He looked at the spread of items laid before him. A yard of the finest silk; a silver dagger, wicked in its beauty; and a finely wrought gold cup filled to the brim with clear liquid.
The clear liquid that was wine mixed with the deadliest poison known to man.
He touched each in turn.
The silk glided like water. It was, he knew, woven in the private quarters in the palace, deep in the heart of the great complex and only habited by the emperor’s harem and most faithful servants. He himself had lived there once, long ago. It had been a time of happiness, but also of fear, the light always shadowed by the need to look over one’s shoulder. It was a prison of the most luxurious kind, where all the delicacies of the world was on offer at a moment’s notice. Where one slept on sheets soft as clouds, lulled by fragrant breezes — and might sleep forever under a rival’s blade if not careful. Despite that, he recalled the sensation of bare skin sliding against skin and satin, their bodies liquid and their heartbeats in rhythm.
His hand fell on the dagger. He had been taught to wield both sword and brush, to hold a bow, to ride a horse. He still remember the hand guiding his own, his back pressed against the warmth of that chest behind him, smelling the other’s heady scent as they practiced together under the falling leaves.
And the cup.
It smelled of wine from the exotic West, underlaid with the acrid scent of death. He had loved this vintage once. He had tasted it first as he tasted freedom and love. How soon was he to learn that its exquisite flavors were fleeting, that dreams faded with the morning light. The silver handle was cool, the details of ivy imprint a fine pattern that he traced with a finger. It must have taken the artisan weeks if not months of labor to create. And he had once owned thousands of these objects, casually tossing them aside when the baser instincts the liquor aroused overcame them.
He had lived a good life. He had no regrets.
That was what he wanted to tell himself.
Unbidden, unwelcome, came the doubts and the fear.
His cheeks were warm. Despite the desolation of the quarter he had been confined to, the servants kept the furnace burning, so that even in the midst of winter, he would not freeze.
He did not fool himself that his captors did it out of concern for him. More likely, the soldiers stationed here demanded it. They looked upon him with a mix of sympathy and interest, for who could have predicted that the former emperor’s lover and favored general would end up waiting for death.
He shook his head. His thoughts were as diffuse and scattered as petals in the wind.
It would be best if he wrote this down.
His hands gripped the brush with their old familiarity, though it had been weeks since he last held one. He closed his eyes, savoring the sensation. This would likely be the last time.
It came easily, the strokes of ink on paper. Characters after characters formed, the secrets spilling out.
It hurt, after so long, to reflect on the past. For much of his life, he only looked forward. He had lived a relatively short life. Only thirty years, and yet it seemed as if he had been through epochs. So much had changed, and history had been made, precedents broken, some which he had played a role in.
But how to start?
It stuck his hair to his cheek and stung his eyes. The sword was heavy and slippery and he could barely hold on to it. Its heaviness jarred an already broken shoulder.
“Little boy, why don’t you give up and surrender already?” One of the soldiers leered at the youth with the sword. “You’re not bad looking – if you’re sweet to us, maybe I’ll be nice to you and your old man there.”
Behind, the old man sprawled on the ground grabbed the youth’s ankle. “Leave me and run.” The words were barely audible – a gentle wind would have drowned it out. “Run, son. Your father has had a good life. If Heaven means for it to end here by the hands of these bastards, so be it.”
“I’m not leaving you here, father.” Despite the tremor of exhaustion, the youth’s voice held. “I’m not going to run from these bastards.”
On the cusp of manhood, the youth was attractive, with dark hair and pretty features: sharp cheekbones, an expressive mouth sensual under the right circumstances, and bright eyes that sparked with defiance as he looked at the soldiers surrounding him and his father in their farmstead’s courtyard. The youth was slight, almost stick-like compared to those burly men.
The soldier that spoke earlier laughed. “You’re brave. Or stupid. Imagine our surprise when we came to raid what we thought was an empty farmstead and found you two. Everyone else in the village had fled.”
There wasn’t much to loot. The farmstead was tiny, one of the smallest in the already impoverished village. Rocks dotted the painstakingly tilled fields.
“We would’ve left on our own already had not your old man jumped out and hit our comrade on the head.” The soldier smiled, revealing yellowed teeth. “You seem to have much better sense than him; I saw you try and stop him. Why didn’t you run when you had the chance?”
“I’m no unfilial beast.” The youth adjusted his balance. “I’m not going to abandon my father and my home.”
The soldier snorted. “So you are an idiot. With your looks, we won’t merely sell you as a common slave. No – we’ll enjoy you for ourselves, then share you among our other comrades. And then, when you’re begging us for death, we’ll sell you for cheap to the brothel. If they’ll have you. If you put down that sword right now and don’t cause us any more trouble, we might consider playing with you more gently.”
The youth spat.
“Well, I guess if you don’t want your life, that’s on you.”
The youth gripped the sword. He had snatched it up when the soldier his father hit over the head fell. He had never held anything other than a shovel before. The weight of the weapon was all wrong, and he only knew to stick his opponent with the pointy end.
He knew that wasn’t enough.
He inhaled. “Father, when they come at me, you run. Get as fast as you can out of here. I’ll hold them off for as long as I can.”
“Son — “
The youth braced himself — the soldiers charged, and the youth bit his teeth to prepare himself for the pain of the impact.
Hooves thundered— shouts and the ring of steel added to the din, and the neighs of the horses cut through them all.
The expected collision never came.
The youth looked up to see a man on a sleek dark charger staring at him. The solider that was about to attack him had been run through with a spear through the chest.
The man on the horse was in full armor, from helmet to leather shin guards, holding a spear in one hand, with a sabre at the waist. Though the youth knew nothing about war, he could tell that the man before him was no ordinary soldier.
He knelt. “Thank you, my lord, for saving us.”
The man wiped off his spear with a casual swipe on the fallen soldier’s shirt. “I am Chen Qian, General of the Left Cavalry. You’re lucky we came by on patrol today. I thought this village was abandoned.”
“I won’t abandon my family’s home.” The youth propped against the sword to keep himself from toppling over.
The General grinned. “Well met. You can let go of that sword now. You’re holding it wrong anyways.”
The youth didn’t let go.
“So suspicious. And I just saved your life.” The General jumped off his horse. “You don’t have to kneel. Get up and let me take a look at you.”
A movement caught the youth’s attention – behind the General, the solider that had been lying on the ground grabbed a blade and lunged at the General’s back.
The youth shoved the General out of the way – and took the stab in his shoulder. It wasn’t a clean pain; unlike when he broke his wrist or twisted his ankle, it was an agonizing fire that ripped through his flesh.
But his sword still went through the soldier’s chest. With a gasp, the soldier keeled backwards.
“You just stick the pointy end in your opponents,” the youth said. White spots dotted his vision; the sword clattered hollowly onto the ground. “It looks like we’re even.”
Those were the last words he had the strength to say.
The youth woke to find himself in a bed. An actual bed, not a rough pallet stuffed with straws.
He blinked, trying to clear his head. He was in a sunny room with open windows; he could see guards standing outside, alert but not tensed, and there was a cup at the table in the center.
He swallowed, and finding sticky dryness, pushed to stand.
“Stay in bed,” a voice said. “You want water? I’ll pour you some.”
It was that General. He stood out amidst the simple furnishings: even off his horse, he was tall and broad-shouldered, his presence dominating the room. He was still in his armor, though his head was uncovered, with the helmet tucked under his arm and the sabre still at his waist.
The youth drank greedily from the proffered cup.
“Easy. Don’t drink so fast; you’re going to choke. Here.” Cool fingers touched the youth’s chin. “Slowly. Like this. What is your name?”
The youth found his voice. “I am Han Manzi, my lord. Thank you for saving my life and my father’s life. I’ll do whatever it takes to repay you, whether you need me to be horse or cattle –”
“Easy!” The General laughed. He was a handsome man, with a strong jaw and an arresting profile. “You’re brave for a farm boy. You saved my life back there, Young Master Han.”
“I’m no young master, my lord.” Manzi was aware of how different he was from the man before him. The General spoke with the elegant elocution of the well-tutored; in contrast, Manzi’s sentences were rough and though he tried to mimic the General, he couldn’t emulate the smooth syllables at all.
“You could be.” The General looked at him. His hand still cupped Manzi’s chin.
Manzi found his voice.
“What do you want?” He remembered the soldiers back at the farmstead. “What do you want in return?”
“Nothing.” The General regarded Manzi with unblinking steadiness. “This isn’t a street market and we’re not bargaining. You’re attractive but I don’t need you to repay me with your body. You don’t seem particularly willing, either.”
“I –” It was hard to form words, let alone sentences. “You don’t want me?”
A small smile curled on the General’s face. “Are you offering yourself to me now that I’ve told you I don’t want you?”
“No – I –”
“I don’t lack bedmates,” the General said. “What I want is a companion.”
“My birth is low and I’m uneducated.” Manzi forced that statement out. It was the truth, however much it stung to hear aloud, especially in his own voice. “I’m not worthy of an august person like you, my lord.”
“I decide who is worthy.” The General didn’t take his eyes off Manzi. “You saved my life. I’d say that makes you more than worthy.”
Manzi bowed his head.
“You don’t need to decide right now,” the General said. “Take your time. If you decide not to, I won’t hold it against you. I’ll set you and your father up with a small sum to begin a new life anywhere you choose.”
Manzi’s head ached. He needed time to think. “How did you find us, my lord?”
“I was on patrol,” the General said. “I received reports there were enemy troops in the area and came to check. All your compatriots in the village had left. Why didn’t you go?”
“My father refused to abandon his home, and I refuse to abandon him, my lord.”
The General nodded approvingly. “I wasn’t wrong about you.” He set down his helmet. “If you follow me, you should know that life will be arduous and dangerous – the world is in turmoil and while my uncle is the paramount general of the realm, plenty of enemies exist, both internal and external. My place is high in this world, but height brings the danger of falling off the precipice. Are you willing to take this risk?”
Manzi met the General’s eyes. “If you have faith in me, my lord, then I will follow you. You saved my life and my father’s life. There is no way I can repay you, and I will serve you until the end of my days.” He took a breath. “I will follow you wherever you go, my lord.”
“Good. Though ….”
“Yes, my lord?”
“Your name. Manzi is not appropriate for any companion of mine. You are not a lowly slave or a southern barbarian as your name implies. Henceforth you will be known as Zigao.”
“Thank you, my lord.”
“Yes, my lord?”
“In private, you can simply call me Ah Qian.”
“You’re no fun, Zigao.” Fan Bing pouted. “You’re sure you don’t want to come with us?”
“I can’t,” Zigao said. “The General wants me to finish writing this essay on the fall of the Jin and then I’m supposed to practice for two hours on the archery field.”
Bing peered over Zigao’s shoulder. “Well, your handwriting’s improved, though you did write that character wrong.”
Cursing, Zigao hastily tried to trace over it.
“You’ve made enormous progress,” Bing said. “Your aptitude is much better than some of the others older than you.”
“I have to be.” Zigao stared at the ink-smeared paper. “I began late; I’ve only had these few years to catch up.”
“You’ve already improved beyond measure. When I first met you, you barely sounded like a human. I could hardly understand you at all.”
Zigao flushed. Even now, when he was agitated, his old accent would slip out.
“Now look at you,” Bing continued, “versed in literature and skilled in arms. Come on – let’s go out on the town. This can wait – I know this lady at the Cinnabar Pavilion is fond of you from the last time you came with us.”
“He’s not going anywhere.”
They both scrambled to attention.
“Zigao isn’t some pet I’ve picked up and tamed,” the General said coldly. “He might not come from an educated background, but his natural talent and hard work more than makes up for it. Unlike you, Lieutenant Fan.” He gave the man a hard stare.
Zigao pulled the General’s sleeve lightly. “Young Master Fan didn’t mean anything by the comment, General. Besides, everything he said is true. Please don’t be upset with him on my behalf.”
The General eyed Bing. “Go practice in the yard for four hours.”
Bing scurried away from the General with an ungraceful bow, almost tripping over the threshold of the door.
The General watched the man leave with pursed lips.
“My lord,” Zigao began diffidently, his eyes downcast. “I wouldn’t have gone with him. I know that I still have a lot to learn and I need to work twice as hard as everyone –”
“I don’t care if you take a break or not,” the General interrupted. “But going to the Cinnabar Pavilion – do you know what kind of place it is?”
“I’m unlearned but I’m not stupid.” Zigao gave a tentative smile. “Even a blind man would know what the Cinnabar Pavilion is if he walked in.”
The General did not drop his stern expression. “Then you should know that those types of places are all very well for frivolous men who want to waste their time like Fan Bing, but not for someone who wants to achieve greatness.”
“Young Master Fan isn’t as bad as you might think, my lord. He’s actually quite amusing. Didn’t you praise him yesterday at the staff meeting for his attention to detail?”
“I don’t like you going to brothels like the Cinnabar Pavilion, even just to drink with friends,” the General snapped.
“Why?” The injustice of it rankled. “What does it matter to you if I go or not? I know I have a lot to learn, and that’s why I didn’t join Young Master Fan this time, but last time, nothing happened except that I had a few drinks with my friends. It’s unfair of you to stop me when you yourself –” Zigao stopped himself. He had never challenged the General like this, not even in private. He dropped to his knees. “Forgive me, my lord, for my insubordination. I willingly accept any punishment you deem fit.”
“Get up.” The General’s voice was controlled, though Zigao imagined there was the faintest of cracks underneath. “You’re not a slave. Don’t bow and scrape every time you think you made a mistake.” He paused, for the briefest second. “And I told you: you can call me Ah Qian in private.”
Zigao didn’t rise.
“I misspoke,” the General said gruffly. “I didn’t mean to take out my frustration on you. I apologize.”
Zigao took the General’s outreached hand to help himself up. “I didn’t mean to be disobedient, my lord – Ah Qian. But you don’t have to dislike Young Master Fan on my account – I won’t be led astray by him or by anyone else. When I swore to follow you, I meant it with all my heart.”
“I know.” The General relaxed. “I don’t doubt you. Come – sit down and I’ll take a look at your essay.”
While the General read, Zigao busied himself with preparing tea.
“I have faith that matters in the Court will run more smoothly soon.”
The General raised his head.
“You’re not a narrow-minded and jealous man, Ah Qian. Something else must be troubling you. I know that military operations are going smoothly, and there hasn’t been any great disturbance back home with your wife. So it must be politics.”
“Haven’t you heard that trying to predict your master’s thoughts is liable to get you killed?”
“That is only if one is trying to further one’s own goals,” Zigao said. “Not when one’s trying to alleviate the burden of one’s master.”
“And how do you propose to alleviate my burden?”
Zigao poured a cup for the General. The steam curled in the air. “I am only an unlettered commoner. I wouldn’t dare presume.”
“Presume.” The General set down Zigao’s essay. “You’ve been reading the Histories and the books of the Sages. You should have as good an idea of governance as any Minister of the Court. Oh, and you have some characters miswritten in here. But you have some good insights. Why don’t you explain them to me?”
“The fall of Jin came from both the external attack as well as the weakness of the central government. Too many loyal ministers supported an unworthy ruler out of blind loyalty. A true visionary should see beyond small-minded ideals that hold us back – if a sacrifice needs to be made, I trust you and your uncle, the paramount general, will make the right decision.”
“And why would I or my uncle be the man to solve the problems of our state?”
“You don’t hold yourself apart from the people, Ah Qian. You understand our suffering and your frugality is not pretense. Your success comes from not your family connections or currying favors, but from your own diligence and your ability.”
The General chuckled. “Now you’re just trying to flatter me.”
“Ah Qian.” Zigao met the General’s eyes. “You saved me and so many others like me. You’ve taught me riding and archery, reading and writing – and demanded nothing in return. So yes – you are one of the best men I’ve ever met.”
“You overpraise me.” He pulled Zigao into his lap. “Now, let’s practice your calligraphy. Here. See? You missed a stroke for that character you miswrote. It looks like this.”
Zigao relaxed against the other man and allowed his arm to be guided, to luxuriate in the sensation of the General’s breath tickling his cheek.
He inhaled. The General smelled of soap, with the lightest traces of sweat and musk. Zigao closed his eyes, to let the warmth surrounding him fully soak in.
“Your brush stopped moving, Zigao.” The General’s lips were almost on his nape. Zigao longed to arch and have teeth scrape against skin.
“My lord – Ah Qian --”
“Yes?” The General’s voice took on a husky quality.
“Thank you. For all of this. I don’t know where I would be without you.”
“Is that all you wish to say to me?”
“No.” And Zigao turned to kiss the General.
The General responded hungrily. One hand gripped Zigao’s arm as he deepened the kiss and the other reached around Zigao’s waist to pull the other man in, tight against the General’s chest.
They broke apart for air.
“You’re supposed to be practicing your calligraphy,” the General said, the words rough, as though he could barely bridle the impulses underneath.
“You’re distracting me,” Zigao said with a cheeky grin. Indeed, the hand holding onto his waist burned through the fabric of his robes, and a pulsing hardness nudged him. He shifted slightly, and the General’s arm tightened.
“I think you’re the distraction here,” the General murmured.
“My lord is determined and focused. He is never distracted, especially by frivolous things.”
“You seem to understand me very well.” The hand moved up in a slow caress, with light nips at the base of Zigao’s neck.
“Show me your determination then.” Zigao began stroking the General’s thigh. Fire coursed through his veins, pooling at the base of the belly. “My lord.”
With a sweep of his arm, the General cleared the table, causing a loud crash from the ink stone and brushes falling to the floor. He laid Zigao on the wood; it was cool in contrast to the two men’s heated bodies, though not unpleasantly so.
The General’s eyes were dark with desire. “I will.”
“Can you rehang that banner? It’s to off to the center.” Zigao tilted his head. “Move it slightly to the left.”
Zigao studied the terrace with a critical eye. Tables were being set and chairs being placed under the awning that had already been pitched. Servants bustled with their various tasks, some with the decorations, others with trays of fruits and sweetmeats for the guests to snack on.
“You!” A shrill voice stopped Zigao in his movements.
“Your Highness.” Zigao bowed before the Empress. “What is your command?”
“Oh. It’s you.” The Empress glanced at Zigao with a sour expression. “I thought you were a young, pretty-faced eunuch. I didn’t expect to see the fearsome General of the Right.”
“His Majesty ordered me to oversee the reception for the diplomatic party from the Kingdom of Qi, Your Highness.”
“Ah … yes. Imagine my surprise when I was not asked to supervise the preparations. After all, as Empress, I am the mistress of the palace.”
“His Majesty did not want to overburden you, Highness. You work tirelessly to ensure the running of the palace go smoothly.”
“Do not presume to explain the Emperor’s intentions to me,” the Empress said icily. “You might be his lover, but I am his legitimate wife.”
Zigao simply lowered his head.
“You’re so insolent now that my anger seems to have no effect. Haven’t you heard the saying? ‘When the sovereign rages, the land runs red with blood’?”
“Well said, my empress. Imperial wrath is terrible to behold.”
The General – no, the Emperor now – came up the stone steps. Though the intervening years had seen some lines begin to crease his forehead, he still stood unbent, fit and alert in his dragon-embroidered robes.
“No need for formalities,” he said, when Zigao and the Empress made to kneel. “I came to see how you were getting on, Zigao. And my Empress – what brings you here?”
“I came by to see if I could be helpful in any way, Your Majesty.”
“And were you? Helpful, that is.”
The Empress flushed. Before she could respond, Zigao cut in.
“Her Highness’s presence is enough to motivate us, Your Majesty. We are just adding the final touches to the decorations. I understand the Qi delegation have already entered the palace.”
“Yes. Among them is their emperor’s nephew and several high-ranking ministers of their court. We must show these Northerners our magnificence.”
“I won’t let you down, Your Majesty.”
The Emperor smiled at Zigao. “You never have. And you, my dear Empress, you also have a role to play in maintaining our dynasty’s dignity.”
The Empress hid her resentful gaze at Zigao under her bow. “I understand.”
They had just taken their places on the dais – the Empress at the table to the Emperor’s left, Zigao standing next to the Emperor on the right – when the crier announced the arrival of the diplomats.
“Who’s that man among them?” the Empress whispered. “The young one.”
“That’s Gao Changgong, the Qi Emperor’s nephew,” the Emperor said. “Good-looking, isn’t he? He’s comparable to you.” This was said to Zigao. “I hear he’s a brave and brilliant general, even at his young age.”
“I can’t possibly compare to His Highness the Prince of Lanling.” Zigao was aware of the venomous glare the Empress shot at him. “There’s a woman among them too.”
“A concubine of some sort.” The Empress’s tone was dismissive. “These Northerners lack all knowledge of propriety.”
“Actually, she’s the closest adviser to the Qi Emperor, her status comparable to their Empress and her influence not below that of a chancellor’s.”
“A female prime minister?” The Empress snorted. “What absurdity. Next thing you know, there will be a male queen.” Her eyes landed spitefully on Zigao.
“Absurd or not, her presence indicates the importance of their trip. My Empress, I expect you to behave accordingly.”
The Empress inclined her head. Zigao noticed that her hand gripped her cup.
“Your Majesty.” The lady leading the group made an elegant bow. “We on behalf of the Emperor of Qi wish Your Majesty ten thousand years of prosperity.”
“And the same to your lord.” The Emperor gestured. “Take your seat, Minister Lu.”
The music began and the dancers entered the stage.
Zigao scanned the attendees instead. Politics, too, was a dance, one that they were all participants in, with constant shifts in partners and intricate movements meant alternatively to obfuscate and impress. Ah Qian had taught him that those away from the center of attention needed to be watched just as much. This visit had stirred up considerable controversy — a vocal minority of the court disliked the more conciliatory approach taken by the Emperor, the Empress being one of them.
The Emperor’s brother noticed Zigao observing, raised a cup in silent toast. Recently returned from the northern Kingdom of Zhou where he had been held hostage, he was an ardent proponent of this rapprochement with Qi, Zhou’s traditional rival. Zigao liked him: the man was intelligent and respectful, occasionally witty, but never to the point of disrespect. The Emperor, Zigao knew, was elated to be reunited.
He sat directly across from the so-called female prime minister from Qi. By design, as the Emperor had wanted his brother to entertain the Qi diplomats. She smiled prettily at whatever he was saying, though her head was angled in a manner so she would have a view of everyone at the party.
She was also watching the crowd, Zigao realized – keeping an eye of the flow and ebb of the power dynamics at play here.
Next to her, the pretty-faced youth that was the Qi Emperor’s nephew played with his food, barely noticing the performance. His looks were akin to that of a rare flower in bloom. More than one courtier snuck surreptitious glances his way, though he appeared to be unconscious of their attentions. He was obviously bored, and not practiced at concealing his emotions.
Zigao smiled to himself. It was refreshing to see royalty without artifice. Perhaps this Prince should have donned that mask he wore to frighten his enemies in battle. Politics was combat too, and Zigao wondered when, if ever, that this Prince would learn that lesson.
The Empress stood. The music stopped. She swayed a little, her cup raised to toast. Her maid hurried forward, was waved aside impatiently.
“I would like to toast our new friends from the North,” the Empress said. Her words slurred and the Emperor frowned. The female prime minister from Qi displayed no readable reaction, but both the Prince of Lanling and the Emperor’s brother showed dismay.
“The North is a marvelous place, if our guests are any indication.” The Empress downed her wine in one gulp. “A place where the natural order of the universe doesn’t seem to apply. What – has your emperor run out of men that he needs to recruit ministers from his Harem?”
The Prince of Lanling made to stand. Minister Lu grabbed his arm.
“We Northerners aren’t the dainty type,” she said. “Unfortunately, we are not blessed with such temperate surroundings to be able to lounge; our people are hardworking and that includes the women. We do not simply lie around.”
“That’s right.” The Prince of Lanling glared at the Empress. “We Northerners are not as frail as you lot. Our women join us in archery and riding, and some even run their own businesses.”
“Take my word of advice, Your Highness – you’re far too pretty for the battlefield. Blades and spears don’t appreciate beauty and you wouldn’t want to mar that face of yours, do you?”
There was a collective gasp. But Zigao saw that those who favored war hid pleased smiles behind their sleeves.
“We Northerners favor action over words,” Minister Lu said, placing a hand on the Prince. “Our Prince of Lanling is a renowned warrior and I myself, like the Empress said, am not like your typical southern woman, full of pretty words and nothing else. Perhaps a … friendly competition will help us to know each other better.”
“Yes,” snapped the Prince, still ferocious. Zigao understood now how he was the premier general of the Kingdom of Qi. “What use are words when we can show you?”
All eyes turned to the Emperor.
“Yes,” he said. He stood, and the crowd prostrated. “A friendly display of our realms’ prowess will establish better understanding between us.”
Considerably more focus was gathered now; a contest featuring a rival country’s prince was more interesting than staid dances from court performers. The Prince of Lanling took center stage.
“What shall we do? Does anyone wish to challenge me?”
“If I may speak, perhaps I can suggest that we don’t do anything that harm the harmonious atmosphere between our countries,” Zigao said. He bowed to the Prince. “Who would dare fight with the reputed God of War anyways?”
“Then what do you suggest?” The Prince sounded mulish. “There can’t be a competition if there’s no one to compete against.”
“Sometimes we strive not against others, but against ourselves,” Zigao said. “I heard that your strength is astonishing. Perhaps you can show us.”
The Prince glanced around. “Nothing here is heavy enough.”
“We have in the palace an iron bow from the khan of the north. No one has managed to do anything but hold it so far.” Zigao turned to the Emperor. “If Your Majesty and His Highness allow.”
“Bring it.” The Prince cracked his knuckles.
The bow was equal parts oak and iron, weighing twenty times more than regular and the eunuchs who brought it had beads of sweat dotting their foreheads.
The Prince hefted it like it was but a toy. “Nice.” He strummed its string. “This is marvelous.”
“If you can hit the target,” the Emperor said, gesturing at the ones that was being set up on the far side of the terrace, “you can keep it.”
“Your Majesty, the target is too close. Take it farther back.”
“As you wish.”
“Not even Your Majesty can lift that with ease,” Zigao whispered, “and the Prince of Lanling is holding it like it’s made of air.”
“He might look dainty, but his strength really is a sight to behold. Zigao, your physique is not dissimilar from his.” The Emperor had a mischievous glint. “Have you been hiding your strength too?”
“Your Majesty is making fun of me.”
“I don’t know – maybe you can try tossing me around in bed for a change.”
Zigao’s face grew hot. “This is not the place for that kind of talk, Your Majesty. Besides, shouldn’t you be watching the competition? That Prince isn’t just an embroidered pillow – look, he’s already made ten targets in a row.”
“Impressive.” Almost casually, the Emperor’s hand hovered close. “I remember when I taught you; the first time, you could barely string the bow.”
Zigao smiled at the memory. “That seems like a lifetime ago.” He could still envision the petals of the peach blossoms drifting in the courtyard of the old General’s Estate where they lived. “I miss it.”
“I do too.” The Emperor curled his fingers around Zigao’s. “It was simpler, wasn’t it? Though you by my side is all I need.”
There were cheers as all the arrows landed right at the center.
“What would our honored hosts like to compete in?” the Prince asked. He handed the bow back with a triumphant grin.
The Emperor stood. “As expected of the one called by many the God of War. At such a young age, your prowess is certainly to be commended.” He considered. “Since this is an archery contest, this time, we will demonstrate marksmanship.”
“I’ve heard that Your Majesty is a great archer,” Minister Lu said. “And as we agreed, this competition is friendly, to increase our understanding of each other.”
“Yes.” The Emperor turned to Zigao. “I require your assistance. Are you ready, Zigao?”
Zigao rode a horse onto the terrace. “Ready, Your Majesty.”
“Hitting a still object is easy so we will try a moving one.” The Emperor nocked his bow. “Zigao will hold the target. Zigao, are you scared?”
Zigao had in his hand a single flower. “No, Your Majesty. It’s just that the stem might be too short, and the horse too fast.”
“Don’t worry.” The Emperor smiled. “I personally taught you how to ride. I have faith in you. And I hope you in me.”
In response, Zigao spurred his horse into action. Wind whipped; it was cool and sharp, and Zigao kept one hand on the reins, the other clutching the stem.
He had to bear in mind his speed – he wasn’t attempting to outride anyone, but he had to keep in mind that too slow and it wouldn’t be much of a show.
He couldn’t help but be amused by this streak of theatricality. It made for, however, a brilliant spectacle, and Zigao understood that perception was power. The Emperor, though intent on peace, had to awe the delegation from Qi at the same time.
Riding with one hand was difficult, especially in this type of terrain – he skipped over a stone lion, hopped over a table, while trying to maintain his balance. Out of the corner of his eye, Zigao saw the tense faces of the crowd, the almost hopeful look from the Empress, hoping for his embarrassment. But he only noticed how the Emperor focused on him.
The Emperor let loosed the arrow.
It flew straight at him – and the bulb fell, cut cleaned by the arrow.
The Prince of Lanling was among the ones that clapped the hardest. Minister Lu had an impressed look, the Emperor’s brother gave a pleased smile. There was a scowl on the Empress’s face but Zigao didn’t mind.
Nothing mattered compared to how the Emperor beamed at him right now.
“Congratulations,” Minister Lu said. “Your Majesty and General Han make quite a pair. Not many can do what you just did.”
“I don’t think I’d be able to,” interjected the Prince. “Not with that kind of accuracy anyways.”
“Your Majesty.” The Emperor’s brother rose. “I would like to make a toast. To you and to General Han here. And of course, to our friends from the North. May our countries exist in prosperous peace.”
The Emperor tipped his cup with a warm glance at Zigao.
The bowl scalded his hands. He blew on it; the steam wafted with its astringent smell to fill the room.
“Heavens, that smells awful. Take it away from me.”
“Your Majesty, you need to take your medicine. The Imperial Physician instructed you to drink every drop.”
The Emperor struggled to sit up. Zigao set down the bowl, propped a pillow under the Emperor’s back.
He was much thinned, the Emperor, his face pale as paper, and haggard. Spiderwebs of lines wrinkled his forehead and the old strength in his limbs were gone. Despite this, the eyes still burned with intelligence and there was an ironic quirk to his mouth.
“Can’t you add some sugar at least? I don’t want my last meal to taste so awful.”
“Don’t talk like that, Your Majesty.” Zigao blinked hard. “You’re going to be fine. You’re going to be fine –”
“Don’t.” The Emperor squeezed Zigao’s hand. “Don’t say these empty words, not with me. I hear them too often from other courtiers. And I told you: call me Ah Qian in private.”
“Ah Qian.” The Emperor’s hand was so cold and so weak. Zigao swallowed. “Please. I –”
“You don’t need to be sad, Zigao. I’ve lived a good life. I’ve accomplished so much that I had never thought I would.”
“The history books will judge you to be a brilliant emperor.” Zigao took a deep breath to keep his voice from shaking.
“I don’t care about that. All I want is to ensure that my subjects live happy and content even after I die.”
“They will, Ah Qian. Leave it to me. You’re leaving your empire in good hands. Though the Crown Prince is young, I’m sure that he’ll grow to be a wise ruler. And your regents are all very capable.”
“I hope so.” The Emperor leaned back. “If only I have more time …. I’m worried about the Crown Prince. The world is in turmoil and a child rule is a very tempting target.” He coughed.
“Ah Qian … You have to relax.” Rubbing the Emperor’s back, Zigao could feel the ribs. “The Crown Prince will be fine. Your brother is one of the regents. He won’t allow anything to happen to his own nephew.”
“If it would only go so well as you say.” The Emperor coughed, again. This time, it did not subside, but rather grew into a fit.
“Don’t,” he gasped, when Zigao made to call for someone. “I want this moment to be the two of us.”
“Ah Qian ….” Zigao curled his fingers around the Emperor’s hand. “I –”
“I hope you don’t resent me,” the Emperor said. The words came out softer now, almost as a rasp. “For upending your life and pushing you into this vortex of deceit and constant fighting with me.”
“I don’t regret anything, Ah Qian.” Zigao wanted to look anywhere but at the Emperor. At the same time, he couldn’t turn his head away. “I don’t. It has been an honor.”
“I was selfish,” the Emperor whispered. “I wanted a companion, so I took you. I even named you without asking you.”
Zigao broke into a weak smile. “Can you imagine me making any sort of life with my original name?”
“No.” There was a light laugh. The Emperor’s mouth curled slightly. “That, I suppose, I don’t regret.”
“Ah Qian” – Zigao grasped the Emperor even tighter – “before I met you, I was an illiterate peasant who probably would have died already, either of disease or starvation or of some soldier’s blade. You saved me from that. And not only that, but you gave me the ability to make a difference and prevent those exact fates from happening to someone else.”
“I know it hasn’t been easy for you to be here in this palace,” the Emperor said. “And I’m sorry that I didn’t leave you a place on the regent’s council. But in these past five hundred years of chaos, regents have never had peaceful endings, and I don’t --”
“I understand, Ah Qian. I understand. I wanted to make myself indispensable as your companion, so that you would never leave me. I wanted to be your confidant, your strategist, your helper. I wanted to make myself a part of you so that you’d never leave me. I didn’t do it for power.” Zigao laid his head against the Emperor’s. “But you’re leaving me anyways.”
There was a light knock at the door. “Your Majesty, the Prince of Ancheng requests an audience, along with the Crown Prince and the Excellency of the Masses.”
Zigao made to stand, to leave, but the Emperor held on. “In a minute. I want to finish talking to you first.”
“They’ll have important matters to discuss with you, Ah Qian.”
“And I have important matters to discuss with you,” the Emperor said. “Though I left you off the regent’s council, I have a favor to ask of you.”
“Anything,” Zigao choked out.
“Watch out for the Crown Prince. For me. He hasn’t displayed any great aptitude or moral fitness to be the emperor, but he is my son. Promise me you’ll look after him. Even if he proves to be a fatuous fool.”
“He’s your son, Ah Qian. If he has even a drop of your ability, then –”
“You’re doing it again, Zigao, using those courtier words with me. Just … if he is foolish, then at least save his life.” The Emperor closed his eyes. “Fools don’t last long on the throne, especially not right now.”
“I will, Ah Qian. I promise you.”
The Emperor exhaled. “Thank you. Now I’m ready to see the others. Let them in, will you, Zigao?”
The door opened with a creak. He paused, slipping the papers under his sleeve.
“Leave us.” The Regent, the Emperor’s brother, entered. “I wish to speak with the General alone.”
“I don’t think we have anything to say to each other.” Zigao looked at him. “Not anymore, now.”
“I’m not going to apologize to you or pardon you,” the Regent said. “If that is what you’re expecting.”
“I don’t expect that,” Zigao said. He gestured for the Regent to sit. “No matter what, I’m a battle-hardened general who’ve seen death and killed countless on the battlefield. What sort of man would I be if I were scared now?”
“I can’t say I made this decision without any regrets,” the Regent said. “You are, after all, a talent and a beauty. To be forced to order you to commit suicide – when you see my brother in the afterlife, tell him not to blame me. I am only doing what I think is the best for the realm.”
“I don’t care about the realm,” Zigao said, “but can you live with yourself? You’re usurping the throne from your own nephew. When you see your brother in the afterlife, how will you explain that?”
“He has no right to judge me,” the Regent said. “He played a pivotal role in our uncle’s rebellion against the former dynasty. That’s how we have our peace now, fragile as it is. And how are we meant to keep that with a child on the throne? The wolves from the North are eyeing us. We need a strong leader. Put aside your idealism, Zigao – you would be able to see the reality if you weren’t so blinded by your loyalty to my brother.”
“It’s a loyalty you should have too. You swore before the late emperor’s deathbed that you would protect and serve his son. Instead, you’ve forced all your fellow regents to death and stole the power of state. I’m not a fool, Your Highness. I know what comes next: in a few years or so, you’ll depose the current emperor and take the throne for yourself.”
“You tried to stop me and you failed. Should you have any complaints? To the winner belongs the world. That’s the hard reality, Zigao.”
Zigao sat back in his chair, his body leaden. “Then at least spare him. Can you do that?”
“He is my nephew. I won’t kill him.” The Regent met Zigao’s eyes. “And your family. Your father, your nephews. None of them will be implicated.”
“Thank you, Your Highness.”
The other man stood. “I think we’ve said all that’s needed to be said to each other. I will leave now. Farewell, General.”
“Farewell, Your Highness.” Zigao watched the back of the man disappear through the doorway. Then he folded the sheets of paper he had in his sleeve.
“Wait for me, Ah Qian,” he whispered, slipping them under the inkstone. “I will see you soon.”