance between the Earth
and Moon, which is 330,000, then the distance from earth to the sun, which is across
from the 90 degrees, is: 5/330000 = 90/x. Cross multiply, and you have 5x=330000*90.
Simplify, and x= 6,000,000 miles away. Since the sun also subtends ½ degree of the sky,
for it to be 18 times as far away, it must also be 18 times as large. Therefore the sun is 18
* 9,000=162,000 miles in circumference, or six times as large as the Earth.”
Gai Yi stared at the last question. He looked at the clock. He had absolutely no
idea, so made a wild guess that it was just a trick question. He certainly didn’t know of
any way to measure the distance to the stars. “There is no way to know the distance from
the earth to any star.” There. He used what time was left to double check his math and
make sure all of it fit what he generally thought was around true.
“Time! Put down your quills. We will now be collecting your papers. In one
week your name will be posted with either ‘accepted’ or ‘rejected’ at the front office,
thank you for your participation and good luck.” The scribe said, as two assistants hardly
older than Gai went around the desks collecting the papers. They had also been watching
for any signs of cheating, but Gai had been concentrating too hard to even notice them
doing that. He didn’t even know what percentage had to be right to pass. Maybe you had
to answer all the questions correctly? Maybe just not knowing the classics threw all the
rest out? And for all he knew his history and astronomy was wrong too. The only thing
he could be sure of was his math. Such a slender thread.

“How did you do?” Lu Tai asked as he stepped back into the light. The man had
bought some rice cakes and fish and they were still hot. Gai Yi blessed him and took up
the food ravenously. He felt like he had run ten miles.
“It was great. They asked if the world was flat or round, I told them round, and
I’m in!” Gai Yi said in mock cheer.
Lu Tai laughed. “That bad, huh?”
Gai sat down. “Absolutely terrible. All of the questions were too hard, and I had
no idea what they were quoting from, they were asking about all these Classical authors
about law and government and virtue and God and I just had no idea what to say. I
totally flunked. All I managed was the math section.”
“Well, what did you expect? If you work for the government, you work for the
heathens.” Lu Tai sighed. “I was afraid they’d ask something like that. It doesn’t help
knowing the truth, when the test is over their truth.”
“I guess it was a long shot. I guess that’s why only the nobility even bothers with
this stuff. But gods, father, if all the nobility can answer these questions, then...then they
deserve to rule Liu-Yang. I was floundering the whole time, and I thought I knew so
much more than everyone else!”


“In a way the scribes that make up the bureaucracy are even more powerful than
the nobility. They control the cities, which are the centers of wealth, and report directly
to the Emperor. They keep the treasury and check all the merchant’s accounts, they keep
the law and judge in all the Imperial Courts, they even keep the court history so
everything we know about the past is through their analysis. Not just any noble can be a
scribe. It takes a truly intelligent and hard working individual with an affinity for
numbers and letters—reading and writing is hard enough all on its own. Most of the
nobility choose the military instead, relying on their strength and courage for the sake of
honor and glory.”
“So in the end the nobility gets all the flashy recognition, but really the scribes
rule Liu-Yang.” Gai Yi said.
“But the scribes answer to the Emperor.” Lu Tai reminded him.
“Right, so, the Emperor rules Liu-Yang.” Gai Yi concluded, starting on his fish.
“Damn, I’m saying some really stupidly obvious crap, aren’t I?”
Lu Tai hit him. “You can curse when you’re older. And yes, I’m pretty sure your
brain is no longer working. I’ll give it a day and if it doesn’t restart I’ll consign you to
the Church’s asylum.”
Gai rubbed his head. Well, he sort of deserved that one. “We have to come back
here in a week to know the results. They’ll have either ‘accepted’ or ‘rejected.’ So do
you think we could just hang around town until then? Can we afford it?”
“Oh, sure, there are plenty here who will give us free room and board, if I just
give them some charms against the plague or what have you.” Lu Tai said.
“Can you cure the plague?” Gai asked.
“Do we have it?” Lu Tai asked, widening his eyes with innocence.
“Then the gods must like us a little, don’t they?” Lu Tai asked.
“Then if I ask the gods to help others, then they must want to help a little, just to
please us, right?” Lu Tai asked.
“I guess so.” Gai Yi admitted.
“I don’t cure anyone, I just ask. The gods take it from there. But if we can’t ask
the gods for what we need, then why even have them? I believe I’m asking someone, and
someone must be listening.” Lu Tai said. “Or else why would we even exist?
Someone’s watching out for us. Why else are we the best species on earth? Why else do
we rule the world? Why do we hunt the lion and bear for sport, eat cows and rice that
spend all their energies making themselves fat, and find little worms that spin out the
thinnest glossiest fibers perfect for our wearing? Why else is iron so close to the surface,
even though it is heavier than the other rocks and should have sunk far to the center? As
though designed for us to forge into hard, dense tools? The gods are giving us stuff all
the time, if only it’s the rain, the sun’s heat, and the air we breathe. That’s still quite a lot
right there. And I think they’re giving us all sorts of other stuff too, if you just stop and
think about it, how very little work we put into the stuff we have, and how much work
other things, nature, or plants, or animals, put into the work before us, so we only have to
top off the work of ages and think ourselves so productive.”


“You’re right, I’m sorry. I know you aren’t pretending. It’s just that so many are
dying anyway. I feel sorry for them. They are so desperate and it’s like we’re taking
advantage of that desperation.” Gai Yi said.
“Your problem, Gai Yi, is you’re always wanting to take care of others, instead of
yourself. Suppose we don’t give anyone any amulets. What will you eat? Where will
you sleep? And besides, even if we don’t do them any good at all, if it makes them feel
safer and better, so that they can go about their lives, isn’t even that a service? Isn’t that
what they’re really buying the amulets for?” Lu Tai asked.
“All these amulets, and yet the black marks multiply. Now almost every house
has that black brush of paint, every single one of them has somebody sick inside. And
this city is so huge. There must be a hundred thousand sick people just in this city.” Gai
Yi shivered, feeling like the air was full of the poison emanating from all the houses. He
threw his fish bones into a garbage heap in an alleyway as they walked towards a place to
stay. Gray rats swarmed over it immediately to pick the meat clean. Good luck. Gai
wished them. He’d been pretty thorough.
“Think of it this way, if everyone else who took the test gets the plague and dies,
you’re sure to be accepted after all.” Lu Tai said. Gai Yi laughed. It was somehow
funny. So many people dying, like the whole world was dying. What else to do but
laugh? He wasn’t dead yet. He had to go on living. For whatever future there would be
when the plague ended. It had to end eventually, surely. The gods wouldn’t allow this to
go on forever, to kill everyone. They’ll save us eventually, they have to. Didn’t they
make us? So why kill us all? Surely some of us still deserve to live. To have a future.
The world couldn’t just end.


Chapter 10

“She lived a godly life, San. She’ll be reborn in better times than these.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you until you’re ready to take your vows, you’ve
always been our daughter, in place of the children we could not have. You’re precious to
all of us.”
“We all die and we all live again, as many lives as can be lived in eternity, without
beginning or end. You will meet again, and again, and again, as many times as you could
possibly wish, you’ll be her daughter and she will be your mother, that is the way of
things. Just like the sun rises and sets and rises again, or the water flows down, then
evaporates back up, then rains and flows back down again to the sea, God moves in
circles, there is an eternal recurrence of things, this is only a temporary split, no different
from when you left to get water and didn’t see her until you returned.”
“Nothing is ever lost, San, remember that. Nothing is ever created or destroyed, it
only changes states. Life and death are just states of existence, our substance is
“Everything in the present contains the past, San. Remember, the universe is
symmetry and harmony, there is no effect which was not caused, the present contains the
whole of the past, because only that one single past could possibly account for this one
single present—your mother, like all the past, is still in the present then. Because you are
here, because of the lives she touched, because of the very flowers she grew or plucked,
all the universe, from her very breath alone, has in some way been touched by your
mother and in some way exists because of her. So wherever you look, there is your
mother, you need not miss her.”
Sister Jun put her hand on San’s shoulder, which suddenly looked smaller and
frailer than it had been just a week before. Like her collarbone was ready to snap if
anyone pushed on it too hard. The shoulder shook with tears that slowly reached the eyes
and fell to the newly-moved dirt.
“I’m all alone now.” San whispered. “She was all I ever had.”
“You’re not alone, San. We all love you.” Sister Jun said, not knowing it was
true until she said it. They all couldn’t stand her, she was so rebellious, so unhelpful, so
rude, so rambunctious, she was the perennial curse and bother of the whole sisterhood.
But I guess we loved her a little more than we complained. Because in the end we put up
with it.
San trembled harder. “I’m scared.”
“We all are. We’ll get through it.” Sister Jun said. The poison could be
anywhere. In the food they ate, the water they drank, the air they breathed, even when
they had touched Da Zhou to care for her, and burying her body, maybe they had caught
the poison too. It could be lurking inside them even now, burrowing away until it became
obvious on the outside. The plague was terrifying. It was a painful, ugly, terrible way to
die. And it was among them now; it would kill as many as it wished, because there was
no way to avoid it, and no way to cure it. Didn’t they share in all the activities, all the
belongings, of their sister who did get it? Then couldn’t it just as easily be any of them?
There was just blind hope that it would pass them by, like it seemed to do. It killed some
and passed others by, even in the same home, the same family, with never any sense to
why some died and others lived.


“I’m scared of being alone.” San repeated. “I was lonely even with you, what am
I supposed to do without you? Why did you have to die? Why do I have to be alone?”
San wailed, dropping to her knees and clutching at the earth as though ready to dig it
back up to see her mother again. She was quiet, because she didn’t want to get
everyone’s attention and act shamefully, but her whole body shook like a caged tiger.
Some of the sisters turned back, worried, wondering what they could do. They
had already tried their best, though, it was up to San now. Sister Jun stood over the little
girl helplessly, watching and hoping it would somehow pass over.
San clutched the earth between her palms with all her strength, her thoughts and
feelings passing through her a blistering pace, stronger than she’d ever thought possible.
It’s not fair. I needed you. You can’t die when I still need you so much. Her hands shook
with the effort, the bones hurting from the pressure, but it was all she could do to control
the pain and channel it out from herself. The tears just weren’t enough. She had heard
everything they said, but it was so far away, so unreal, none of the words connected or
made any sense or meant anything. The emptiness was real. The emptiness and the fear
and the helplessness and the week of watching her mother rot away and go crazy with the
pain so she hadn’t even been able to talk to San before she died, hadn’t been able to say
anything or understand anything she was told. One day she was alive and the next she
was dead. It didn’t make any sense. The only real thing left was this pain in her bones,
the earth in her hands. That was the only thing that still made sense to her.

Gai Yi stared at the result with consternation. It didn’t make any sense. Everyone
else had either ‘accepted’ or ‘rejected.’ His listing was instead a command. “See the
office at once.” Was he under arrest? Did they realize he was a peasant and wanted to
make an example of him? Had he done anything wrong? Did they think he cheated?
“Well, come on, what’s the result?” Lu Tai asked from a bit away, having wished
to give the boy the privacy to know the result first.
Gai Yi turned around, gesturing. “I don’t know. They tell me to see the office at
“Then you’d better go see them,” Lu Tai said.
“You don’t think they’ll arrest me?” Gai Yi asked.
“What happens, happens. If you fail, is that so much different from being thrown
in jail? Since you can’t do what you want either way? You might as well try to succeed
in life, before you go back to moving dirt again, hadn’t you?” Lu Tai asked.
“Well, when you put it that way.” Gai Yi glared at the lack of sympathy. “I’m
going then. Heavenly gods, if you want to help me, now would be a good time.” Gai
prayed, drawing a circle around his heart to draw their notice.
Lu Tai smiled. Whatever happened, it ended up with Gai becoming emperor, so
long as Gai kept pushing for that future. Even though Gai’s only thought was to carving
out his little happiness in the world, a scribe was a position of power. It was a stepping
stone to the future, the future he knew would somehow come to be. Hadn’t the first part
of the prophecy already come true? Wasn’t he surrounded by death and darkness? Now
he would be walking in palaces. The scribes worked in the palaces, the chief among
them reported directly to the emperor. The prophecy promised it would come right, so
whatever the note meant, it would somehow lead to Gai passing. Faith would give him


the power to keep reaching for that next step, and the next step would always reach down
that little bit for him to catch a hold of it. That was his fate.
Gai walked through the building, not sure who he needed to talk to, or where he
was supposed to go. He thought the best thing would be to return to the testing room,
maybe the scribe there would recognize him. He was intercepted before he made it,
“You, boy, this isn’t some parade ground, what’s your business here?”
Gai Yi bowed as politely as he could. “I was told to ‘come to the office’, but I
don’t know where that is. Can you help me?”
“Sure, go back the way you came, take a right, there will be a big desk there, with
people, and a sign, it says ‘office.’” The guy pointed vaguely and walked briskly on.
Everyone in the city was like that. Always moving and never enough time, as though
disaster lay around every corner. Gai Yi couldn’t get used to it. Didn’t want to get used
to it. If he was a scribe, he’d walk slowly and talk slowly and people could just wait.
The sun wasn’t going to explode or go out if they took a half second longer to be polite to
each other.
There was the office, with the sign and the big desk, like he’d been told. He felt
stupid not seeing it when he came in. But oh well. “I was told to come here, I took the
entrance exams last week?”
“Your name?” The man asked, not much older than him. Clearly becoming a
scribe meant many years of being a clerk, an attendant, a flunkey, or whatever. Not so
glamorous as he had hoped. He probably wouldn’t be doing anything important for
years, the pay wasn’t likely to be so grand either. Of course far more than as a farmer,
but then the city cost so much more, that the pay was an illusion. Can’t be helped. No
matter how much you knew, you still had to learn the job itself, and he didn’t even know
that much to begin with.
“Gai Yi.” He said.
The man searched through his records. “Han Zhao will be with you shortly.” He
took the slip of paper and escaped into the back room. Probably handing it off to another
person, who would go find the actual scribe. Passing looked less and less exciting. Gai
Yi found a seat and folded his hands, composing himself. They didn’t seem the least
interested in him, so it wasn’t likely they were going to tackle him and haul him away to
prison. But then why was he here? Did he pass or not?
“Gai Yi, I am Han Zhou.” The man gave him the slightest nod. Gai Yi stood up
quickly and bowed. “Please, follow me.” The man walked out of the reception area and
into a small room, sitting down again. A man came in quietly and poured tea for the two
of them. Gai Yi nodded in thanks to him and took a sip politely. Passing meant he had to
pour tea for the real scribes? These were the smartest and most educated people in the
Han Zhou took a long drink, taking out the test in question. “Your test was very
interesting. You scored the highest, out of all the applicants, in the math section. In fact,
you got every single question right. Even the two questions designed to be too hard for
anyone to answer at your level. Generally to see how well you go about trying to solve it,
a good measure of your thinking skills and adaptability. Also to see if you’re cheating,
and know the answer without any effort, which is impossible. But you worked them out.
You may well be a genius. How old are you?”


“Fourteen, sir.” Gai Yi said. But a very old fourteen. I’m older than it sounds.
“Marvelous. You didn’t cheat, did you?”
“No, sir.” Gai Yi said.
“I didn’t think so. Well, then I guess you’re a genius. Which is why you’re here.
We have a sort of dilemma. You failed the test, see. Rather miserably.”
Gai Yi bowed, not knowing what to say.
“The astronomy section, I’m curious, why did you say the stars were impossible
to measure?” Han asked.
Gai Yi licked his lips. “All the other information, we know that by looking at the
interaction of the earth, sun, and moon. You need all three to know anything about any of
them. The stars and the earth, that’s only a two part system, it would require a third body
to get any information out of their relationship.”
“Ha, but didn’t you know, there is a third body? The earth in spring and the earth
in the fall are on opposite sides of the sun, and we know the distance from earth to sun, so
we know the distance doubled is the length between spring-earth and fall-earth, then we
take the angle of spring earth to star X, and fall earth to star X, and we have two angles
and a length. That’s enough to find the whole triangle, is it not? Through the same
proportion you used to find the distance to the sun?” Han Zhao asked.
“. . .I wasn’t aware the earth moved around the sun.” Gai Yi said. “I believe the
sun orbits around the earth, along with everything else.”
“A heathen belief. The use of parallax to determine the distance to the stars has
been in use for centuries now. The earth clearly revolves around the sun.”
“I’m sorry, but how is that clear? The only time we feel the earth move is an
earthquake, and that’s earth moving down, not around.” Gai Yi complained.
“Ha, well then, if you were in a cabin on a boat, with no windows, a very smooth
river boat, very gentle and slow current, you would be moving, yes? But you would not
feel the movement in the least. The only motion you would know is walking around the
cabin, because you and the boat are moving in exactly the same way, you are motionless
relative to each other. But go outside, open a window, you see the river and the scenery
passing by, and you discover that you were moving all along.” Han Zhao said.
“I hadn’t thought of that.” Gai Yi admitted. “But still, couldn’t the explanation
be simpler, just, we don’t feel it moving because it isn’t moving?”
“Let me ask you a question then. If everything revolves around the sun, why do
the closest things and the furthest things all revolve around the earth at the same rate?
The stars must be moving at unimaginable speeds in this case, and each star at a different
speed from the next, though they share the same nature.” Han Zhao said.
“It’s obvious. Spin anything, the edge moves fastest and as you approach the
center you spin slower, so long as the object is connected, the center will be motionless,
and as you go further out, the angular momentum increases proportionately. Just look at
a catapult, at the very top, where the rock is loaded, it moves very rapidly, at the bottom,
where the arm is connected to the body, it moves less rapidly, the top is forced to move
more rapidly to stay connected to the rest of its parts, which, though moving more slowly,
make the same angle turn.” Gai Yi said.
“Ha, I suppose you’re right. If it were one single body spinning. But if that were
true, what connects all these stars to the earth?”
“Force. The downward principle.” Gai Yi said.


“Ha, now I think I see. You know none of the classics, you excel in math, your
astronomy is solid. But you hold the opposite of the accepted astronomer’s position on
the most important issue. You are an astrologer, are you not?”
“Yes, sir.” Gai Yi said.
“Well, well. I just wanted to clear that up. It’s as I thought. You could never be a
scribe.” Han Zhao said.
Gai Yi bowed, his throat sinking into his stomach. That was that, then. End of
the line. Well, perhaps a merchant house would accept him. All they needed was math
anyway, to keep the accounts.
“I wanted to give you the opportunity, however, to do something your talents are
better suited for. It seemed like such a waste, seeing as how you scored the best in
mathematics in years. Have you ever thought of joining the army? You would make a
fine artillery officer. Or even an engineer. Even as a teacher of artillery range finding to
others, you would be excellent. The honor is just as high as a scribe’s position, the life is
more active, and the opportunity for advancement is right around the corner, the moment
Pi or Ch’i plans on invading. And with this plague sweeping through Liu-Yang, they
might just think this is their moment to get revenge.” Han Zhao said.
“They would do that? Go to war even while their people were dying?” Gai Yi
was stunned. “Don’t we all have more important things to worry about?”
“Oh, I don’t know. People die, people are born. When the plague ends, that space
will need refilling, and if the borders are redrawn, why, your people will be the ones who
get to refill it. Not bad, not bad at all.” Han Zhao said, replacing the paper in its folder
and taking another draught of tea. “So what will it be, astrologer? We may not believe
the same things, but when it comes to Liu-Yang or Ch’i, you’ll choose Liu-Yang, won’t
Gai Yi was flustered, unprepared. The military? It hadn’t even occurred to him.
An officer though. That was infinitely better than being some clerk or attendant for the
next five years. And if the military accepted him without him having to convert to their
Dao and karma nonsense. . .wouldn’t that be better anyway? Better than a merchant’s
accountant though? A merchant’s accountant could never become Emperor, though. Gai
Yi instinctively knew what Lu Tai would want him to choose. And he owed it to Lu Tai,
if at all possible, to do what pleased both of them. Unfair to use the knowledge he gained
in a way his teacher never meant for him. If he came back outside saying he’d joined the
military, Lu Tai would be content. The debt will have been paid. Gai Yi nodded inside
himself. Fair was fair.
“An officer, then. I won’t be a regular soldier?” Gai Yi asked.
Han Zhao smiled. “You’ll be in the officer’s training squad, all the most
promising youths join it, you’ll learn with them until you’re ready to take the field. From
there you can become whatever you want, only your excellence determines who gets
through and who doesn’t. This is a unique opportunity for you, Gai Yi. The last
commoner who became a general was Lu Huang—you know of him, don’t you? The Lu
Huang who defied the king of Ch’i after his last stand that gave our Emperor time to
retreat with the rest of the army intact? You will be surrounded most likely by nobles, but
following in that man’s footsteps, that lends a particular nobility of its own, don’t you


Gai Yi of course knew the story. That, beaten, Ch’i had taunted him, but his only
response was that Ch’i may be able to beat him, but they could never beat Hei Ming
Jong, because Hei Ming Jong was infinitely better than he was. That in the end Ch’i
would lose and Liu-Yang would be free. He had instinctively felt that it was the best way
to die he had ever heard. The best last words he could have possibly spoken. Like
everyone, he had admired Lu Huang as a hero of the war. Just like Shea Lu Pao, Pe Su
Huang, and the Emperor himself. He had only just been born when the war had been
fought, he had no memory of it. But he had grown up with the excitement, relief, and
pride that had followed from it. He had just never imagined being anything like one of
them. Those were people who got in the stories. Those were the people that books were
written about. All he wanted was enough to take care of himself and those he cared
about. His life could never be like theirs. Even now he just wanted to make others
happy, so long as he could be happy too. He wasn’t going to be the next Lu Huang. Or
the next Hei Ming Jong. These ambitions were just too much for a sensible person. But
he could make a fine artillery officer, if that was his fate. That would suffice.
Gai Yi bowed. “Sign me up.”

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


Chapter 11

“By God cure him.” Hei Ming Jong said, a calm frenzy in his voice. “Do
something. The plague, he only has one week! You can have anything you want, you
have infinite resources at your disposal, so cure him!”
The archbishop stood there, attendants watching quietly all around the court. He
didn’t know what to say. It was that same dangerous look. The one he’d seen twice
before. When he lost his first wife. And when he lost his second. It was that same look
of the sword without a sheathe. And it was aimed at him.
“I’m not God.” The Archbishop finally said.
“Yes you are! Yes you God damn are! We’re all God, the sutras say God is the
entire universe, and we’re God damned in the universe, aren’t we? So don’t me give me
any God damn excuses, anything God can do, we can do, it’s the same rules for all of us,
symmetry and harmony, the same God damn rules, we can do anything God can do! So
God damned don’t say we can’t!” Hei Ming Jong said.
The archbishop bowed his head. Speaking in his own defense would only make
the emperor angrier. Better to say nothing and accept what came instead of getting
executed right here.
“If you can’t cure him, what are you worth?” Hei demanded. “What the hell are
all the clergy worth, all the temples, what are all your prayers for? You can’t do
anything! The plague doesn’t give a damn about your prayers.” Hei gritted his teeth in
“God is indifferent to the world of flux. God gives us the Absolute, for us to
accept or reject, and become holy as God is holy, or a meaningless trifle as all the world
is, this world of illusion and doubt.” The archbishop said, carefully, slowly, almost
quoting word for word. He looked at the Emperor in the eye, proudly, defiantly, not
wishing to defend himself, but unwilling to see his calling go undefended.
Hei Ming Jong glared at the archbishop, trying to keep that calm he needed to act
effectively with, to channel his energy into something that could help him. What
mattered right now wasn’t how he felt, what mattered is finding out some way, any way,
to save his child. That was the duty he had assumed the day he created Lin Su Jong, the
day he named him, the day he had begun to raise him. That was the purpose of his life,
above all others, above even the empire itself. With his mother dead, it was to him and
him alone, to give Lin the life he had promised him, by the very act of giving him life.
So long as he was still alive there had to be a way. The plague was created, it can be
destroyed. It was not there before, so it can go away again. There is a way. If I can just
find it.
“So be it. God is indifferent to Man. Then Man shall be indifferent to God. If
my boy dies, I will not forgive the Dao. There is no excuse, there is no reason, there is
no justification, for my son to die. The harmony that kills my child is a sick harmony.
The symmetry that sacrifices my son is a twisted symmetry. And the will that is willing
to wipe us all off the earth and replace us with nothing, is not God but the Devil, our
enemy and Destroyer. God has created this plague, from the beginning of eternity, this
plague was fated, not just this one, but infinite plagues, every plague imaginable, over
and over and over again. This is God’s design. This is God’s plan. Well God damn this
plan, its only product is suffering. Eternal suffering for us all, without beginning or end,


without hope or relief, without even the chance of change, all of it fated! All of it already
decided! You know what, if this is the will of the universe, then fuck this universe. Fuck
God. It’s just some sick twisted hell that gives you just enough that you’re never quite
willing to stop so the game can go on. It’s just some God damned carrot hanging in front
of our eyes we can never quite reach. Well I’m done. All my fucking carrots have been
stolen from me. All my carrots have fucking died, I don’t have to worship the maker of
them anymore. Everything God makes God also destroys, so why the fuck should I be
grateful? If God kills my son, God kills me. I have nothing left for the Dao to take. And
if God intends to kill me, well, I intend to kill God first. I am a warrior. I will not just
lay down and die. I will kill God, archbishop. I will kill the sutras you quote so well. I
will kill the churches. I will kill the priests. I will kill the prayers. I will kill the very
word God itself. And when I’m done I will scatter the dust to the winds and salt the very
earth so God will never live again. That will be my mission as Emperor for the rest of my
life. And I am thirty two years old, archbishop. I will be alive for a very long time. So I
suggest, if you’d prefer that not to happen, you fucking find a cure for my son. You are
our doctors. You run the hospitals. Your nuns watch over our births, your priests watch
over our funerals, this is your field. Cure this plague. Or I will bury you.”

Fae Lao rode into the camp with three personal retainers. They quickly unloaded
his baggage and set up his tent. Fae Lao took the horses and led them to the water hole
and the hitching rack. Other people were arriving or leaving, children alone or with their
parents or with others. Officers come to look after their new recruits, direct traffic and
how the camps would be set up, cooks preparing dinner for the evening, fletchers,
carpenters, blacksmiths, coopers, wagoneers, stablemen, everybody needed to keep the
army equipped and supplied. Everything looked well organized and efficient. Not like a
peasant army. Not like my father feared it would be. Or perhaps exactly what my father
feared it would be. A viable source of competition. An army that can replace us, even
while making use of us. Perhaps father fears the nobility is helping train its own
destroyers. Leading the men who will side with the Emperor against us. The emperor
and the nobility always fight. The Jongs were once nobles who replaced the Fu. It was
the will to power. But if the emperor gains armies personally loyal to him and not
through us, how can we win? No matter. If I lead my army, they will be loyal to me. I
will make them loyal. My excellence will demand their loyalty just as plants grow so
that they can reach the sun. So long as we are noble we will always be the nobility. You
cannot take that away from us.
“Fae Lao! Glad to see you’ve arrived safely.” An officer came to shake his hand.
“This plague strikes where it likes, I hope your family is well.”
“They are well, sir.” Fae Lao said, a slight smile of relief touching his lips. “My
father can be frightening, most likely the plague took one look at our house and thought
better of entering it.”
“Ha! So I hear. A pity your father wasn’t around ten years ago to strike some fear
into Pi and Ch’i.” The officer said.
Fae Lao smiled. “I guess he felt it wasn’t necessary, why begrudge others the
glory when he already had enough of his own?”
“Ah, so that was it. Very kind of him, that.” The officer smiled back.


“Perhaps Pi or Ch’i will find a new reason to fear the Laos in due time, sir. I’m
sure that would clear up any questions remaining from ten years ago.” Fae Lao said.
“I’m sure it would. We can take your horses.” The officer offered.
“No, thank you. My men will be returning just as soon as everyone is fed and
watered again.” Fae Lao said.
“Ah, is that so? You’ll be staying with us on your own then?” The officer lifted
his eyebrows, the first hint of surprise on his face.
“Will I be in need of their protection here, sir?” Fae Lao asked.
The man smiled, a hint of respect in his face. “No, I think not. Very well then, I
hope to see you with the rest of the cadets for dinner tonight.”
“I will be there.” Fae Lao nodded, clicking his tongue and guiding the horses to
the trough for water and oats. So that’s how it would be. The officers were all going to
be fiercely loyal to Hei Ming Jong. After all, they probably served under him ten years
ago. They were the ones who fought. Those here who didn’t fight then will be looked
down upon. I will be at a disadvantage. And it won’t matter how good I become, if they
think I’m still a coward at heart, that I still won’t fight when the next war comes. That
will be tougher than just proving my swordsmanship or archery. I will have to find a way
to prove my courage as well. And my loyalty. Because at the heart of it we nobles didn’t
answer the Emperor’s call. Out of cowardice or not, it was still a type of treason. These
people had to fight without us. They still remember ten years ago like it was yesterday.
They will have a grudge against us. Not just the peasants, then, the nobles who did fight
are also against the nobles who didn’t. Though it had been the prudent decision at the
time, I will have to face the consequences of it. I will have to overcome my father’s
mistake. And all those like me. Fae Lao’s eyes narrowed to slits. They will probably try
to flock around me like flies to a midden heap. They will hide behind me and use me as
their shield from all the accusations like the one I’ve already faced. I will come to
represent in the officer’s eyes all the traitors, the commander of the traitors and the
cowards, the champion of treason and cowardice. I must not let that happen. I must
make enemies with all the other nobles immediately, to differentiate me from them. I will
not become their representative to the rest of the world, simply because I am the chief
among them. I must be altogether different from everyone, for the officers to see me for
myself, and not my father or anyone else. If I have any hope of ever becoming an officer,
I will have to reopen their eyes and be judged anew. No matter. I can do anything
required of me. This is no obstacle for me. I hope there is more of a challenge than this
here, or I will gain nothing and learn nothing like usual.
Fae Lao tied the horses’ reins to the post and went back towards his tent, watching
the rest of the students filter in. There was already a crowd of kids forming, excited and
talking about the training that awaited them. Fae Lao’s path brought him closer, and the
conversation wasn’t what he expected. It wasn’t a crowd, it was a mob, clustered around
a newcomer, surrounding an enemy.
“What do you mean you’ve never shot a bow? Can you even use a sword?”
“No.” The boy said. The whole crowd laughed and jeered.
“What the hell are you doing here? Did you get lost? So what can you do?”
“I’m an astrologer.” The boy said, looking uncomfortable. “I came here to
become an officer. If I already were one, why would I have to train? If you’re all so
great, why are you here?”


“An astrologer!” The crowd laughed. “Can you read my fortune? I want to
know my fortune!” The boy said.
The boy in the center blushed. “I never got good enough to give a good fortune. .
.I quit before my teacher had enough time. It’s a difficult science.”
The crowd laughed some more. “So in the end you can’t do anything! I bet
you’re just a worthless peasant, aren’t you? Only peasants believe in signs and omens. I
bet you don’t even believe in God.”
“You’re right, I don’t believe in God. How can you? Where is God? What is
God doing? If the Dao is all powerful and controls everything, why doesn’t it stop the
plague? Why make humans and then turn around and kill them? Is the Dao insane, or
does it just enjoy contradicting itself?”
“So what, what’s your explanation then? Why do you think the sun sets and rises
every day if there is no God telling it to?” The spokesman for the crowd demanded
“There are many gods, each controlling their own areas, each fighting and
pushing against each other’s spheres of influence. Heavenly gods, earthly gods, and gods
of the underworld, each imposing order within themselves, but chaos against each other.
That is why there is conflict. Just like in the physical world, all the atoms are
continuously pushing against each other, fighting for their place, the gods are pushing
each other for their place in the universe, all trying to dominate each other. I can explain
the plague. The plague is some god’s doing who prefers plagues to people. How can you
explain the plague? Does the Dao prefer one or the other? If the Dao already controls
everything, why is there even a contest? Why aren’t there just plagues or people already,
why is there any conflict between anything? Why hasn’t the universe reached some final
state and just sit there, exactly the way the Dao wants it to be? What’s all this nonsense
and confusion for? If the Dao has a will, if the Dao has the power, why doesn’t the Dao
have everything its way? Since the universe is always changing, does the Dao’s will
continuously change too, so that the universe is continuously conforming to it, is the Dao
some flighty girl who can’t make up her mind about what to wear? Is this your God? I’d
rather believe in a lot of gods who are weaker than yours, because at least then I can
respect them as men who fight for their goals as best they can.” The boy said.
“Is that right? Well then, let’s settle this right now. We’ll fight for our God and
you can fight for yours, and we’ll see whose God is worth respecting.” The spokesman
said, and the rest of the crowd cheered, recovering their balance against the other boy’s
“I don’t know how to fight, but I can still break idiot weaklings like you.” The
boy in the center scowled, revealing his teeth. He hadn’t thought karma and all that crap
would chase him all the way out here. All the way to the kids he was going to have to
live with. But he had to earn their respect now or they would make him miserable for the
next four years.
The spokesman stepped forward and threw a punch, anger boiling up inside that
the other boy hadn’t learned his place even with all the odds against him. The boy in the
center didn’t even notice it, even though it hit him straight on. He had stepped forward
and punched too. Then a second and a third time, until the spokesman was on the


“Why you!” Three other boys from the crowd came running forward. One tried
to grab him, another tried to kick him from behind. The boy in the center rushed to meet
the grappler, they both went down to the ground with the peasant on top. He took the
other boy’s head and repeatedly slammed it against the ground until he let go. The two
other boys started kicking him in the back to try to make him stop, but the boy didn’t
seem to even notice it. After he was done with the grappler he jumped up and grabbed
one of the boy’s legs, tipping him over. He jumped at the other boy and got punched
squarely in the face. He took a step back from the blow then shook his head and jumped
back forward, got punched again and now bleeding but unfazed, he ran straight up and
kicked the other boy’s knee, making it buckle backwards. The boy cried out in pain and
fell down. The one who had fallen down earlier was back up, and three more had gotten
stones to throw to put the wild beast down. None had been ready for him to put up this
kind of fight.
Fae Lao moved. He chopped the boy’s arm so hard the rock fell from his hand,
then kicked him in the head. The boy went down. Before anyone had noticed he was on
the second, a jump kick to his back sent him sprawling down. The third just had time to
notice his attack but still couldn’t do anything, his punch was pushed aside and Fae was
suddenly inside his guard, punching him three times and then hitting his chin all with the
bottom of his palms, his fingers curved tightly back against themselves. The boy in the
center had kicked the last man resisting continuously until he had stopped moving. The
crowd stood still in fear, the two boys both standing over their respective mounds of
fallen students, breathing hard and looking around for any other challengers.
“Cowards!” Fae Lao spat, looking at all of them in the eye. “First you lose the
argument, then you lose the fight, even though it was all of you against one, and then you
try and use weapons when he has none, when he’s never even used one? Is this who I
have to train with? Is this who is going to lead Liu-Yang? You filth? You worthless
scum? Is this all you have? Are these your leaders?” He gestured at the bodies littering
the ground. “You all disgust me. You shame your fathers. You shame your families and
your ancestors. You shame yourselves and the entire universe because you exist in it.
You should all go home and cry in your mothers’ laps. We don’t need you here.” Fae
Lao spat again. “There is only one man here I will ever call my friend, and it’s him. As
for the rest of you, I hope you die as soon as possible so you can be reborn as the slugs
and snails you really are.”
The boy in the center looked amazed, watching the entire crowd cringe from the
lashing. He hadn’t even seen the other guy. Hadn’t seen that those three had been
coming for him. If the other boy hadn’t intervened, he would probably be on the ground
and being beaten twice as hard for putting up the resistance he had. That man had saved
him. And now they were friends.
“By the way.” Fae Lao turned to his comrade, ignoring the rest of the crowd like
they were no longer there. “My name is Fae Lao.” He stepped across the bodies and
held out his hand. “What’s yours?”
The boy smiled. “Gai Yi. Pleased to meet you.”
Fae Lao smiled back. Problem solved. Making friends with the most hated
person was the quickest and easiest way to make enemies out of everyone else. He’d
already divided himself from the rest before the first meal and proven at least in some


part he wasn’t a coward. If this was going to be the hardest challenge, and he’d solved it
in the first few minutes, the next 4 years were going to be terribly dull.

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


tension on those borders mounting. We gave them the plague, after all. It started with us.
I don’t think they’re going to forget that, however it’s spreading.”
“They’d be fools to attack us now. They’re weaker than they were last time and
we’re stronger. Even with the plague since it’ll kill all of us equally it won’t make any
difference. So long as Hei is our emperor, they aren’t stupid enough to attack us. No,
I’m afraid watching our cadets fight each other every year is all the excitement we’re
ever going to see again.”
“I hope you’re right.” Pu Shi said, shrugging. All the same it would be better if
these kids grew up quickly. This was an age of chaos and now the plague was making it
worse. People did stupid things in times like these. Every war had to be stupid for one
party, because at the end of it someone always lost, who would have done better to not
have fought. Just because a war was stupid there was no protection in that. War was
stupid, but people were even stupider. He’d figured that out long ago.

Fae Lao and Gai Yi sat eating together, throwing questions back and forth. The
two of them could not have had more different lives. It made for enough curiosity that
the conversation was quick and lively.
“You’re still wincing, turn around, let me take a look at you.” Fae Lao said.
Gai Yi shrugged, lifting his shirt. Bruises ran up and down his back and legs
where the two boys had been kicking him.
Fae whistled. “You didn’t even feel it during the fight. Even I’d hate to look like
that. Why’d you say you didn’t know how to fight?”
“I don’t. It was always hard labor when I was a kid. I had to work with all the
other adults to make the money my father wasn’t making. And then my teacher was
hitting me all the time, so when the fight came, who cares? Just a bunch of kids. I’ve
dealt with more than they could dish out. These’ll be gone by tomorrow.”
“I’ve had my share of beatings. Mainly during practice, lots of guys were hired to
train me. But hopefully I’m done with them. I still mind it when I get them.” Fae
laughed. “You’re pretty strong though. I guess farming is a type of training too, if you
just do it hard enough.”
“If we ever ate any meat we’d snap you sissy nobles in two.” Gai smiled, eating
his fish as emphasis.
“Ha! We’ll see about that.” Fae Lao laughed, eating his fish in turn. It was
strange. He was laughing too much. This wasn’t like him at all. Sure, he was smiling all
the time, because smiling was polite and politeness was a weapon. But Gai kept making
him laugh. His laughter wasn’t fake. He was actually having fun. Like Gai really was
his friend. “You peasants herd all the cows, it’s your own damn fault if it never occurred
to you to eat them.”
“You have no idea how often it occurred to me to eat those damn cows.” Gai
said. “By all the gods, I dreamed of cutting those cows up every other night. I dreamed
of each damned pound of those cows individually.”
“So why didn’t you kill one?” Fae asked.
“Because, it was too risky. I was the only provider for my mother and my
younger sisters. If they took me to jail, they would’ve all starved to death, just like that. I
couldn’t afford to not work, even for a week, much less the month I’d be away. The
numbers just didn’t add up. Gods, though, how I wanted to. I hope they’re still okay. I


hope the plague hasn’t gotten to them. It’s mostly in the cities, still. Maybe it’s passed
them by.”
“When was the last time you saw them?” Fae asked.
“A year ago. But the plague had barely started by then.”
“I guess it’s hard, people depending on you. I’ve never had to worry about that.”
“Someday I’ll save up enough money to buy all the damned cows I ever dreamed
of and every day I’ll eat one with my little sisters and they can marry some nobleman
who owns a thousand cows himself and I’ll pay the dowry and that will be that.”
“That’s what you’re here for?” Fae Lao asked.
“That’s what I’m here for.” Gai Yi nodded. “Well, except for one thing.”
“What?” Fae Lao asked, his interest piqued.
“Well, I’m also here to become Emperor.” Gai Yi half smiled. “But I think that’s
treason or something, so don’t tell anyone else.”
“That’s odd. I’m here to become Emperor too.” Fae Lao said, smiling back,
suddenly trusting this boy implicitly. “I won’t tell if you won’t.”
“Deal.” Gai Yi said. And they shook hands again. This time for real.

“Your attention please.” One of the officers called, and the students all grew quiet
and faced forward. “I hope you all have enjoyed your first day here. I’m afraid if any of
the shenanigans that occurred today are repeated, you’ll all have to be thrown out, this is
the army, not your homes, wherever they were. The rules are a little different. You don’t
have any rank here, and nobody will do what you say or even give a damn what you say.
You’re here to follow our orders, not give them. You’re here to become soldiers, and
we’re here to make you ones. Don’t worry though, you’ll have plenty of chances to fight
each other and even whatever scores you wish to even. You’ll just be doing it when we
damn well tell you to. Am I understood? Good.”
“You might be wondering what exactly you’ll be doing here. If you aren’t, oh
well, you’re going to be told anyway. The first thing you’ll do is learn how to fight. You
will fight unarmed, with a sword, and with a bow. You are officers and you use officer’s
weapons, but you’ll often be fighting against peasants with spears and crossbows.
Because of that you will learn their weapons too. You will also learn how to use artillery,
because you will be either fighting with or against it. You will also learn how to ride a
horse. Once we have that out of the way, you are going to learn how you should use your
weapons. You will be broken down into teams and capture each other’s flags. You will
learn Go. You will take tests. You will read books. You will study maps and patrol the
land you study maps of. Eventually you will play war games and study the genuine
threats Liu-Yang faces today and the genuine plans our army has to deal with them. If
you do all of these things exceedingly well, you will become an officer and join the army.
If you don’t, oh well. You can always reapply to serve in the regular ranks. You’ll even
be a step ahead of them.”
Some kids laughed, assured that they would not be the dropouts. Others looked a
little daunted. Probably they weren’t very good at reading and writing. Many nobles
barely stressed that particular skill at all. To Gai Yi it sounded like a continuous string of
gifts, one skill after another at no charge, in fact being paid to learn them. It sounded like
heaven. To Fae Lao it sounded mildly interesting because if done well it might actually
help him get better at those things than he was before.


“According to what we find you talented in, you will become specialized in that
field. Some staff sergeants act as messengers, some lead the scouts, some become spies,
some lead the cavalry, some find routes with maps, some look to keeping our men
supplied. And some, a very few, actually give orders and lead men into battle. Many of
you will do nothing but garrison some fort or city or watch the borders or wander around
in patrol until you retire. Whatever you do, you will be serving our Emperor and
protecting Liu-Yang. Of that you can be proud, and you will always be respected,
wherever you go and whoever you deal with. For that, I salute you, and wish you all the
best of luck in your training.” The officer saluted all the crowd, and the children replied
with a cheer and stood up to a full salute in return. All of them were eager to test
themselves and each other. They were finally away from home and doing something
important. Pride and respect sounded to them like food and water. Or even something

Lin Su Jong swallowed the tea gingerly. It was like bulbs were growing inside his
throat, his throat always hurt the most. Probably because he had to use it all the time. If
it wasn’t eating or drinking, it was talking, or breathing. His throat was always having to
move and it hurt every time. All the rest of his body if he just lay very still, it was okay,
but his throat alone hurt so much it made up for the rest. At least the drugs helped, but
they made it harder to think when it was his last chance to do so. It was a raw deal either
way. The door opened and he looked up, smiling as best he could.
“Hi daddy.”
“Hi Lin.” Hei said, a tiny smile coming and going just as quickly. “How’s the
pain. Any better?”
“The tea makes it go away.” Lin said, pointing at his cup. “I’ll be okay.”
“Listen, we don’t know much about the plague, but we do know it doesn’t kill
everyone. Some people get it and they recover, alright? They get better again. A lot of
people, we think, are dying not just because of the plague, but because they aren’t kept
clean, they don’t get any water or food, nobody is there to take care of them, because they
have the plague too. But you have everything. We’re going to be taking care of you all
the time, Lin. So you do your part. You don’t give up. You try and get better too. You
don’t have to die just because you get sick. We can get through this.”
“Do you remember, Daddy, when I asked about that little girl I met?” Lin was
looking at the ceiling, at some place far away.
Hei nodded, not understanding.
“You said it was impossible, you didn’t have any cousins or anything like that,
and you left just a few months after your first marriage, your wife was never pregnant.”
Hei nodded. “That’s right.”
“I feel sorry though. I wish it were true. Because then you could have a child
again.” Lin said. “I’ve thought about it a lot, since then. I thought it would be nice, if
she could live for both of us, once I’m gone. So you wouldn’t have to miss me.”
Hei nodded again, bowing his head to hide his tears.
“But anyway daddy, I think. . .I always wished you would remarry. . .if not her,
then have some other kids. . .tell them about their older brother. . .and that I loved them. .
.because I always did. I always. . .cared about those future brothers and sisters. I’m
sorry I killed mother, Daddy. I’m really sorry.”


Hei said nothing, his held his head in his arms, sitting beside his son and crying.
“I’m sorry for everything.” Lin said again, and then the tea put him to sleep.

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


Chapter 12

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

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

The public went into mourning, as they were ordered to, but also because
everyone had adored the little prince, as they adored their Emperor, and everyone had
placed their hopes in a peaceful succession now that the child had both the Jong and the
Fu bloodlines, and his claim was unquestionable. It had looked like Liu-Yang, in the
little prince, would once and for all be united internally and invincible externally. Now
people muttered and wondered what this meant. Yue Fang Huang, Queen of Tang, had a
son and three daughters. She was still young and so possibly could have a second son,
but without a second son, who was left to rule Liu-Yang? And if Hei Ming Jong
remarried and had another son, who would have precedence? Yue’s second son or Hei’s
second son, far younger and perhaps not ready if Hei should die? Would there be war?
Would Tang seek to set up the single son they had as the new ruler of both Tang and Liu-
Yang? Would they in fact reclaim the dynasty through Yue and go to war? People
whispered that the river forts and the marriage had always been a plot for this day, when
Tang would finally invade again and take it all. People whispered that Tang hadn’t really
changed sides ten years ago, he had only wanted to reserve all of Liu-Yang for himself,
and would eventually finish the invasion he began.
Others whispered even darker things. That the plague was from the gods, that the
plague killing the emperor’s son was proof that he had lost the mandate of heaven. That
so long as Hei ruled Liu-Yang it would suffer continuous disasters as punishment from
heaven. Nobody would have listened to these thoughts two years ago, when Liu-Yang
was getting rich off the spice trade, had been at complete peace with their neighbors, and
the crop yields had been splendid year after year. But now it was different. Too many
people were dying, and nobody knew what to do, or why it was happening, or how it
could be stopped. In desperation they were willing to try anything, even unseating the
emperor, who must have given some offense to the gods to summon this black plague
upon his people.
Some people watched the rain as it flooded the farms and the streets, the ever
cloudy dark skies and the lightnings and thunders, and wondered who would be left to
harvest the rice in the fall. Some wondered if it was the end of the world.


In fact Hei Ming Jong had lost the mandate of heaven. On the day his son died,
he had thrown it away. And after staring at nothing, feeling nothing, eating nothing, and
thinking nothing for a day, a new anger and resolve baked in his heart of hearts. Love
was gone, lost forever, in its place were dark tendrils that swirled ever deeper inward,
calling for the only thing left to him, the only emotion that still had any meaning to him.
For the rest of the week in his room, he planned for a lifetime of vengeance.
Hei Ming Jong’s first proclamation, upon returning to court, was the rescinding of
all benefits and subsidies to the Church, and the seizure of all their lands. He had
calculated it out. If he went too quickly or too far, their might be a revolt, but if he first
removed the power of the Church, then came for their lives, it would become a quiet and
simple endeavor. His next proclamation was to put all the funding into a new secret
police and spy network whose loyalty he would be able to count on. Hei did not trust his
army to carry out his orders anymore. He also would need the spies to root out any
private worship anywhere in Liu-Yang. Of course the public institutions would be the
first to go, but Hei knew people would pray on in their homes. They would have to be
rooted out and killed. All of them. Not one seed of the religion could be allowed to
outlive him, or it would somehow be revived after him. Everyone who believed had to be
killed. All copies of the sutras would be destroyed, but it wasn’t really helpful, because
foreign nations still had their copies. So in the end the people had to be killed, and the
peasant religion had to be made to flourish, so that once the Dao was destroyed, people
would be too stubborn to accept it from the foreigners who doubtless would try to revive
it. Hei was reasonable, he had already considered conquering the entire middle kingdom
so that he could kill all believers everywhere, but he didn’t have the strength. Liu-Yang
would have to suffice. If he did stay in power long enough, he would designate an heir
he could trust to be just as merciless, but he did not count on it. His attack must be swift
and decisive, so utterly destructive that he could die in peace knowing there was no
rebuilding what was before. Like the northern barbarians and the collapse of the Li
Dynasty, the destruction so terrible that the entire people ceased to exist, the nation wiped
from the face of history forever. If he was just thorough enough, it wouldn’t matter what
his successors tried to do. It could be done. His next major goal would be to replace all
of his top appointees, all his generals, scribes, judges, and the rest, with people he could
rely upon. It would have to be done slowly and quietly, each group not aware of the
other, until they were out of power and it was too late. He could always be assured of a
large group of people loyal to him, because they would get their living and power from
him. Since his persecution was only of the small minority of mainly upper class
believers, the peasants would not care either way. In fact he would use whatever wealth
he could seize from his victims as charity for the poor. He would buy the people as well.
With the enemy scattered and disorganized, and a loyal corps organized and empowered,
and the vast majority of the people indifferent, or even on his side due to envy and greed
—it would succeed. He would kill God.
The real worry wasn’t domestic. What worried him is that, halfway through his
project, he was invaded, and the army sickened by his pogrom would not fight, and turn
on him. This was the most delicate problem. Most of his army was now made of
peasants, something he now thanked the foresight of his former self for. If he pretended
to convert to their religion, and be doing all of this in the name of piety, he could
probably retain their loyalty. The officers were another matter, most of them were


nobility. The answer was to train officers in his special new secret police forces, and on
some pretext, when the officers attempted to protest or something of the sort, to execute
them all and replace them with his personally loyal officers. The peasants who served
beneath would not mind either way, he could just double their pay or something of the
sort and they would be silent. In the event of a war he would just have to lead the army
to victory. He was not worried, Liu-Yang’s new army was enormous and he knew how to
use them. his only concern was that Yue might turn against him. He did not want to fight
her, or Pe Su Huang. He hoped they would stay out of it. If it ever came to a choice
between Yue and him, he would have to choose her. He would have to die with his work
unfinished, because his life was already over, but hers was still bright and happy, and he
would do nothing to protect his life if it meant hurting hers. It would be best to keep all
of it as quiet and secret as possible, so that the other nations didn’t know. Then it would
be over before they could interfere. The darkness was his best and greatest ally. The
night would swallow the cries of the dead. Silence would answer any who questioned the
fate of others. Obscurity would shroud all of it so that none were actually sure it was
happening. Before anyone died, they would be moved around, far from any friends or
family, and then moved again and again, until no letters got from one to another, and
nobody knew if the last disappearance had simply been another transportation to some
other obscure nowhere, or death. People could wait fifty years in hope, doing nothing,
thinking their lovers were still alive somewhere, so long as their final destination was
never known. In this way he could kill them thousand by thousand until there was none
left to worry about where the last thousand had gone. Of course people would find out
eventually, but hopefully most of his work would have been done by then, and his
position would be too strong for any to stop the rest of the deluge.
But how to kill the nobility without a civil war? Better if the nobility abandoned
the religion without a fight. But it was clear to Hei that all believers, not just the clergy,
had to be killed. Especially since the believers made up the most powerful section of the
Empire, and would just reimpose the religion once he was gone. It would be no use
accusing them of scandals, the pattern would become too clear and the nobility would
unite. Better to accuse them of treason. After all, the nobility were always guilty of
treason, both sides just pretended they weren’t for the sake of the efficiency of
governance. But if the nobility were declared traitors, he could summon the army to
arrest them. Those who surrendered peacefully, confidant in their innocence, could be
moved about and then executed. Those who fought would only prove themselves traitors,
and then they could be killed too. The important thing would be to gather loyal forces
and have them all set in ambush the very day the nobility were denounced as traitors, so
that they could not summon their retainers before the fight was over. Surprise was his
weapon. So long as people didn’t know his purpose, they could all suppose that
whichever group had been singled out was the only group that would be singled out, and
they could hope that the crisis was past. It would only work once or twice, so best to
attack the strongest group first, and then others. So before the clergy he would have to
kill the nobility. And he would need a pretext, proof that they were plotting treason, so
that people confused his aims, that he was merely trying to retain power. He would set
the Imperial spies on it. Meanwhile he would have to create his personal army so that
they could ambush the nobility when the time was ripe. It would take time. That was


okay, it would get people used to the idea of the Church being abandoned. Make people
believe there was no connection between the two events.
Patience, caution, secrecy, surprise. Not even an Emperor can massacre his own
people without careful planning. With the nobility gone, another pause in case of foreign
invasion. Then? The scribes would have to be dismissed, moved to further and further
out-of-the-way provinces, then murdered. There would be no explanation and he would
never admit any scribes were even dying. The scribes had no army, but they were still
dangerous, because they had control of the treasury, they already ran the Empire and
could thus easily replace him with one of their own, and the people interacted with them
constantly and therefore would trust in them, if it ever came to that. Without the scribes
and the nobility, who would run the nation? The army, the secret police, the spies. Fear
would keep crime low and the redistribution of all the wealth that came from these
murders would appease the masses. The country would move along as it usually did,
farmers would farm, traders would trade, and craftsmen would craft. They were always
too hungry to worry about anything else. The clergy would have to be killed third. Easy
enough to identify them, if they spoke out or wore their ceremonial clothes or anything.
The secret police and spies could listen in at every tavern or church or wherever they met,
then take them away that night. Never in front of others, their homes would be found and
their doors knocked on in the night. Hopefully the clergy would go peacefully,
unsuspecting. If not, oh well, ‘robbers’ or ‘bandits’ could have killed them. What did the
poor care for the rich anyway? What did they care if heathen priests died? All the better
as far as the masses were concerned. Once the clergy were killed he would target the
cityfolk. Many of them had emulated their betters and converted. Rich merchants
hoping to become nobles, retired scribes now in business, servants of the rich who took
on their attitudes, whatever. They would be found out and killed, their wealth given to
the poor and the hungry and the cold. None would stop him so long as they saw how it
benefited them. The city would prey on itself, he would just be a catalyst. Liu-Yang was
dying, it sought immediate relief, it was on the brink of famine, and the rich would be
hoarding the food for themselves. The Emperor could accuse all the cityfolk of being
‘parasites’ or whatever and call for a massive witch hunt, the rest of the cityfolk would
probably join in, looting and burning and taking out their fear and desperation on others.
The plague fit well into the situation now. At that point he would have no need of
secrecy, they were the last of the believers. After that it was just a matter of making
belief in the Dao a crime and execute whoever was left, there would be no more
institutions which could organize to stop him. The sutras would be burnt and
immigration would be banned, so that no new believers could come in.
All in all maybe one million would have to die. With the plagues, famines, and
wars that were ahead, Liu-Yang was going to lose millions already, what difference if he
threw in another? People would be too worried about themselves to worry about their
neighbors. In a time of chaos the strong’s only limit was their own imagination. He
would not be stopped. Could not be stopped. He had never met his match before and he
wouldn’t meet any now. It was just a matter of time.

“Break. Get some water.” The sergeant said, and the students gave a collective
bow and resheathed their swords. Most had brought their own cherished swords, family
heirlooms passed from father to son, from war to war. Those who didn’t own swords had


swords made for them. All of them trained with the weapon they were going to fight
with. Most were prepared, having trained as children, but none had trained as hard as
they did now. The sense of urgency had increased. The sword was only one thing they
had to learn among many, and they had to learn it quickly so that they could concentrate
on the next weapon. First their bodies would be made into weapons, then their minds, all
the while instilling in them discipline and courage that sharpened their wills as well. The
army transformed everyone who entered it, casting away all the old and putting in the
wholly new and superior. Gai Yi learned with a gusto, finding the work easy enough and
the sword light as a feather however long they practiced with it. Fae Lao did not learn at
all. Nothing they did even approached his capability. He complained to the sergeants
that this was all very well for the others, but he should be given private sword lessons or
something worthwhile to pass the time. The answer had been that he was to get back in
line and if he couldn’t learn the sword then he could learn humility and patience instead.
Fae Lao had smiled, accepting the challenge. He hadn’t complained since. Only stared
at the sergeant the whole time their lessons were conducted, never breaking a sweat. If
he wasn’t allowed to state the fact, he would allow the fact to state itself for him. Sooner
or later his trainer would have to bow to the reality so obviously expressed. Whenever
the children sparred with their wooden blades, Fae Lao won, effortlessly, not even hurting
his opponents but only disarming them—being far more humiliating and difficult.
Occasionally Gai Yi would be matched up against his friend. Fae would smile
and disarm him like all the others. Gai would shrug and laugh, picking up his sword and
going back into the line to watch the next match. He had never used any weapon in his
life, only his strength got him through most of the matches, he had no illusions of being
able to even touch Fae. It was the easy shrug and laugh that Fae respected. Most of the
others would become angry and demand he fought ‘for real,’ or grow silent and ashamed.
Some few openly admired his skill and tried their best to emulate him. Only Gai would
shrug and laugh. His instincts had been right. Gai was the only person he could ever
consider his friend. Fae hadn’t been aware that he would ever have a friend, he hadn’t
sought any out in his life, but it turned out he had criteria somewhere in the back of his
mind, and Gai fit them. Gai had as much pride as he did. That’s why they could be
“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
“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
“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
“It has to come from somewhere. There has to be a cure. What are the priests
doing? The scribes? Is anyone doing anything, anywhere? There are only so many ways
it can infect from. Air, water, food, dirt, women, whatever, why can’t we find the source?
If we just found the source we could limit it like all the others.” Pang complained.
“I hope Hei can get over this Church thing and worry about the plague. The
plague killed his son, for heaven’s sake. Use the money to cure the plague, if you’re
going to take it. If it keeps going like this in ten years there won’t be anyone left to worry
about.” Pu Shi said.
“Hei will pull something. He’s always won before, he can beat the plague too.
It’s not our problem. For now let’s just take care of the army, if you’re right, we’ve got a
war to win. The priests will have to shift for themselves.” Pang Lei said, watching the
students relax and play before the evening meal. He’d waited so long to see the
emperor’s son among them. A shame. Can’t be helped, he guessed. Karma.


Chapter 13

When the five children broke through the woods they instantly saw the red flag
unguarded on the hill. Suppressing a cheer which may have alerted defenders to their
position, two men rushed for the flag while the other three took cover and looked for any
oncoming threats.
Fae Lao had not moved since the beginning of the fight. Relaxing on his tree,
overseeing as much of the battle as he could, he had waited near the flag as the last
barrier between victory and defeat. The rest of his team had left to seize the enemy flag,
and had left Fae to guard their own, counting it an even distribution. Fae felt that his
power was put to best use by being in the one sure place the battle would be, instead of
wandering through the wilderness searching for the enemy, the enemy would always
come to him. It meant the attack was probably less effective, but it didn’t really matter,
the battle would just take longer than usual as both attacks failed and then the defenders
played a game of patience, trying to bore the others into using the last of their manpower.
Fae never got bored. Fae always out waited the others, until there was no one left
defending the enemy flag and he simply went over and fetched it back. Fae passed the
time in meditation, clearing his mind and settling down into a trance that was aware but
not affected by hunger, thirst, cold, heat, sleep, or just the itch to be doing something.
From all his training in weapons he did not need, he had honed this new weapon of
patience and endurance into something enormously strong in this new phase of training.
Now that everybody could use their weapons rather well, Fae found patience to be the
only edge he could rely upon to conquer a multitude of opponents.
Carefully, quietly, Fae Lao drew his bow and fired, not even watching the result,
he took the second arrow from the quiver at his waist, drew, aimed, and fired again. Both
of the students dropped, not having even made a noise. The rubber coating at the tips had
made the arrows practically harmless, but once struck, students had to play dead until the
competition was over. For this and many other reasons everyone hated matches against
Fae’s team, which could take days instead of hours. The three onlookers were quiet,
trying to find Fae’s position, looking in the direction the arrows had come from. The
foliage was too thick, though, Fae knew he was invisible from his perch, and that they
likely wouldn’t be looking up anyway. He had bet on it, since the position made him
practically immobile. Fae waited, folding his legs beneath him and settling back calmly,
for the next three to make their move. After maybe ten minutes, the three, after
conferring, broke apart and started circling around the flag from the opposite direction,
hoping to draw out the enemy’s position that they knew had to be on the far side of the
flag. Fae watched silently as the enemy went behind him, stayed seated and overlooking
the flag. Wherever they went, they would have to come back to the flag eventually, and
then he would strike.
“He must have already moved. I told you we should have rushed the flag.” A boy
said, his voice a ways behind Fae’s tree, the trunk dividing both of them from each
other’s sight.
“What, so he could shoot all three of us instead of two? You saw how fast the two
shots were, we never would have gotten there and back in time. The only way is to first
kill Fae.” The other boy said.


“Fine, but how do we? We don’t know where he is, and even if we did, what
good are the three of us against him? I don’t think anyone has ever hit Fae in even one
match. It’s disgusting.” The third said.
“It’s because he’s cautious. He doesn’t put himself in any situation where he
could get hit. It limits him just as much as it helps him, we can use that against him if we
can just find out how.” The second said.
“He has to be here, he wouldn’t just abandon the flag. He has to be within
bowshot still. Let’s just cover the area inch by inch, the whole radius, until we beat him
out of his cover. Then whoever he hits the other two will rush him.” The first said.
“Even if we do, he would just beat the two of us. I say we go back for reserves.
So long as Fae’s accounted for here, we don’t have to protect the flag. We should gather
the whole team and rush the flag, he can’t shoot all of us.” The second boy said.
“Alright then, you two will watch for him, I can go back and get help.” The third
boy agreed to the second’s plan. “He can’t move so long as we’re here to threaten the
flag.” Silence, probably they shook hands or something, and then the rustling as the third
man left for help. Fae stood up silently and drew his bow, watching for the boy to come
back in sight. They thought he was deeper in the woods because they had walked right
by without provoking a reaction. That meant he thought he was safely out of range
before he truly was. Fae waited for the first clean shot and released, the arrow striking
his back and leaving the boy to drop just as quietly as the first two. Fae Lao then waited
again, seeing if the two had noticed or would react. His ears listened as intently as they
could, trying to hear what they would do next. The silence was deafening. No one was
moving or saying anything. Fae couldn’t decide if they were waiting for the third to
come back, or if they knew he had been hit and were waiting for Fae to betray himself.
After a half hour birds and squirrels and the like were moving about, accustomed to the
three men all hunting each other. After an hour the sun was beginning to set. All the
other matches had been resolved long before. Another hour passed, storm clouds blotted
out the moon and stars as a drizzle picked up, the monsoon rains drenching the three
boys. It was too much, one of the boys let out a small curse and went to find some dry
shelter, abandoning his fellow. Fae Lao, who had been protecting his bow string
carefully from the rain, drew and fired again. The boy went down. Fae folded his legs
back beneath him and listened for the movement of the third. Another hour passed, the
rain sucking warmth from both boys, indomitable and impassive, fighting each other on a
different level than the game called for. Fae Lao shivered, his cloak protecting his bow
instead of himself, the darkness making his eyes strain, the rain making his ears strain to
hear the other boy’s next move. He was tired and the tree’s bark made his sitting sore and
wearisome. Another hour passed.
“What the hell is going on here?” Three more boys emerged from the clearing,
seeing nothing but the enemy flag unguarded. They saw the two corpses shivering in the
rain, unable to move, beside the flag. But there was no motion or noise anywhere. They
had ambushed the enemy team and beaten them handily, with 8 men to spare. And yet
the five they had sent had not retrieved the flag, and though they had been detailed to
guard the flag no matter what, they had given up and gone to get the flag themselves. It
was ridiculous that they had waited as long as they did.
“Is anyone there? What’s the meaning of this?” The boy shouted. No response
was made. The three looked around, seeing nothing but the flag and those two corpses.


It was too dark to see much of anything. The boy shrugged, and walked boldly up to the
flag. Fae Lao drew and released, the arrow striking him in the heart. His eyes widened
in surprise, a hiss of anger came from his lips, and he dropped beside his fellow corpses
agonizingly close to the flag. The two with him shouted with alarm, taking cover and
looking around.
“Who’s there! Come on, what are you doing! We’ve missed dinner and it’s
freezing and wet out here. Come out and let’s end this fight! Who cares who wins
anyway? We have to exercise tomorrow, you don’t want any sleep before then?”
The reply was silence, from both enemy and ally. Gai Yi felt that the two
survivors were no help at all, since they’d only reveal his position, while getting them no
closer to the flag. He could find no way to protect them. Fae Lao was sniping them,
anyone who moved, anyone who revealed themselves, one by one, and he refused to die
uselessly like the others, without even finding Fae’s position. From all the corpses now,
Gai Yi had narrowed Fae’s location to somewhere almost exactly next to him. The shot
had come silently and he had not been able to figure out where it was coming from. He
only knew that any move, any sound he made, Fae would instantly know of it, and he
would just fall down dead like the rest, a whole mound of corpses losing to Fae all on his
own. The shame would be too much. If only they had rushed the flag, all eight at once.
But they couldn’t have known what Fae was planning until it had actually happened.
Now it was too late for any rush to work.
“Fine, if you won’t come out, how about this?” The boys conferred together, and
then they marched towards the flag, one boy using the other as his shield. Fae Lao stood
up and drew his arrow and shot, the boy in front going limp. The boy behind held him up
though, still moving forward. He carefully, without exposing his front in any way,
reached out and grabbed the flag. Then he carefully turned around, still not exposing
himself, holding up the other boy with his arms wrapped around on his back now, as he
walked back the way he came. Fae Lao watched, wondering what to do now. He had to
protect his flag, but Gai Yi was still out there, waiting for him to move. He was pinned to
the tree almost. If he waited too long he wouldn’t be able to catch his flag though.
Victory was steadily receding. Fae calmly stretched, looking at the way down. He would
have to jump and roll, climbing down would make too much noise and just make him an
easy target. Fae let go of his bow, carefully collecting his wooden sword instead. He
would have to use this for the last two. Gai Yi would miss. Gai would miss the first shot
after that drop and roll, and then he would rush him and win the sword fight. Fae Lao
paused, looking down and taking a breath, and then he jumped.
The drop was around twenty feet, Fae flew down, jumping as far as he could to
get clear of the other branches, and crumpled his legs the moment they touched, rolling
through the muddied earth and leaves three times until the momentum was gone. It hurt
but there was no time to worry about it. Fae heard the brush break as Gai Yi charged
forward, Fae rose his sword in surprise, he hadn’t thought Gai had been this close the
whole time. They had been sitting across from each other with only the tree trunk
between them the whole night. He expected an arrow shot, instead he barely got on his
knee to block the full force of Gai’s swing. Fae gaped as the strength of the blow
knocked him back to the ground, Gai swung again, and Fae used both his hands to hold
the sword between them. The blow thrummed through his arms, with Gai swinging
again, sure that his guard would break eventually. Fae kicked out, knocking Gai down


beside him. Fae swung his sword trying to catch Gai, but he rolled the moment he had
fallen out of range and the two of them jumped back up, covered in mud and drenched in
the rain. Fae charged, jumping forward and aiming for the head, Gai backed up and Fae
jumped forward again, stabbing, hoping to catch Gai off balance as he backpedaled. Gai
knocked the blow aside and swung at Fae’s head, but Fae dropped to his knee and
brought his sword slashing back, knocking decisively into Gai’s stomach as Gai’s sword
swished harmlessly overhead. Gai sighed and sat down, ‘dead’. Fae saluted him with his
sword and a smile, racing to catch up to the last boy with his flag.
The sprint was on. The last boy had deposited his friend the moment he had
reached the woods, running through the woods back towards his base, the first victory
against Fae Lao finally within sight. Fae had lost maybe thirty seconds on him, his
headlong rush through the dark woods following the snapping twigs of his enemy. The
two ran, breathless, ankles tripping and catching themselves over roots and rocks, hearing
each other but not seeing in the dark woods. The first boy emerged from the woods,
jumping into the stream and running as best he could through the swollen water towards
his own flag which had been put in such a great defensive position, the river and hill now
his greatest obstacles. Fae emerged from clearing, almost falling into the river, heard the
splashing and saw the enemy nearing the enemy hill. He thought about jumping in and
discarded the idea, it was too late to catch up now. He waited until the other boy reached
out from the river and pulled himself onto the bank, and in that one moment of stillness
where he caught his balance, Fae Lao threw his sword across the river and struck the boy
on the back. The boy tipped forward, looking back at Fae with a curse. “What the hell?”
Fae laughed and jumped into the river, wading across and pulling himself onto the
bank. He picked up his own flag and then went up the hill to take the enemy flag as well,
holding both of them up high flushed with victory. A judge, emerging from the rain and
cold, shook his cloak and glared at Fae Lao. “Took you long enough. We don’t all enjoy
these overnight picnics, you know.”
Fae Lao smiled, handing the flags over. “Then change the rules. The other kids
are learning to wait too, next time it will be two days.” Fae laughed and stretched, his
entire body sore from sitting on the tree and then jumping down and running through the
woods, tripping and crashing his way at full speed. It had all paid off though. Single
handedly he had again transformed defeat into victory.
Whistles and shouts alerted all the living dead that the match was over and they
could finally get up. The boy nearest him was the first to get up and point accusingly at
Fae to the judge.
“He’s cheating! He’s just camping out there, shooting anyone who comes near,
it’s not fair. It’s not like he’s any better, he just wastes so much time that the rest of us get
sick of it!”
Fae Lao smiled. “You were pretty good, using that one guy as a shield. I wonder
if he’d die as willingly for you in a real fight though?”
The guy scowled. “In a real fight we’d just go around your entire position and
leave you there to rot.”
“And if my position is vital?” Fae Lao asked.
“Then we’d bombard it with catapults!” The boy said.
“And if I’m dug in?” Fae Lao asked, laughing.
“Then we’d set fire to the whole area and burn you out.” The boy said.


Fae Lao laughed. “But it’s raining!”

“Go to hell!” The boy shouted, giving up. “I’m going to bed. I just jumped into
a river and I’m freezing to death. Goodnight, and thanks a lot!”
The judge shook his head at Fae. “Don’t let it get to your head. You know it
won’t work next time. They’ll just rush the flag with everyone now that they know their
own isn’t threatened.”
“I know. I guess next time I’ll hold back three others with me and we’ll stay on
the ground so we can move around.” Fae said. The fall had been pretty hard, something
he’d rather not repeat.
The judge laughed, clapping him on the shoulder. “Alright then. Congratulations
on another win, Fae Lao.”
Fae bowed, elated and relieved. He could have lost to any other team and just
been annoyed, but he couldn’t lose to Gai. He never could have lived that down. If he
lost to Gai, the friendship would change into something else. He wasn’t sure what. Of
course he’d still like and respect Gai, but. . .it would replace that comfortable warmth
with a deep cold. . .he wouldn’t be able to share anything with Gai, say anything to him,
without wondering if his friend would use it against him. If he lost to Gai, they would
become bitter rivals, because he could not accept losing to anyone. He could not accept
someone outpacing his own progress. He was going to be the Emperor of the whole
Middle Kingdom. If he lost to just a random classmate at the very beginning. . .it would
be humiliating. It would mean he was an idiot, an arrogant little kid who had no idea
how vast the world was or how pathetic he was in comparison to it. If he lost to someone
his own age, this early on, the first time he was actually competing with others, it would
make him have to eat his words. He could just imagine Gai Yi saying smugly, “How do
you expect to be Emperor when you can’t even beat me?” It would be humiliating. If
that ever happened he would hate Gai Yi for knowing his shame, and he didn’t want to
hate Gai Yi. Because he was the first person he really loved. If he would just keep his
place and leave him free to pursue his dream, everything would be fine. But if Gai stole
that dream from him, made a fool of him, became the better of the two and thus stole
away Fae’s only purpose and worth in life. . .he would hate Gai. The very thought of it
twisted at him. If Gai beat him, Gai killed him, there was nothing left in his life if he just
became another weak loser, a placeholder for others to rise above and leave behind. And
the only way to reclaim that dream, that goal, that rank of best. . .would be to kill Gai Yi.
It was a struggle for survival. Gai Yi would be suffocating him. Choking him like a
snake around its prey, crushing him into nothing. He couldn’t accept that role, that fate,
that place in life. The only way out would be to kill his friend, to clear the air and give
him back his path. Not from just losing a game or two, a fight or two. That didn’t prove
anything. That just meant Gai Yi was nearly as good as him, which would be fine. But if
he ever started consistently losing, or if he lost something important, like a battle or
something. . .that would be the end of it. They couldn’t be friends after that. Losing to
him was unforgivable. It was a betrayal. Gai Yi would be killing him by beating him,
knowing full well how much winning meant to him, and after that there would be no
going back. For one to live the other would have to die.

Gai Yi sighed, taking off his clothes as the rain pelted his tent and lying down,
exhausted from the strain of being a coiled spring for hours. Fae had been right above


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

When Gai Yi woke up, not long after he had fallen asleep, breakfast was being
served and he was starving. Everyone on both teams had missed dinner last night, and
the two groups were mocking each other and blaming each other for having extended the
fight so long. Fae Lao was laughing and talking to his teammates, probably figuring out
how they had been ambushed and cut down leaving so many for him to deal with. Gai Yi
waved and Fae Lao looked up, nodding a hi as Gai went to get his food. Gai sat down
across from him, eating his beef and vegetables with a relish.
“Hope I’m not interrupting any secret strategy meetings.” Gai said, half
“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
“Go? Our greatest weapon?” Gai Yi asked the others, confused.
“You’ll see.” A boy promised him. “It’s everything to the nobility. The only
competition that matters. Your dan is more important than your rank, it’s what we write
our poems about and make all our references to. It’s the game.”
“You just surround the enemy stones with yours on all sides, and that kills them.
Other than that you want to surround territory, make a moyo, and a point of territory is
equal to a point for each stone killed.” Another boy said.
Fae smiled. “You’ll like it, Gai. A genius at math like you should pick it up no
problem. It’s a game of patterns and possibilities. It’s. . .a beautiful game.”
“I suppose you have a knack for it too?” Gai asked Fae, sighing.
“No, I have a knack for the bow, the sword, the spear, horses, and all that. When
it comes to Go, I am a genius.” Fae Lao grinned.
Gai Yi grinned back. “Then you’re on.”


Chapter 14

A knock ran through the door, breaking Hei’s concentration. His quill finished the
character and stopped, orders being given to his Imperial spies on how to implicate the
nobility in treason.
“Go away.” Hei ordered. “If I need anything I will call for you.”
“I will not go away. Open the door, Hei.” A voice from another life called to him.
Hei looked at the door in confusion. Why was she here? How could she have come
here? Hei looked at the parchment and opened his drawer, carefully putting it away with
his other papers and then closing and locking it with a key he always carried on his
person. He stood up and looked out the window, leaves going brown and slowly dying,
though there was no lack for water or heat even now. Snow would already be clogging
up the passes between Tang and Liu-Yang, except of course for the river that bound the
two nations together. Why was she here then? Hei went to the door and opened it.
“Yue.” He said, looking at a girl much taller and heavier than he remembered.
“I’d forgotten how old you were.”
Yue smiled. “Thank you so much, Hei, it’s always good to be told how old I look,
in case I should forget.” She leaned forward and hugged him, loosely but not letting go.
He held her carefully, afraid to say anything. When was the last time they had met? I
think when Lin was six years old and they brought his three cousins to play with, the
eldest son, Fu Tsen Huang, their first daughter, Fimiko Lorelei Huang, and their second
daughter, Ruriko Tai Huang. The fourth hadn’t been born yet, the youngest sister, Hitomi
Kazuke Huang. They had come to celebrate the fruitfulness of their marriages, and let the
children know each other, for the day they would have to rule together, and for Fimiko to
meet Lin, for the day they might be bound to one another. There was no more promising
marriage than another in the next generation which would bind Tang and Liu-Yang
together for their time as well as their parents, and through love and custom, their
children’s time as well, and then from habit their children’s children, and for all time, if it
could be helped.
“I didn’t mean that. It has only been, what. . .fourteen years since we were
married beside one another. . .you are not yet thirty then.” Hei blinked, surprised. How
could they still be so young and have lived through so much?
“And you are only 35, but apparently you have already gone senile.” Yue pulled
back from their embrace, glaring at him. “We have heard nothing of you, they tell me
you haven’t even read our letters, since the funeral. Do you have any idea what’s going
on? Do you even know Tang is at war? Or that I have had another son, rounding the
grand total out to five, all of them healthy and doing well? Do you want to know your
nephew’s name, Hei?” She had her fists on her hips.
“At war?” Hei was surprised. “With whom?”
“His name is Fan Lin Huang, Hei. We named him in honor of your son.” She
said. “If you hadn’t cut us off, you’d know that we mourned deeply for you, and care
very much about you now. I couldn’t come before because Pe was leading the army, and
I had to run the kingdom while he was gone. But now I’ve come as quickly as I could,
and named my child that Pe left growing in me while he was away in your honor, and you
didn’t once think of us. Aren’t we supposed to be allies? You didn’t even accept our
messengers, come to exact your sworn aid. What on earth have you been doing?”


“But at war with whom?” Hei asked again, reeling.

“The southern barbarians, who else? They are always attacking. But this past
year the plague has ravaged us and the barbarians smelt weakness. They came in full
force, some one hundred thousand men, women, and children, creeping out from their
jungles to come live in our river valleys and seize all our wealth while they were at it.
We were desperate at first, we could only find twenty thousand healthy men to fight with
on such short notice, but the Dao was not asleep. Before we ever fought the barbarians
they caught the plague and died en masse. We harried the rest of them back across the
border, where they quickly spread the plague to all their people.” Yue laughed. “I hope
they choke on the karma they do not understand or believe in. The Dao still rules those
who do not know its rules, and the plague does not take sides.”
Hei sat down on his bed, wondering what to say. “Your children, they are all
healthy? Pe was not wounded in the fighting?”
“No, Hei, all is well. The plague and the war has been hard on us, but we are
through it now. Though the plague still comes back and kills more that it missed before,
the worst is done. . .there are few left to kill. And with the plague protecting our borders,
we will be safe enough to wait it out, and plant everything anew once it’s finally burned
itself out. You have three nieces, two nephews, and a sister who loves you very much, if
you would open your heart back to us you would know that you aren’t alone.” She sat
down beside him and touched his hand, tentative because she was broaching a dangerous
“I can’t believe you came all on your own in this kind of weather.” Hei said,
stiffening at her touch like a man hunted.
“You made me. I missed you too much and I was worried about you. Would you
rather have rotted alone in this tiny chamber for another fifty years? Are you even ruling
Liu-Yang anymore, locked in here and meeting no one? What will become of our
homeland at this rate? It’s shameful, Hei. What if father or mother were here to see this?
Did they raise you to abandon your people when they most need you? Do you know
there will be a terrible harvest this year? Even if you have enough food for Liu-Yang,
what about the rest of us? What about all the other kingdoms that rely on your crops?
And where do you expect you will get the iron you need to make more plows and barrels
and nails and all the rest, when you have no rice for Mae-Dong? Do you expect we will
give you all our tools out of charity, when from your mismanagement my people will
starve? Is this how my brother cares for me? Was the marriage in vain because you no
longer have any interest in what happens to me, my land, or my people?”
Hei looked at her, searching for words to say. I don’t care anymore. He wanted to
say it, but he knew he couldn’t, because Yue would not accept that as an answer, or
respect him any longer for even thinking it. But he wasn’t going to lie and say that he did
care. Not when the facts flew directly in the face of such a claim.
“I’ve been busy.” Hei finally said.
Yue looked at him, confused and angry. “With what? You have not done your
duty to Tang, nor to Liu-Yang. You speak with no one and do nothing. What is so
important that everything else has been thrown away and forgotten, including me?”
“I can’t tell you.” Hei said.
“Why?” Yue challenged.
“I can’t tell you why either.” Hei said.


“That’s not good enough, Hei. Too many people are dying because you are busy.
Too many of my own people are going to starve to death this winter because this fall’s
harvest is half that of the harvest four years ago, and you have been too busy to do
anything about it. What will I say when I get back, and Pe asks me why you broke your
alliance, even though disaster was averted? Will I tell him, ‘sorry, he’s been busy, and it’s
a secret what he’s busy about.’ Is that a good enough explanation? Would you accept
that explanation if Pe gave it to you? Hei, if you break faith with Tang, and break faith
with your own people by neglecting them, you will lose the mandate of heaven. It cannot
continue like this. The people will begin to murmur. Even though opening up the spice
trade has enriched Liu-Yang, even though you saved them in the war of three kings, their
memories are short, Hei. They will forget that and only see that you are failing them
now. Even though we have ruled Liu-Yang for three generations now, they will forget
and put someone else on the throne if they think you are no longer fit. Don’t count on the
people’s gratitude to let you just go do whatever you want while they suffer and die.”
“What can I do?” Hei complained, anger rising in his voice. “If I could have
cured the plague, don’t you think I would have? Don’t you, Yue? The plague cannot be
stopped, it kills my farmers and my town folk alike, it has taken away our industry and
our agriculture, and then comes back for more just when we think it has passed. I could
as easily hold back the flood or cast the monsoon winds back into the sea as stop this
world-eater. This death-greed. This all-devourer. This is heaven’s doing, not mine. The
consequence shall be on its head then, not mine!”
“I know you can’t cure the plague. But you could at least try to help people
recover from it.” Yue said. “Of course you didn’t start the plague, but you’re the
emperor, Hei, you’re still responsible. Maybe. . .maybe because you weren’t raised to be
emperor you never. . .understood how heavy that duty was. Why father was always so
strict and stern and unforgiving. . .don’t you see it was because he had to be, because that
duty was so strict and stern and unforgiving to him? Even though it’s not your fault, it’s
still your responsibility. We have to do what we can, Hei. We have to go on living and
do our best to make things right again. Did you give up after the swamp, or the two
rivers? So why are you giving up now? Why have you given up on the rest of us? You
sound like the plague has killed everyone and there’s no one left to care about. Don’t you
think there are a million people just like you, who have lost their parents, or their
children, or their siblings, or all of them together? Do you think just because Lin died
you don’t have any obligations to anyone anymore, that you can just grieve forever?”
“I can do whatever I want.” Hei said.
“That isn’t what the Hei I remember said. The Hei I remember said, there was
only one thing you could ever do, and that was the right thing. That was the Hei I came
to understand and follow, though it meant marrying the very King who invaded us and
killed our father—was I a fool to do that then? Was I wrong? Should I have just done
what I wanted instead?” Yue challenged him.
“What do I care? Do whatever you want.” Hei snarled. “I didn’t ask you to
come here and I didn’t ask for your advice.”
Yue stared at him. “Where is my brother I left behind?” She asked, quietly.
“He’s dead.” Hei said. “You should go back home. You have five children, you
could even have more if you wanted. You have a future, go enjoy it. There is nothing
left here for you. Keep your children fed and warm and loved and teach them to be good


and wise and strong, and then marry them off to good wise strong people like them and
watch them have children and give them presents and keep them fed and warm and happy
too and bless yourself for having so many people to love and be loved by, because there
can be no greater happiness than that. I have chosen my future, it is just death. There is
nothing left between us. We cannot be further apart, we are opposites now.”
“But why does it have to be that way?” Yue started to cry. “Why do you have to
turn your back on us? If my future is happy, let me share it with you! I have enough left
over to give!”
“I would just end up killing you too. Everything around me crumbles and dies.
You were lucky, you escaped and are far away. Maybe the curse won’t find you. My
only future is death, it is my karma, I was born with it, there’s no helping it. I am a
poison that spreads through all the water in the well. I am an adder. God has decreed
that whatever I love will die, so I refuse to love anymore. I will not sacrifice yet another
victim to God. I will not give the Dao the satisfaction of rekindling my heart only so that
it can extinguish it again. I’m sick of it. I’m not doing it anymore. It hurts too much.
I’m done with all humanity and all good things.”
“But then what is left?” Yue cried out in protest.
“Only death and more death.” Hei said, clenching his fist. “You should leave and
not look back. Your brother is dead, remember him fondly if you please, but he is just as
dead as Rin. It’s to you to live for all of us. I’m done.”
“But that’s crazy.” Yue said. “It doesn’t have to be that way!”
Hei stood up, shaking at this last thread held out to him, shaking with the effort to
not grab hold of it and start the cycle anew. “If you won’t leave then I will.” He rushed
out the door and slammed it behind him.

Gai Yi and Fae Lao sat with their legs folded underneath them, staring at the
board. Most of the other games were over and the students had crowded around to watch
this final match. The shikijo watched silently while the others whispered and guessed
where they would move next and who would win.
“How did it start?” “Sanrensei.” “How many turns so far?” “48.” “I’ve never
seen a line like that. Why did Fae let him claim the right so thoroughly, and on the fourth
line?” “Well he did stick in that little at the lower right.” “still so much territory this
early given over for practically free.” “Fae isn’t afraid to let black get ahead, white has to
make it up over the long haul, there’s no way white can stay with black early when they
move first.” “I don’t like it, that 11-15 stone disrupts Fae’s whole moyo, and that’s all he
has, the rest he’s just running scared with. He even lost the corner he started with.”
“Give him time. Fae always pulls something.”
In fact that’s what Gai was worried about. Looking at the board, he was winning
everywhere, but looking at Fae, it was apparently all a part of his plan. Gai Yi had tried
to play as simply as possible, not getting caught up into Fae’s strange games and trying to
play with as much flair and originality as he did. He didn’t know how to play with new
moves, but he did know that playing on the star points couldn’t go wrong. The sanrensei
had simplified the game first off, and his one point jumps and corner invasions all
peacefully settled had simplified the game even more. His territory was already pretty
much defined now, the rest of the game would be about how much white could make
from its thickness in the middle and the right side, and the moyo up top. He had been


pressing white across the whole center, both sides denying each other much of anything,
both sides staying alive more than attacking each other, with either a bamboo joint or a
diagonal extension or a potential extension into a tiger jaw, one way or another only
individual stones were abandoned to be taken by their irrelevancy, the rest were safe.
Now he would have to begin an attack that denied white’s territory in white’s own
framework. It was like marching across neutral ground, across the frontier into enemy
soil. It may not be any harder defended or look any different, but the moment he crossed
that line the entire atmosphere would change. The game would go from the peaceful gift
Fae had made of all his territory to a struggle over every point, as this was what Fae had
relied upon and was building towards the whole game. The true battle began here. And
he still had the initiative. The gift of black, the power of sente. Alright, start with a push
from the already safe group. Fae backtracked, trading threats, Gai took the outlying
stone, Fae threatened it again, Gai filled in, then Fae connected his diagonal to protect
against a fork. It made a strong wall, but left another stone a stranded victim. Defense
was not about fanatically holding to the last man on the frontier, and it wasn’t about
risking your entire army to save a single detachment or outlying fortress or threatened
city. Defense was about interior lines, advantageous terrain, the support of the people,
retreating when you had to, counter-attacking when you could.
Gai had no time to kill a single stone, he shifted his attack to the white central
thickness, expanding his lower right territory. Fae retreated again, content to connect
assuredly his lone outriders on the right side to his strong center. The new strength Fae’s
right side gained simply by being alive made Gai pause. Those three men suddenly
looked more menacing than before, and his completely wrapped up, unquestionably
secure territory looked more like a leaky boat. Gai extended his corner position, which
both protected his corner and threatened to gut Fae’s newly gained right side. A flurry of
moves and Fae had attacked in a completely different direction, splitting Gai’s men in his
unquestionably secure top right territory. It was all Gai could do to save his men by
marching them towards his center position since they could no longer connect to the top
or bottom. Gai had sente though. It meant he could consolidate the bottom territory for
sure this time, and threaten Fae’s right and top while strengthening his own now
precarious top right corner. Fae responded defensively until he saw his chance, and the
stone hit the table with a wooden clack at 11-13. If Gai’s 11-15 stone was cut off, Fae’s
moyo would be crushingly enormous. It was the stone neither had wished to place until
their other men were secure, because once it was placed the battle would be too fierce to
move anywhere else until the matter was settled. And with insecure flanks surrounding a
fierce battle quickly filled up with untouchable thickness, whole subordinate positions
would have been swept away and killed just from being caught in the midst of the war
zone. The fight began, but then something unaccountable happened. Fae moved again
on the right side, threatening a single piece. The theatre of war might, possibly, have an
effect on the central fight, but far less than if he had moved directly in the zone, and there
was no way that single stone was worth a turn to defend. Gai looked at the move in
bewilderment, gave it up for too deep for him to understand, and connected his outrider
which could have been cut, creating a true dagger into the heart of Fae’s moyo. A few
turns later Fae had the chance to finally contain the attack, but instead attacked the top
right corner. If given another turn, the move declared, he wouldn’t have to connect his
two forces up top, because he would create space for his men by killing Gai’s. Gai


looked at the move, and decided it was too dangerous to ignore, a flurry of stones, and
then Fae had to admit it was time to connect.
The outlook was grim. Fae’s stones, though all alive, were now crawling along
the edge when before they had laid claim to an enormous territory bigger than all of
black’s combined. There was one scary side, that, even though Gai’s line of stones was
enormous, spanning all across the bottom left to the top and the right, it did not have any
defined eyes yet. That move which had made so little sense now took on a more sinister
look. It had denied him an eye. Fae must have decided right then that defense was
hopeless, and shifted to the subtlest, longest ranged attack that only now Gai saw. Gai
scanned the board, looking now for eyes. He could make none on the right side, Fae’s
move had taken it away. There was none up top, if he moved to make one part of the eye,
Fae would move to deny the other part, it was miai, a situation where two points were
mutually exclusive and cancelled each other out, if someone went on one, the other went
on the other, so neither bothered to make the move, when it would serve as a ko threat so
long as it wasn’t used, and would be useless otherwise. Gai looked south, the eye he
already had was a false eye, he would have to use it to connect his two forces in the
bottom left and top right. Another move by Fae during the central fight had ensured that.
The bottom left itself could form an eye if he moved now. But that was only one eye. He
needed two. There was nowhere left. Gai scanned the board in disbelief. He would be
the laughing stock of the entire class, this wasn’t just losing a close fight, or letting five
or six stones get cut off and killed from some sloppy play. This was the entire army.
This was forty stones or more. This was somehow losing the entire board. And all
because 11-13 had been a diversion. Fae had thought on an entirely different level from
him. Gai had been exploiting a breakdown in territory, denying points in a stingy victory
of one stone at a time. Fae had thrown that all out and determined on the destruction of
the entire enemy army. Fae had abandoned his territory not just in the beginning, not just
in the middle, Fae had abandoned his territory in the endgame as well. He had
abandoned from the start the wish to hold any territory, all of it was superseded by the
wish to cut, to attack, to isolate, to surround. Fae didn’t want a close fight, he had
decided either it would be a total victory and the smashing of Gai’s entire army, save for
some scattered surviving outposts—or a total defeat and Fae not having any territory at
all in the end. And Gai had noticed only now. And he had only one eye, if he moved
there, and this dagger into Fae’s territory that was now contained would not reach much
further. If he moved to secure that eye, he was dead, because all potentialities would be
eliminated because Fae would wall off the dagger for good, and there was no second eye.
So the dagger had to produce an eye. Not only would it have to produce an eye, it would
have to keep sente the whole time so at the end of it, he could move immediately to create
the second eye. In fact, if the formation of one eye was not also a threat to kill, he was
going to lose. Lose absolutely.
Most of the rest of the crowd did not see it. They watched as Gai seemed to sweat
and stare at a board which clearly showed him winning on all fronts, with Fae barely
scrabbling for life and virtually no territory. They saw his eyes race back and forth across
the board with a panic that should instead have gloated over owning the left bottom
corner, the right bottom side, the top right side, the top left corner. . .some wondered if he
was actually teasing Fae with the prospect of the board. Only the shikijo watched
impassively. Fae had his eyes staring at nowhere in particular in the board, afraid that if


he looked at any one space Gai would see what he was seeing, his jaw bone tight against
his skin due to his teeth locked together. His face was pale with a deathly grim intensity.
The two together looked more like two desperate wrestlers locked and trying to throw
each other, than two cross-legged students staring at a pretty pattern of black and white.
Gai now saw both eyes. He could make either one, but not without losing sente. One up
top, one at bottom. If he made one, Fae would take away the other. A giant miai. The
god of all miais. Then Gai looked at the L, the strong wall Fae had sacrificed a stone for
that Gai had never bothered to take so long ago. Gai saw a plan unfolding in his head. If
he moved one down, Fae had to move on the very edge, or see his two halves cut off and
the side on the right would die before his entire center could be killed. Then move one to
the left, that would put two borders on the bottom containment stone. If Fae moved
diagonally to block off his stones, he would cut down, threaten the stone on three sides,
and chase it if it moved to certain death. Which meant he would have to extend his
bottom stone to protect it. Extend one and there was the threat of a diagonal extension
which would cut off and isolate the L, so Fae would have to move there first to protect it.
If Fae connected the L directly, Gai could cut downwards and yet again isolate and
destroy the right half. Which meant Fae would have to connect with a tiger jaw, a poor
man’s defense of both groups. Next Gai would threaten to take as though he were going
to make his eye, white of course would retreat, but instead of making his eye, and giving
away his sente and the game, he would move one further up. This would not make the
eye, but it would threaten to take again, white would again connect. Next he would move
straight into the tiger’s jaw. It would be taken, because it had to be taken, or else he
would just connect the move and isolate and cut off the L. After it was taken, though, it
would have one less life, next he would finally make his eye, which, bordering the group
continuously threatened, would make white fill in to save his men in response, thus
preserving sente. His next move would then be to make the second eye by simply taking
in the lower left. He could do it. Gai checked, double checked, and moved. Fae thought
over each move furiously, just as Gai had, but every move was necessary and inevitable,
the only correct moves were the ones that led to those two eyes, the other choice was
always just being taken.
Fae finally had the chance to act instead of react, a turn too late. Black had
moved first and had always moved first since then, the initiative had carried through
unchecked, he just couldn’t make up for it. If he had been black, the game would have
been entirely different, of course. But he had been white, and he had desperately needed
that one extra turn the whole game. One last attempt to take the right corner by creating
complications, but Gai formed a solid mei that left the situation beyond any ko fight’s
reach. A little cleanup, and then Fae counted up the points. Though there were still some
end game moves left. The gap, even with komi, was around 50 white, 70 black. There
was no possible way to make it up. Fae had lost. Fae looked up from the board with a
forced grin. “Well, you got me. I resign.”
The crowd released a collective sigh Until that point they still thought maybe,
somehow, Fae would do something. He had an aura of invincibility, he’d beaten them all
at Go, only the shikijos ever found fault in his moves, and even they respected him as an
innovator who was changing the way of the game with a move here or there one further
up or left or right or diagonally. Fae Lao was someone even the masters were learning
from, how could some peasant who’d never even seen the game before, who didn’t even


know the name of it before coming—how could Gai Yi possibly win? And yet he not
only won, he won decisively. He won by a huge margin. And the start had been a simple
sanrensei, or three star points. 16-16, 16-4, and 16-10. And from there yet another star
point at 10-4, with one step hops inbetween. If a genius could not defeat moving on the
points marked out on the board. . .how could white ever possibly win? Some muttered
about invincible sente, others about upstart commoners, and still others about Fae taking
it easy on his friend. A large group did cheer for Gai, but when Gai turned to see who
they were, they were the other commoners. All the noble sons looked like they had been
chewing on something particularly disgusting and hard. This was their game. This was
the essence of the difference between the enlightened nobility and the ignorant masses.
And their champion, the one who surpassed all the rest of the nobility. . .even though they
all couldn’t stand him, he was one of them, and they had staked their pride as a class on
his achievements as a member—for him to lose—what did that make them? A fluke.
That’s all it could be. Gai Yi moved on the star points. Anyone could do that. It’s not
like he did anything smart the whole game. He was just lucky. Nobody could really beat
Fae. Maybe he had a headache or something.
The shikijo began to lecture them on their mistakes, but neither of them were
really listening. Fae Lao felt a black howling that practically deafened him. And Gai Yi
was too drunk with happiness to care. To lose at Go of all games! To beat him at Go of
all games! Fae shook his hand and congratulated Gai again, keeping his smile as best he
could. Gai Yi of course noticed the knot in his friend’s stomach, but he knew it would go
away, while the excitement of the games they played together would continue and the
challenge increase, making the entire game more enjoyable and capable of propelling
both of their skills forward. Of course Fae would feel terrible now—having gambled and
lost, the whole game would now look ridiculously stupid on his part, foreordained to
destruction and total unequivocal defeat. But he’d realize the advantages to losing
tomorrow, and then it would be better than ever.
Fae stood up and bowed to his shikijo. It was getting dark and it was time for
bed. Fae stumbled into his tent with eyes that saw nothing but the game, lines and
connection points and pivotal turns and that last continuous threat trick that had destroyed
him. That he hadn’t seen how that dagger could create an eye through continuous threats
now looked like colossal blindness, something any child could have seen, so much so that
it made him want to rub his eyes and wonder if he just hadn’t seen the stones right.
Surely no amount of stupidity could account for an oversight that enormous. How stupid
was he? Was he really that stupid? Anyone could have seen that coming. It was
disgusting. He was so furious with himself he wanted to break something, and it raged
all the more because he couldn’t show any of it without seeming weak. God damn it.
Why him? Why always him? Why is he always nipping at my heels? Why is he always
closing in? Why is he improving faster than me? Why did he have to beat me? Anyone
else, it would be a fluke. But it wasn’t a fluke! I tried my best and he saw further than I
did and he beat me! I couldn’t do anything more! He’s improving quickly because he
started so low, that’s understandable, of course that will slacken off, but why does it have
to be my friend? Capture the flag, scouting, fighting, the tests, the go games, he’s always
the only one I have to beat. He’s always the one standing in the way. And what cruel
joke is this—this insane chance meeting, that of all people he also wants to become
Emperor! That not just here, but my entire life, he will be the one standing in the way,


chasing behind, or running right beside, he will be the one I must overcome! Anyone else
could be my rival, anyone else in the world I could be competing with for that one spot of
greatness, and it has to be the first person I ever care about. I’m such a fool.


Chapter 15

“Hu Ran Shea, you’re under arrest for treason against the Emperor.” The marshal
called at the mansion, the sun just peaking over the horizon. Everywhere across Liu-
Yang, similar detachments were arresting other nobility as the sun rose as well, secret
police moving around in civilian dress, nobody had taken special notice of them. The
nobility would never have a chance to marshal its men or resist in each case, and with the
nobility decapitated in a single stroke, there would be nobody left to protest the action. It
wasn’t like the serfs were going to assemble to save their lords. They generally hated
each other.
“Hu Ran Shea, I repeat, you’re under arrest. Come out or we will be forced to
come in. If we come in we will summarily kill you all as belligerents. You have two
minutes to get dressed and collect whatever personal items you wish to bring with you to
stand trial.” The officer shouted at the top of his lungs. He then began an internal count
and waited patiently. A battalion of fifty men backed him up. Not the regular army,
because that would have attracted too many eyes. They were the new army. Hei’s
personal guard, that wore purple and black, and were sworn to silence and complete
obedience to the Emperor alone. Their weapon was a short sword, concealed underneath
their ordinary brown cloaks along with the rest of their uniform. The cloaks had been
discarded once they had reached the mansion though. Their secrecy had served its
purpose, now it was their authority they had to show. They had been recruited generally
from the army or the police, offered a new job as elites with higher pay and honors.
Certain qualities were demanded of them and a communal oath and ceremony bound
them to Hei Ming Jong for life. They all had to belong to peasant sects that were
fervently against the Dao and believed all their suffering was caused from improper
respect and sacrifices being given to their gods, which instead went to this imposter.
Secret rituals that promised the overthrow of God and the new age of the true gods so
long as they obeyed the Emperor unquestionably and said nothing gave them all a
particular cut to their eyes, so that though they all looked different they seemed to blend
into one another without any distinction.
Hu Ran Shea emerged from the house slightly before the two minutes had passed.
“What is the meaning of this? Treason? On what proof? On what authority? Don’t you
know who I am?”
Five men ran forward and tackled Hu. With a roar of outrage he tried to fight
back, and the five gleefully began to kick and beat him into submission. After thirty
seconds or so he’d given up fighting, curled into a ball to protect his head, but the beating
went on for another minute until all his body was blood and bruises, his clothes were
torn, and his dignity was absolutely lost. “Unfortunately, Hu Ran Shea, it is you who
don’t know who you are. You are nothing. In fact, you are worse than nothing. You are
a parasite and a disease that has been sucking at the underside of our country for too long,
and we have come to crush you.” The officer let a smile of triumph reveal all his teeth.
“Fetch everyone inside, try not to kill any, but don’t let anyone escape and if anyone pulls
any stunts like this man beat them.” The battalion nodded. Sub-commanders led squads
of ten as they broke into different doors and sealed off room after room, collecting
servants, cooks, stablemen, guards, maids, tutors, women and children and depositing
them in the central ball room. Fights broke out as men had seen what had happened to


their lord and armed, but as it was all haphazard and individual, they were generally
killed and their bleeding corpses deposited along with the other prisoners. The officer
watched with his own ten men, keeping account of the discipline and silence and making
sure nobody was escaping to send any messages.
“Sir, all the rooms have been cleared. We have three wounded and one killed,
sir.” A man with a slightly rumpled uniform reported, saluting fist to chest.
“Killed?” The officer glared. “That will go hard on you, Hu Ran Shea. That will
go very hard on you. Killing one of us is equivalent to assaulting the Emperor. You have
just sealed your own death warrant with that cute little trick, Hu Ran Shea.”
The numbed, bloody mass in the dirt gave a whimper, a plea for mercy.
“I’m sure one of the prisoners is a family doctor, make sure he tends to the
wounded. Beat anyone who gives the slightest look of impertinence. Staff sergeant!”
“Yes sir?” One of the ten who had waited with the commanding officer stepped
“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
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
“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
“Yes, granted.” The judge said, looking at the first few pages to see the obvious
“Hu Ran Shea, if you would like to say anything in your defense, now is your
opportunity.” The judge said.
“I. . .I. . .I’m very sorry.” Hu said, trying not to cry.
The prosecutor shook his head like a parent scolding a child. “Though it is clear
you have been honest and repentant, Hu Ran Shea, can you really expect forgiveness on
an issue so grave as this? As endangering all the people of Liu-Yang?”
“No, no, I. . .I deserve death. I am nothing. I’m a worm. I don’t deserve
forgiveness. I am ready to die for my crimes.” Hu Ran Shea said, tears going down his
cheeks. His wife and children danced in front of his eyes, their bright faces and laughter
and happiness. Anything to save them. Anything to spare his wife and daughters from
those men. He just wanted to die. He couldn’t stand living anymore, all the protests he
had made had only ended up with his people and family being hurt, he couldn’t stand it
any more. He just wanted the whole thing to end.
“Well, judge, I believe this case is at an end. Though of course all the nobles
implicated must be dealt with as well.”
“Of course.” The judge waved his hand. “Hu Ran Shea, you are sentenced to
death. Bring in the next conspirator.” The crowd applauded and cheered as Hu Ran Shea
was roughly grabbed by the guards and taken out of the court back into the wagon that
led him to prison. In some dark corner of the prison his head was chopped off and his
body was thrown into a furnace, to make sure nobody could bury him or show him any
honor or memory.


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


Chapter 16

The king of Pi listened to the flutes and strings of musicians from behind the
screens, the rice paper itself the work of all the most skilled painters, depicting birds in
flight, reeds in the wind, the moon rising over a lake, flowers and trees growing outward
from precarious mountainous perches. There were no pictures of humans, as humans
were a mix of beautiful and ugly, where these things were absolutely pure, whole, and
perfect. There were certain screens full of artist’s fancy, though, fireflies that, when
looked at closely, were in fact faeries. Trees which, if looked at from far away, became
dragons. Attempts to capture the invisible beauty and wonder of the world, which only
the imagination and not sensation could describe. He drank casually from his cup of
wine, the finest flower printed porcelain from Weh, and looked gloomily into a distance
beyond his mansion’s walls.
“I find this sitting troublesome, let us take a walk in the garden.” Pi finally
decided, putting his cup down. Incense and perfumes wafted through the halls, different
according to the whim of the hour, and moving so as not to permeate and choke the hall,
just enough to make sure that all the smells, along with all the sights and sounds, were
pleasant rather than unpleasant.
“Of course.” The king of Ch’i bowed and the two left the hall. The bright sun
lessened the chill of the coming winter, but the two pulled their cloaks tightly around
them and fell into step.
“Gardens at this time of year are the most pleasing to me.” Pi commented.
“These are the survivors, as it were. To bloom in the snow, it is a pleasing image to me.
A beautiful irony. . .a sort of poem, even, written by God and not men.”
“The flowers are indeed perfect in their own small fragile way.” Ch’i agreed.
“It is not in spite of that, but due to it, that I admire them so.” Pi said, the two
walking together looking at one sight or another as they passed. “That these flowers have
found a way to carve out their happiness, with so much less to work with than their
cousins of spring and summer, there is a nobility to it. Are these not truly the sages of
flower-kind? The flowers that have learned to say ‘enough’ and treat superfluity as no
different from excess? Men never learn these listens well enough, they are always
wishing for more when neither more nor less could ever please them, because happiness
is a state of being, not an object to be lost or found.”
“And yet some would say your court is the most excessive in all the Middle
Kingdom.” Ch’i mentioned.
“Then they are ignorant.” Pi shrugged. “What is Ch’i save Daoyan, and what is
Daoyan save its library, and what is its library save its excellence in wisdom and wise
men? I do not mean this as an insult, but as praise. Who can argue that Ch’i are the
wisest and most learned in all the world? All others must be mere moons to your sun,
reflecting your light to adorn ourselves with, for lack of our own. What, then, is Pi, but
this? The enjoyment of life?” Pi gestured. “We make and sell rice, that is how we live.
But what of it? Why live? The kings of Pi have been given power and wealth, all this
extra rice our great river has given us. Liu-Yang has used it to have more babies and to
feed them and farm yet more rice so they can have more babies and so on. We chose
instead to transform rice into art, and through art to transform. . .men into seeing men.
Our blood, it is not like Liu-Yang’s, which is surely made of mud, or your own, if you


will forgive me, which is made of ice. The lifeblood of Pi, the heartstrings that bind our
nation together, surely it runs with quicksilver. We are a light-footed people, always
looking up instead of down, ready to put on cloaks of feathers and fly away like the birds.
Do you know what is beautiful about herons wading through the rushes?”
“What would that be?” Ch’i asked.
“That they are wading only because they wish to be, because they are enjoying
the water. At any moment they could rejoin the sky. It’s their transcendent power we
admire. We like to imagine our souls in such a graceful, fleeting state, ready to take flight
from the body at the slightest whim, to rejoin the all-soul above, the soul of souls. The
Dao. The one.”
“There is beauty in that.” Ch’i agreed.
“Others look at Pi and they see waste, sumptuousness, effeminacy, foolishness. It
is said that our men put our women to shame, for we outdo their flighty love of frivolity
with the passionate and steady devotion to it that only men can feel. But is a flower so
trivial, really? When one truly thinks of a flower, there are so many beautiful truths,
carrying the very deepest meanings and secrets, that its form exhausts our wisdom before
our wisdom ever manages to exhaust it. For truly, has anyone described the nature of a
flower, its ways and causes—are we not still wholly ignorant of it? And in our ignorance
we dismiss it, for we never stayed to hear its story, to know whether it was an epic or a
tawdry limerick. If I knew the heart of the flower, I would know the heart of the entire
universe, for every part contains the whole, and the whole inspires and quickens all its
parts. Such is the value of a single flower, it is infinite, sacred, divine. Its petals are the
principles of existence. Is all creation not wonderful enough, that we must pick and
choose only certain parts as worthwhile, and discard the rest? Are our souls truly such
misers and curmudgeons as to condemn nine tenths of the universe and praise only what
is left? Is there anything truly trivial or unimportant, not deserving of our love? For just
think, people find someone here or there, and for their beauty and kindness and
tenderness, or their strength and devotion and integrity, they fall in love and think, ‘here
is someone more important to me than life, the universe, and everything. With this I
stand or fall, having found it, I cannot bear to lose it, we shall never part again.’ But just
think, for this one person, this other person is worth so much, how can its worth be
weighed? It is worth as much as the heart can bear, as much as the mind can hold, its
worth is a sunburst that fills the heart beyond all measure, a cup that runneth over and
fills their whole lives with light and joy, though it should lack all else. But some stranger,
looking upon the beloved, might think her ugly and dull, or him stupid and clumsy, and
pass over him without further thought. What is trivial, then? The person, or the
judgment? Surely all values are valuable to someone and for something, they cannot be
detached from a valuer and still be valuable. Nothing is illusory or trivial, so long as
someone should love it. That is the wonder of the seeing man, we can rain value upon
every rock and creeping thing, like water from the heavens, or even sunlight. We can
bathe the whole world in value and like our myths, transform ducks into swans and swans
into raven-haired, snow-skinned maidens. We were born alone and helpless in this vast
cruel world that we never chose—what, then, shall we make of it? I believe we should
bless it, and shower blessings upon it, all that we are capable of. That is how we of Pi see
things. So long as, somewhere, farwhen, a flute plays a song, suffering has not defined
us. We have found something higher.”


“I have heard you out.” Ch’i said, still calmly and affably. “But have you any
answer to my request?”
Pi shrugged, giving it up. “There was an answer in what I’ve said, but I will agree
that it was not very clear. In short, I will not war with Liu-Yang. They have done Pi no
harm, and we can gain nothing from them. A fish should as well declare war on a bird,
begrudging the ownership of the sky. What have we to do with Liu-Yang? I find the
whole matter disagreeable. Fourteen years ago, when my father was killed and his army
scattered, we were betrayed by everyone, Tang, Ch’i, and at last even the peasants who
promised us refuge. But before all that, didn’t my father betray himself? By renouncing
peace, harmony, trust, fellowship, honor--for the sake of, literally, mud? I find a soothing
irony in that. The beauty of genuinely killing and dying for mud, and killing one’s soul
long before you killed another’s body, only for mud is such a death suitable. It is a
pleasing image. It still makes me laugh sometimes, or at least smile to myself.”
“You are rather peculiar. You enjoy your father’s death, rather than seek
vengeance?” Ch’i asked.
“My father killed himself, the day he renounced his humanity.” Pi shrugged.
“Who should I avenge myself upon then? And isn’t vengeance such a petty wish, in the
end? Compared to eternity, does anyone really care if someone dies sooner or later? Are
we not all reborn in due time anyway? Shall we avenge ourselves on our enemies life
after life, and, frustrated and exhausted, crushing the serpent’s head over and over, at last
realize that souls are immortal and we shall eventually have to live with each other, as we
are all part of the same all-life and all-being—or shall we skip over all that and love our
enemies to begin with? Like water I believe it is easier to flow downhill. To struggle
against God like salmons rushing up-stream, there is a noble savagery to it—but at last
we must surrender and flow towards the ocean, the receiver of all streams and the essence
of all souls. There alone is the repose of happiness, the end of struggles for the lack of
anything to struggle for or against, having all we could wish for, and in such a way that
nothing can take it away—therefore in our strength we can forgive our enemies, and love
those that hate us, for what do we have to fear from them? Shall a soul fear its shadow?
What then of this world of illusion and doubt, can anything that happens here harm a
soul? Then what shall I avenge myself upon, if naught is left to harm me? I predict if
you go to war, you will only lose it, after much suffering, and it will be worse for you
than it was before. But what of that, say you win, say you conquer the whole Middle
Kingdom, the whole world—what, shall you be any better off than before? Are you not
rich enough to enjoy whatever you wish already? Is a garden of winter blossoms not
“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
“How did you convince them?” Pi asked, surprised. “They don’t even border
“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
“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
“But your actions will prove which motivation was true.” Fae Lao said. And Ful,
reassured, dropped his bag of clothes and cried.


Chapter 17

Ma Sen stared at the orders in confusion. “Hei can’t be serious. I understand we

need to fix the position of the Ch’i forces, but the cavalry this far ahead can’t possibly be
relieved. The vanguard will just become its own smaller force. Even if the cavalry can
get away, they’ll just be somewhere out there, supplies and communications cut, having
to act for their own survival and we won’t be able to use them until well after the battle’s
Mao Cai looked at the orders beside him. “It doesn’t give any reason, does it? I
suppose it’s part of some larger plan we aren’t aware of.”
“But we’re the generals. Why shouldn’t we know everything?” Ma Sen said.
“I don’t know. Maybe he was afraid the explanation would be intercepted and so
said as little as possible.” Mao Cai offered “Ch’i is known for its excellent spies.”
“I can’t in good conscious follow an order that would just split our army for no
reason and likely endanger it. Perhaps Hei Ming Jong isn’t aware of the situation when
he gave the order. I’m afraid I never received this order, it must have gotten lost
somewhere.” Ma Sen said, picking up the orders and putting them into his candle’s
flame. He held it until the flame almost reached his fingers then dropped it in his waste
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
“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

Zhou Min Rok, the king of Ch’i, fiddled with his brush, determined both to
express his letter well and beautifully back to his wife.
“It is only natural for women to want peace and security above all other
considerations, because only in peace and security are women protected against
barbarisms such as rape, kidnapping, plunder, even slavery. War is a time of chaos, and
in chaos all is permitted, therefore war puts women most at risk, who most need stability,
both to bear and rear children, a task that requires practically a stable lifetime. For this
your worries and doubts are perfectly natural, and I sympathize with them, but I ask you
to consider a more complete analysis which I had to consider as the protector of not only
our people now, but for Chi’s future as well.
“The essence of karma is balance, for every this, a that, that which goes out
eventually returns unto itself, so that harmony and symmetry are eternal. Without karma,
without balance, everything would descend into chaos. Just suppose that the hotter an
object became, the more heat it absorbed from everything around it, in an ever mounting
cycle—shortly this one object would include all the heat in the universe, and everything
else would be absolutely cold. Clearly this would mean the destruction of everything,
nothing could be expected to exist in the midst of such a boiling cauldron of heat, or in
such a lifeless frozen wasteland of cold. Happily, nature has imposed just the opposite
rule, that whenever one thing becomes hotter than another, it will naturally diffuse its heat
upon all its surroundings, until everything is the same temperature again. This is karma,
which is blessed, because it enforces the symmetry and harmony of the Dao, which is the
preserver and maintainer of the universe. If the Dao ever removed itself, if its principles
were ever neglected, if the will of the Dao ever changed, if karma lost its power—the
universe would perish and all life along with it. For this we love God, and consider
anything that is karma, is Good, and that the will of God is absolutely Good, such that
man’s sole goodness is his alignment with God. Man is a moon who is full and bright
when he participates in the glory of God, and when a new moon, divorced from God,
dwells in total darkness. It may be strange to be repeating this, when of course we all


understand the perfection of the Dao, but I felt it necessary to bring a fresh image to the
mind of the necessity of balance as the most important principle of God.
“It has been the role of the King of Ch’i ever since the end of the Tang dynasty to
preserve a balance of power between all the kingdoms, because we understood that Ch’i
as the center of the Middle Kingdom, which was itself the center of the world, as the seat
of the sutras and the wisdom of all the ancients, had a divine mandate to be like the Dao
to man. Our wars and conspiracies and negotiations and treaties and alliances, they have
always been for the sake of balance, for the sake of karma. Without which clearly, long
before, a new dynasty would have emerged and conquered our seven kingdoms, and
stamped Ch’i out along with all the others.
“There is an ugly truth about karma, however, which most others have attempted
to ignore, though it faces them daily across all Nature: life is a zero sum game. Nothing
can be created or destroyed, it can only change forms. Due to this, for one life to be
created, another must be destroyed. For the predator to survive, it must chase down and
devour its prey. But are the prey innocent? For the prey to live, they must devour the
plants. But are even the plants innocent? Their roots battle over the nutrients below, and
their trunks conspire to grow higher and further so that all the sunlight is reserved for
them, and the other plants must choke to death in the shade of their competitors. The
vines’ good is the tree’s evil, the mosquitoes feed on our blood, and everywhere we look,
there is a struggle for life, a war of all against all. Balance requires this, it is the eternal
principle that preserves the universe, but at the same time, it makes us, as reasoning
beings, cringe from ourselves and hide from the truth that we live at the expense of
others. Man is omnivorous, its appetite is phenomenal, all the ocean and all the earth is
our prey, we devour the whole world—and yet even this is not enough. Our desires are
so unlimited, so uninhibited, that only cannibalism can hope to satisfy us. It is sad, it is
nasty, but it is the undeniable truth. Men live off other men, and it is only a question of
who will be the masters, and who will be the slaves. The entire history of mankind is
simply the struggle for mastery of all against all. It can’t be helped, there will always be
the masters, who consume, and the slaves, who produce, because the hunger for goods
always outstrips the ability of an individual’s production. For the sake of peace, of the
security to live, people will consign themselves to this slavery and respect each other’s
property, even their claims to land and boundaries, though clearly no part of the earth
belongs to anyone by right, but only by the violence of people determined to keep others
off of it. Therefore a few strong people claim all the best spots of land, all the choicest
food, the most beautiful women, the most gaudy treasures, the most diverse
entertainments, and so on. Everyone would like to have these things, but for one to have
it, another must not have it, and therefore all goods are relative. One man’s good is
another’s evil, one man’s evil is another’s good. Liu-Yang, by dint of strength alone,
owns the most fertile, productive soil in the Middle Kingdom, and has such a gigantic
population of slaves, of peasants who till the land and hand over their produce to the
masters—that they have prospered enormously. This is their good, and our evil. Their
prosperity could be ours, but is not. Why? Because they will kill any who try to move in
and farm their soil, or not pay their taxes—that is the ultimate source of their prosperity,
their threat to kill any who would jeopardize it. On the surface it looks entirely peaceful
and benevolent, Liuyans just farm rice and sell it to others for our goods. But its
foundation is the threat to kill, what other foundation could it have? To have wealth it


must be seized, it cannot come from nothing, it can only be taken from someone or
something else, to enjoy wealth, it must be denied to all others, what is possession save
the exclusivity of enjoyment? Possession is denial, only the perspective determines the
word. Life is zero-sum, it is an eternal war, just to live from day to day, we must
constantly kill and devour the corpses of our victims. Perhaps man has best refined
parasitism, like mosquitoes we have discovered how to feed off the produce of others
without disabling them from producing yet more—but the essence is the same. Always
has been the same, and always will be the same. It is the nature of existence.
“When you look at the Middle Kingdom, as opposed to the barbarians, you cannot
help but notice that the Middle Kingdom is under eternal siege from the barbarians on all
sides. The northern barbarians are the curse of Ch’in, the southern barbarians the curse of
Tang, the pirates from the east besiege the coasts of Weh, Pi, and Liu-Yang. And Mae-
Dong, with all its mountains and jungles, isn’t even safe from invaders from the west.
Why is this? People are quick to say, it is because the barbarians are barbarous,
bloodthirsty, and warlike. But are they not men like all other men? Our nature is the
same, only our circumstances differ. The people of the Middle Kingdom do not attack
the barbarians, because we already have all the resources. We own the rivers, the fertile
land, the temperate lands, the rich mineral veins, the silk worms we zealously keep
anyone else from stealing, for fear that they will not have to buy our silk—is this not a
violence against them? Aren’t all our possessions an inherent violence? If we weren’t
here, the barbarians could instead migrate to our fair climate, our rich soil, dig up our iron
and cultivate our silkworms, sail our rivers and live in a plenty they can’t imagine as they
ride through howling winter wastelands, simmer in their tropical rainforests, or scratch a
living from the dirt of high mountain peaks. All our wars are to preserve what we have
from those who would like to have it—because we both understand that for us to have it,
they must not have it, and that one or the other of us must suffer, for one of us to be
happy. Only strength decides who has the ‘right’ to what we claim. If the barbarians
someday succeed and drive us out of our land, and we were sent to wander endlessly with
herds of sheep scratching out a meager existence of dirt, constant tribal wars over
waterholes and grazing lands, freezing temperatures and no chance at a contemplative or
retired life, would we respect their ‘rights’? The barbarians live so close to the edge of
life and death, that any day without work would be their last day, in such a society, there
can be no art, no wisdom, nothing at all. The only chance at happiness is to raid those
who do have the wealth, take it from them, and use it up in a spree that reminds us why
we live before we descend back into the drudgery of the winter winds, for lack of the
resources that produce the wealth, which alone can sustain wealth. If we were
barbarians, our dream in life would be to invade and conquer, to bring our families to
these happy valleys and wide rivers, these gently warm winters and nicely chilled
summers, this light gauzy colorful clothing, laughing women, and life of repose in the
midst of plenty. And isn’t it laughable, to claim no evil is being done to the barbarians,
by being pushed into these wastelands, but the barbarians are wrong to push back, to try
to get back in? Defender and aggressor are lies. To defend anything is an aggression
against all comers who would like to have it. To defend something is to kill any who
would like to have it, just as those who would like to have it determine to kill those who
already have it. There is absolutely no difference. Two people want something, neither
has any ‘right’ to it, they fight, and one prevails. The idea that one started the fight,


though both determined to kill for the sake of the object, is ridiculous. The fight would
not occur if the ‘defender’ didn’t resist. This is why it is simply despicable for people to
be unwilling to attack for an object, claiming objects are worthless and they are above all
that—and yet they are all willing to defend that very same object if they do have it. If
they truly believed that things had no value, they would surrender them to any who
asked, and prostrate themselves as slaves to the first who would be their masters. If
things are of no value, if slavery is not a misfortune, then why do they fight for their
property and freedom? The truth is attacking and defending is always the same war, the
eternal war of all against all, the war of life, and that there is no such thing as aggressor
and defender, life is inherently an aggression, we are all equally ‘guilty.’
“The nature of life is the struggle for existence. The question then is this: How
best can I, the king of Ch’i, acquire and preserve the most goods for Ch’i? How can I
maintain Ch’i against all competitors? Whether through war or peace, it makes no
difference. For the sake of survival, nature has taught us only one rule, all is permitted.
Birds devour each other’s eggs. Mock-queens trick whole hives into their barren service.
Wasps lay their eggs on the backs of spiders, which hatch and grow fat on its living body.
Worms invade our bodies to eat out our innards. There is absolutely no limit, no
restriction to the terrible evils life practices on itself, it is a festival of cruelty and hate.
Anyone who restricts himself only falls prey to those with no restrictions. In this world
only the strong survive. Only in heaven can we escape this cycle of death and rebirth,
only in heaven can we abandon this wretched world of relatives and embrace the
absolute. Here the law is only kill or be killed. God’s will, not mine, but I must follow it,
I am the king of Ch’i, it is my duty to keep Ch’i strong.
“Given that, the only way to keep Ch’i strong is to keep its neighbors weak. Ch’i
is only safe and rich as the middle of a fractured world. All nations must trade across us,
because we are in the very center of them. This is the source of our wealth. If we were
conquered, there would be no tariffs, because there would be no borders. Goods would
travel freely across us without having to pay us anything. All that wealth would pass us
by, and we would have no part in it. We would be the blighted center of a wealthy
dynasty. Since we are not the strongest nation, we must use our central position to play
all nations against each other, and preserve the balance of power by throwing our weight
as the crucial deciding factor, and never alone. Liu-Yang is fast approaching a time when
not even the combined powers of the Middle Kingdom will be able to stop it. Once this
last barrier has been passed, a conqueror king will emerge, like in all history they always
do—whenever the wealth and power of a kingdom waxes, it has absolutely, always, used
that wealth and power to conquer its neighbors and expand. That is simply the nature of
life. Once the Middle Kingdom is united under Liu-Yang, even given that we will be not
be ruled over tyrannically, which is hard to believe considering how Hei Ming Jong is
ruling his own country, the center of the world will no longer be Ch’i, it will be those two
rivers. All wealth will bypass us and we will wither on the vine. And the emperor, not
Daoyan, will again be the center of the Church, stealing away all our pilgrims and all our
scholars and all our authority. Ch’i is the center of the Middle Kingdom only so long as
the Middle Kingdom is kept drunken, reeling, off balance. Our era of shadow rule and
velvet order ends the moment some new capital and new center is found that replaces all
of our functions with its own. For the sake of our children and our people, then, my
father, and now I, have undertaken to destroy Liu-Yang, break it apart, make it so weak


that it can never challenge us again. You beg me to consider what happened to my father,
and the children I will leave behind orphaned, and your tears as a widow. I have
considered all of those, and I remember my father with such pride, and love my children
enough, that I in fact must kill or be killed. As all life must. God willing, I will return
with such a victory that ensures the life of Ch’i for as long as our eyes can envision.
Only by ensuring our future can we possibly enjoy peace for our present. As a man and
as a king, I cannot accept the peace of a slave, the security of a servant—I must settle for
nothing short of mastery. No other life is worth living. Honor and Pride do not allow me
to retreat or turn back, I can only go forward, and trusting in God, pit my fate against this
Hei Ming Jong’s, and allow fortune to take its course. Even if I lose, I lose as a master,
and that is no loss at all.
“Yours, always and forever, for a thousand lives yours,
“Zhou Min Rok.”


Chapter 18

Gai Yi marveled over the fact that he was now walking in a palace. He had
served ably and bravely in the river campaign as an artillery officer, and with the onset of
the winter everyone had retired back to their quarters, waiting for the weather to improve
so that they could kill each other again. Meanwhile the Weh navy had been sparring
with the Liuyan navy, with no decisive battles that could be claimed for either side. So
long as the Liuyan navy was alive, it would be suicidal to unload troops onto the coast.
The Weh navy would be chased off and wouldn’t be able to give supplies,
communications, or reinforcements. It would be an army in total isolation, surrounded
for thousands of miles on all sides with hostile territory. A Weh army deposited as exiles
with no way home, no possible retreat, was just an impossibility. They had to first own
the sea before they could attack on the land. Ch’i complained that they couldn’t possibly
cross the Liu river against so many men and Weh had to divert some of the men off, so
Weh had done its best to make annoying lightning raids against the people in the coast,
but with the major cities fortified and their harbors deathtraps with catapults situated to
snag them in a crossfire and nasty obstacles thrown into all the good harbors that only the
Liuyans knew the route through—the damage was just a nuisance and was ignored. All
in all the war was going well, but it would just go on forever, apparently, unless someone
committed themselves to a serious attack. It was a stalemate caused by the strength of
the river. Defending that river was so much easier than attacking across it, that neither
force was capable of overcoming the other. Some officers had even suggested letting the
damn Ch’i army across the river so they could have a real fight. But if they lost that ‘real
fight’ there would be nothing left between Ch’i and the capital. There would be no
stopping them. The answer, as the answer always was, was to mobilize more men. The
constant sparring over the river had been costly, especially for the cavalry, who had
continuously been stuck in the most dangerous roles, and the only answer was to replace
the men faster than Ch’i could. Both nations realized trading losses was not possible for
Ch’i, that eventually they would run out of men and have to give up at that rate. Ch’i
kept waiting for Weh to do something, or maybe for Pi to join the war, or for Liu-Yang to
make a mistake. Unlike last war, this one didn’t seem to have any possible end, perhaps
it would become just some permanent reality like the plague had become. The plague of
course had killed more people in both armies than they had killed each other, along with
all the other diseases that devoured any large groups of people who got together. If
anything, the plague would eventually ruin the Ch’i army and make them give up. That
was the ultimate deadline that would require Ch’i to first risk it all in a decisive battle
slanted severely against them. But the kings of Ch’i weren’t stupid. They would change
their strategy before then.
But after all that, to be following the prophecy this closely, it was surreal. Was he
really destined to be Emperor then? How? How could that possibly happen? If I were
emperor of Liu-Yang, what would I do? How would I change things? Gai’s mind reeled.
What did he know of ruling? He had no idea what an Emperor even did. He consulted
with his scribes, and together they made decisions, and alongside that, he kept on good
terms with the nobility who ruled the countryside and in turn defended the Emperor,
administered the Emperor’s laws, and so on. It all sounded good, but how would the
scribes possibly follow him, who couldn’t even pass the scribal test? And why would the


nobility follow his commands, a commoner? Only the most noble lines could be
expected to gain the nod of the other nobles. There was no way on earth he could be
emperor without any factions that would support him. And if some faction did put him
on the throne, then he would be relying entirely on them, because everyone else would
want him gone, and so if that faction decided to turn on him, he’d be dead within the
hour, and that kind of Emperor was hardly a goal worth shooting for. Only the agreement
of all the factions to put him on the throne would give him the power to disappoint at any
given moment one or the other. But Hei had so ravaged the nobility, and payed so little
attention to the scribes, and had completely abolished the bishops and archbishops and all
of them—that it was like he was just some floating head without any support at all, just
absolute power. Maybe he could be the next emperor in that tradition, maybe he
wouldn’t need anyone’s support, because he would just kill anyone who even thought of
resisting him. But he didn’t want to be that kind of Emperor either. If he was going to be
Emperor, it would be to end the persecutions, end the war. . .and help out all the poor and
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
“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
“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
“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
“Sure.” Gai Yi said again, feeling even more miserable. It had been the first time
they were together again in months, and this was what he could up think up to say? He
was the biggest god damn idiot in the god damned world.

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


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


Chapter 19

San Lei Jong knelt down beside the bed, propping up the man’s head in her lap so
that he could take a drink of water she had brought. She carefully unwrapped his
bandages and cleaned his body, trying her best to be gentle whenever he groaned over
some particular spot. Then she got out her new bandages and wrapped the sores back up,
hoping to keep whatever bad air out that was spreading the infection. Then they brought
him back to the fireplace so that he could be kept warm. She was quiet and efficient, but
always smiled whenever one of the victims thanked her or looked at her. It was the least
she could do.
“How did he catch it?” She asked the village headman, as she asked everyone.
“Tell me everything around him that day.” A list of his activities, the food he ate, the
water he drank. None of it coincided with the other stories, so she simply filed the
information away with her library of all the other people infected. Still impossible to tell
where the source was, but it had to be from something. A lot of people got it in town, and
so she had gone there to tend to the sick, and ask them questions. There were no good
answers, but generally it raged most powerfully in the poor, dirty districts where people
lived closest together. Even in the worst parts of town, garbage was routinely picked up
and carted away, cleanliness was the only way to make cities livable. Hundreds of
thousands, even over a million people living together, was simply impossible without
cleanliness, but as people got sick, the less they took care of their conditions, and the
more it deteriorated, in a spiral. She had done her best with others to keep places clean
where people no longer could clean themselves, and it helped. But she still wasn’t sure
why the black plague specifically thrived in dirty places. What particular filth was the
breeding pit? And why only now, when things had been relatively dirty or clean for
thousands of years. It couldn’t just be dirtiness. Even the emperor’s son died of the
plague. If not the dirt, it was something that thrived in dirt, but could get along without
it. What fit that category? Some bugs. Carrion eaters. Dogs, pigs, crows. But then why
was it concentrated along the river? That would prove it was some sort of waterbug, but
then again it spread far from the rivers afterwards. Only not into the mountains, the
highest mountains. Why? Was it too dry? Did the bugs not reach there? Too cold? But
it couldn’t’ be the cold, there were cases of the plague as far north as Weh and even in the
northern barbarians beyond them. One thing was certain, people could catch it from each
other, but only certain people, others seemed to be immune. Like her. No matter how
long she was around it, the black plague didn’t touch her. So even that was a mystery.
So too dry perhaps, maybe that’s why it started in Liu-Yang, because it was so wet. But
how does dirt have anything to do with wet or dry? If for instance they cleaned a part of
the town up, but left a giant standing pool of water, would disease go up or down? Not
that she could do that, but if she could find some place like that. . .a place with a central
lake or ornamental fountain, and see if the plague went up. Well, from her own
ministries, she couldn’t recall that nearness to standing water had made any difference.
That seemed to be the cause of other diseases, but never the plague. Which meant dirt
really was more important. And thus dirty animals. Dirty animals that didn’t live in the
mountains, that were best off in dense human populations, but could survive in practically
any situation regardless. Cockroaches? That seemed to fit all the parameters. But
cockroaches had been around forever, why now? And if so, how on earth could you fight


against them? Didn’t they hide underground and lived everywhere and were pretty much
invisible? The plague was so canny at hiding itself, maybe it was cockroaches. But if so,
humanity might as well give up and lay down to die. There was no possible way to kill
off all the cockroaches. No way to even avoid them.
A young girl, probably her age, pulled on her black robe to get her attention. “It’s
been a long day, will you need a place to rest?”
“No, that’s okay, the monastery is only five miles further. I should get home so
they won’t worry about me.” San Lei Jong said. She yawned, only noticing now how
tired she was because someone had brought it to her attention. There was something
unfinished, un-thought out, and now she’d lost it. She wished she hadn’t been
interrupted. It was like she had been on the right track.
“This late at night. . .is it safe?” The girl asked, softly. No one wanted to mention
she was a pretty eighteen year old virgin girl, she seemed far too old and pure for that, but
at night, who could say what barriers would be respected? When men were drunk, or
bandits sought out the defenseless? Not that there were many bandits, too many soldiers
were moving back and forth for openly armed men to assemble into any large groups.
Peasants always ratted them out. But there was always that one time things didn’t go as
they should.
“I am in God’s hands, sister. It should be protection enough.”
“But we all know God does not. . .listen to believers.”
“Because God has already arranged things well, and so we don’t need yet more
prayers to set things right, instead we should trust in their rightness all along.”
“But they aren’t all right! The night is full of hurtful people!”
“They can hurt my body, but they can’t hurt my soul, only I can harm that, and
God loves our souls, not our bodies, and therefore faith in God protects only what is
precious to God, not dust and air, which we should take no more notice of than the Dao
above does. Please, I know you mean me well, but it hurts me more to see such doubt
and accusation in your eyes for our Lord, than if you took no care for my safety at all.”
The girl bowed, ashamed. “Forgive me.”
“There is nothing to forgive.” San Lei Jong quickly hugged her and kissed her
forehead. She took her staff and pack and slung it over her shoulders, bracing herself for
the long walk ahead after a long day of work. The truth was she had given up any
consideration for herself on that day. The only meaning she could find left to her was to
help others, to try and save her mother in the only way she could, over and over and over
again. To try to save the lives of those who could still be saved. She was just a ghost, a
leftover memory, connected to none and needed by none. It hardly mattered what
became of her.

The men in purple and black surrounded the monastery. Torches glittered in the
darkness. Most of the men had been sent to the temple nearby, where the priests lived.
The nuns could hardly be expected to put up a fight.
The corporal stood in front of the rest, unrolling his scroll and reading from it in
his loudest voice. “The Emperor, having discovered the Church’s collaboration with
Ch’i, hereby finds the Church and all its members guilty of treason, and that
henceforward all worship of the Dao is an act of treason, due to the authority all
worshippers give to the capital of Ch’i in their religious matters, in direct violation of


their duty to the Emperor. For this and many other grave offenses, faith in the Dao is
forbidden in all of Liu-Yang, the sutras are contraband and shall all be burned, and all
members who continue to assert their belief shall be executed as traitors. All of you nuns
can come out peacefully, or you can wait inside as we burn this church, which is an
abomination, down to the ground.”
Nuns emerged slowly, confused. “What do you mean, how have we betrayed Liu-
Yang? We have done nothing. We only aid the sick and the poor.”
“So you say, but we have numerous testimonies that you keep a regular
correspondence with the capital of Ch’i, even though we are at war.”
“But. . .none of our Churches have anything to do with this war. . .we simply ask
their scholars to check our transcriptions, because they have the original copies, and we
don’t want to copy any mistakes—“
“Yes, yes, whatever, you admit that you are secretly corresponding with the
enemy in time of war, what more is needed? Now kneel down.” The officer cut them
“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
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
“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
“That’s good. You were. . .a good girl after all.” Sister Jun said, lying back.
Breathing slowly. “Such a clear night. A little cold though.”

When the sun rose, San was asleep on the ground, huddled under the cloaks of the
other sisters. The bodies had all been buried as best she could, just a little bit of dirt
covering each. Her entire life was some cosmic joke. Just a few hours ago she had
sounded like such a saint, she had been so holy and detached, and now what? Her words
sounded like the most absurd ludicrous act, she had probably been saying them even
while her sisters were being butchered. Saying that it didn’t matter and she wouldn’t
care. So stupid. And how am I, all alone, without anything—I checked but all the letters,


all the childhood things were burnt up—there’s absolutely no evidence at all. How am I
supposed to save God? Wasn’t curing the plague hard enough?


Chapter 20

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

Gai Yi looked at the ocean with admiration, wondering how many ships were out
there beyond the horizon, and where they would strike next.
“Is their navy so superior to ours, that we can’t risk a decisive battle?” Gai Yi
asked his staff sergeants.
“No sir, they are no stronger than us. In fact they’re a little weaker.” The
sergeant responded, looking at the young boy with a slight disbelief that he had come to
take over the entire coastal defense against Weh.
“How do you explain our situation then?” Gai Yi asked.
“Sir, it has been deemed acceptable to sustain the war as is, as we can afford a
slow attrition of both sides better than they can. Therefore risking a decisive battle is not
in our interest.” The sergeant explained.


“Hum. So eighteen years ago we risked everything in pitched battles, over and
over again, because we were always behind. And now that we’re always ahead, we hide
behind our fortresses and harbors and hope the enemy goes away.” Gai Yi stated.
“That’s about it, sir.” The sergeant agreed.
“Doesn’t that sound the least strange to you?” Gai Yi asked.
“Not at all sir, reversed positions always have reversed strategies.” The sergeant
“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
“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
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
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
“Is that what they say? Well it’s true. They’re nothing but thugs. But did they
tell you that these thugs wore purple and black? That they read out a scroll sealed by the
Emperor?” The lady fixed her eye on him.
Gai Yi looked at her. “The imperial guard is outside of my jurisdiction. I cannot
help you. If you like, I can detail men to escort you back to Liu-Yang, and you can
appeal to the Emperor and accuse these men to him.”
“Sealed by the Emperor. Under orders of the Emperor. Do you want to know
what those orders were? The orders were to execute everyone who didn’t renounce their
faith. The orders were to burn all the sutras, and to ban even the mention of the name of
God, the Dao.” The nun said.
“I find that hard to believe.” Gai Yi said, unsympathetic.
“Do you now? Well, I thought about that. Do you want to know how I survived?
I was fetching water at the time. You know how we’re always having to fetch water.
Well, it was really dark, but San wasn’t home yet, and so I had to get the water myself. It
couldn’t be helped, you see. So here I am coming back up the path, and there they are, all
in purple and black, reading out their scroll. And so I sat there with my water, hiding in
the woods, and watched them kill all my sisters one by one. And I thought, right then, do
you know what I thought?”
“No.” Gai Yi said, annoyed.


“I thought to myself, I’d better save a copy of that scroll, or else no one will ever
believe me. Isn’t that the strangest thing to be thinking right then? And so after they
started the fire, and turned to leave—what do you think they did with their orders?”
“I don’t know.” Gai Yi said, angrily standing up, ready to throw her out.
“They threw them in the fire, so that no one would ever know. And-I-fetched-it-
from-the-fire.” And the nun slammed the scroll down on the desk in front of him, the
purple wax seal perfectly intact, the script brittle but completely unstained, and her hands
black with burns. The same wax seal that he had seen giving him innumerable orders, the
same seal he had been living beside all winter. The Emperor’s seal. Gai Yi stared at it
with disbelief.
“I came to ask you, because you were nearby, and now you’re the strongest man
other than the Emperor—I decided I only had one chance at this because time was
running out—because San might be killed at any moment now—I came to ask you to
save San, to save the Church, to save Liu-Yang from this vicious tyrant—and in return I
have the key that will make you Emperor.”
“What are you talking about? Who is San?” Gai Yi said, backing away. It could
still be some elaborate trap. It could all be set up to see if he was a traitor. Old nuns
didn’t really come in with damning documents about your Emperor asking you to fulfill
the prophecy you were given by an astrologer from a rival religion six years ago.
“The legitimate daughter of Hei Ming Jong’s first marriage, the eldest and only
heir to the throne. San Lei Jong is the princess of Liu-Yang.”


Chapter 21

“You have so little, and yet here I am taking more from you. I’m ashamed of my
own hunger.” San Lei Jong said, bowing to the family.
“Not at all. God will reward us for serving a woman of God, it is only karma.”
The wife replied, loading San Lei Jong’s sack with more balls of rice wrapped with
pickled cabbage. “The rice will stay wet for a couple days so long as it remains wrapped,
but you must be sure to eat them quickly or they’ll be of no use to anyone.”
San bit her lip, wondering if karma really did care about who was giving what to
whom. Wondering if she was just tricking her way into the henhouse like any fox. If not
in this life, surely a giving soul was rewarded in the next life. Perhaps she would be
reborn as someone with more to give, to suit the generosity inside her. It could be true.
“I will. My trip won’t be long now anyway.” San bowed again. She opened the
door and started back towards the main road that connected all the villages along the
Yang river all the way to the capital. From what the fishermen and other travelers said,
she was only two days out from Liu-Yang. She was a strong walker and could cover any
number of miles in a day, water was always near at hand as she followed the river, shelter
she generally begged her way into, some combination of her youth, fragility, and black
robe always won her way under some sort of roof. Food was harder, because as much as
people would like to help her, many of their own children were starving, the harvest of
the past years had been steadily declining, and the granary reserves which also served as
the banks had been bled dry already. So many farmers had been taken from their farms to
serve in the army, which in turn got the first priority of supplies, that those left in the
cities were being taxed harder than ever. It was a race, to see whether the amount of
farms turned to wasteland from the black plague could keep up with the amount of people
relying on the farms dying of the black plague before they had a chance to starve. But
that wasn’t the only problem. As food became scarce, farmers tended to keep the excess
for themselves, for the security of next year. And with the war on, and the reserves
drained, the cost of everything had risen of its own accord, almost magically, such that
the services people generally provided for their daily rice simply no longer were worth
said rice. Everything other than rice was seen as a frippery, a luxury, hardly worth actual
food. Those who had been going into debt to pay for actual goods were now just a
laughingstock. Who would ever give away something real and present for some hazy
future good, when either of them could die any day, when the future good would
probably never come? The entire economy had warped and changed, so that the cities
seemed some bizarre mutation, some divine mistake. Didn’t they know that without
some way to produce food they could not live? Didn’t all the animals live out their lives
daily collecting food, and all the plants, and all everything? Who did the humans think
they were, that they could somehow exempt themselves, that they thought they could live
without hunting or gathering all they could all their lives? Peasants, who before were the
poorest and the worst off, now to the townsfolk seemed like some aristocracy, provided
with everything they could ever wish for just at hand, without any cares in the world,
completely ensured against any and all calamities that might occur, because they owned
the means of production. And that was worth infinitely more than the mere products of
such production, no matter how many the townsfolk had before amassed. Inflation
proved it.


“Where are you going, girl?” Three Imperial Guardsmen seemed to be loitering
at a crossroad, playing some game of dice to pass the time. Barrels and boxes served as
seats and their horses were tethered nearby, drinking from the public trough. As ordered,
the final phase of the purge was in the making. Whenever they found a particularly
outspoken believer among the cityfolk, they staked it out and recorded everyone who
went in or out, marking their lives as forfeit as well. That a nun was now leaving just
made the family all the more guilty. The nerve of those people. And the nerve of this
girl, to still be wearing her black robe. Enough of them out of uniform had incited
enough peasant mobs against them that they were generally hated on sight, but it seemed
they would have to encourage the hatred again, or young pretty fish like this would slip
through their nets. They couldn’t wait for the day when they could openly just slaughter
any believer simply for being one, but the Emperor insisted that no matter what it should
always remain at night, in remote places, by shadowy figures, and that nothing should
ever be proven. People could think whatever they wanted, they could have whatever
suspicions they wanted, but so long as there was no proof, the doubt and fear mixed
together would paralyze them from trying to resist or escape, always hoping until the end
that what was happening wasn’t really happening, that they would still be spared if they
just cooperated meekly. Most of all they should always have some other reason than
their religion to persecute them. There should always be something else, some screen or
facade to hide behind, to divert their attention, to make them think that they could still
prove their innocence, that they could vindicate themselves against whatever other
charges were being made, so that they never thought their religion alone was guilt
enough, and thus try to run, hide, or fight. So long as they believed in justice, they would
continue to stretch their own throats out for the cutting. But without it, their jobs would
become terribly difficult.
“To Liu-Yang.” San bowed and walked on.
“Hold it girl, who said you could leave?” The guardsman raised his voice, angry
at being dismissed as though he were still an unimportant farmer that nobody thought
anything of and no girls would look twice at.
San stopped, looking back. “I wasn’t aware I had to stay. Is there something
more I can do for you?”
“Don’t play coy with us, you whore. We saw you enter that house last night, and
now here you come out with your sack full of, what, food? I doubt you’re worth a sack
full of spice, even with that face.” The two other guards laughed appreciatively.
San bowed again. “You’re right, I’m probably not. May I go now?”
“Why are you so anxious to leave? Come on, stay a while, we have money
enough, maybe you could entertain us for a while.” The guardsman offered, standing up
and walking closer to fetch her, in case she was thinking of running. Much of the crowd
had now paused or quieted, surreptitiously following what would happen. Most of them
were divided. They hated to see such a defenseless girl preyed upon, but then again it
was someone else in pain instead of them, and thus interesting. Besides, she was a nun,
and everyone knew nuns in their monasteries had secret rituals where they bathed in
baby’s blood, held giant orgies with demons for lack of males, summoned the plague with
their dark magic, and so on. They deserved whatever they got.
“No thanks.” San bowed again, turning and now walking quickly away as the
guard approached.


The guard broke into a run, angrier than ever that she had again turned her back
on him. The other two guards stood up to help, in case anyone from the crowd thought of
being a hero and coming to her aid. San looked back with fright and started to run too,
but she was immediately caught tightly by the arm and jolted to a halt. Her arm screamed
with the pain of being pulled nearly out of its socket, and the bone of her wrist rivaled the
claim with the crushing of the man’s grip.
“Let go of me! Let go! I’ve done nothing! Let me go!” San shouted, trying to
pull out of his grip.
“We’ll teach you to respect the officers of the law, whore.” The man slapped her
across the face, knocking the hood off and revealing her long glossy black hair. She
suddenly looked more appealing than ever, and the guard started looking around for some
secluded house he could appropriate for the use of her.
“Stop right there.” A man on a horse said, coldly and firmly. “That girl is under
my protection.”
“And who are you?” The man sneered, turning his attention to the intruder.
“Gai Yi, General of the Left.” The man responded.
“And why should I believe that?” The guardsmen retorted again, angry that she
might escape and he would be left frustrated on the very brink.
Gai Yi drew his sword, carefully and calmly. “I could prove it to you, but I find
I’d rather just kill you. If you don’t hand her over right now, I think I’ll have excuse
enough to do so.”
The guard looked at him, mounted and fully composed. Then he cursed and let
her go. “Have it your way. If you want to keep your whores safe, blasted look after them
better. Can’t blame us for not knowing.”
“You have my apologies.” Gai Yi nodded in response, sheathing his sword.
“Come, San, it’s getting late.”
San looked up, surprised. “How do you--?” But then she stopped. If he owned
her of course he would know her name. “Of course.” She picked up her sack, which in
the tumult she had dropped, and with her other hand took his, and suddenly she was lifted
onto the horse behind him.
“If you feel like you’re going to fall, hold around my waist.” Gai suggested, and
then made a clicking sound and let his horse walk away through the crowd. There was no
rush now. He had ridden hard enough to get here, with enough scouts and spies trying to
find her before they did that he was truly worried the other officers would begin to ask
questions. About why he wasn’t concentrating on the coast, why he was taking a leave of
absence after he had just gotten there.
“You idiot.” He finally said. “Why the hell are you wearing that robe still? What
are you, some sort of idiot? Do you have any idea what happened to your church? Do
you have any idea how dangerous that robe is?”
San blinked. “What can I do without it? I have no skills. No use. Alone and
without this robe, I really would be a whore. Nobody would help me for any other
“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
“Yes sir.” The man saluted, suppressing any childish reaction. Orders were

“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
“It was your mother’s wish that you could have a normal life. Nobody knew it
would end up like this. We did our best.” The sister shrugged, dismissing it. “How have
you been? Are you okay? Did the general find you in time?” The sister quickly started
to fetch water to fill the bath and fire to warm the bath from underneath.
“Yes, only. . .how does it help to bring me here? I have to go to him. I have to
see father. What else can I do? I gather it was your plan to bring me here, but what can I
do unless I see father and change his mind?” San asked.
“You can’t just ‘see’ the emperor. Why would they allow you? You’d never reach
him. You have to have connections, San. An excuse to see him. We have to do this
cleverly. We only have this one chance. Without any proof, you can’t just walk up and
announce yourself. We have to incline his heart to us beforehand, so that he will want to
believe. Only the general can give us that audience. Only he can protect us until then.”
“I suppose you’re right.” San gave in, taking off her clothes and lowering herself
into the bath with a long, soundless sigh of relief. She had been going on adrenaline,
without ever stopping to think, without daring to think. She had shot herself like an
arrow at her target, determined to reach it before she died, without thinking of anything
else before or after that. But now she wasn’t alone. She could think about living again.


Chapter 22

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


maybe we’ll start throwing them part by part, like their fingers first, and then their hands,
then their arms, and so on. We can employ our catapults much longer that way.”
Fae Lao was met with silence as he walked away from the human bombardment
back to his horse. He was caked with blood and wanted a bath. But then the gates did
open. Not to surrender, but with a war band set to charge. Set to catch him and his men
unguarded and alone. Fae smiled. Finally, the war was won. Patience truly was his
strongest weapon. He had just waited out a stone.

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


They would just have to. The emperor had to realize that a decisive battle now was
practically a prize for the taking. Gai shouted again with joy, raising his sword into the
air. The men remaining rose their weapons with him. The day was theirs.

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

“That should do it then.” Gai Yi said, secluded with San like he was every night
for dinner. “The Emperor will certainly summon me back to the palace when he hears
the news. Give me a medal or something. I’ll bring you along and ask him a boon, he’ll
grant it because everyone will be there to celebrate my victory, and it’ll be to hear you
“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
“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
“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
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
“You dare bring a nun in my chamber!” Hei Ming Jong shouted, recoiling. “Kill
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
“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
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
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.”