Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 41
Stories
The Two Kingdoms Woman
by James Beamon
The Time Mechanic
by Marie Vibbert
The Temptation of Father Francis
by Nick T. Chan and Jennifer Campbell-Hicks
The Fiddle Game
by Alex Shvartsman
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
At the Picture Show: Extended Cut
Vintage Fiction
Voice of the Martyrs
by Maurice Broaddus

The Two Kingdoms Woman
    by James Beamon

The Two Kingdoms Woman
Artwork by Andres Mossa

Listen, Chiang Jiang, as I speak my life poem. Upon these words I wrap deeper spells, in the tao shown to me by Zhuge Kongming when he unveiled the mysteries of the Book of Changes, the divinations and secrets of I Ching. Seven is sacred, the auspicious number of togetherness, and so I hereby distill the many people I've met, the innumerable places I have seen to this counted few. Seven are the names I will divulge to you, mighty river, to bind them to your waters. I will couple these names with seven sites, places forever rooted though the boundaries of the Three Kingdoms will surely change. May you carry their meaning and memory forever.

Sun Renxian

A brat and a fool is Sun Renxian. Once so proud of her bloodline, she boasted her heritage to visiting dignitaries. "Sun Renxian, daughter of Sun Jian, son of Sun Zhong!" and so on, inviting the dignitary to listen as she traced her family line back seven centuries to the Spring and Summer Period and the great Sun Tzu. As a maiden she practiced wushu daily, learning five Southern styles, becoming skilled with the single-edge dao sword and double-edged jian. She was fierce in combat, even fiercer in her arrogance. Now, Renxian is tired. Pride has drained from her as water through a sieve. She seeks to restore her qi.

She is I, this woman dressed in her grandest silk, whose make-up runs, and presently sits on your banks to share with you her life poem.

Sun Quan

My older brother's smile warms the room as his decrees cut the heart. He is revered as King of Eastern Wu, Holder of the Nine Bestowments. To me, he is simply Zhongmou, left to rule when our father fell in battle and our older brother succumbed to an assassin's arrow nine years later. Zhongmou was only eighteen at the time, and I sixteen. I remember him holding me as I cried into his shoulder even as his own body racked with sobs.

Zhongmou's strength lay in listening and in knowing he could not do everything alone. He chose excellent advisors, many smart, dutiful men whom I cannot name because I promised to speak only seven. Now Zhongmou is forty-three, and Wu has grown strong under his hand. His eyes sparkle like jade, signal lanterns of the fire that fills him.

What else can be said of my brother? I loved him, then hated him.

Liu Bei

I used to always call him by his ming, stressing his given name slowly, deliberately, loudly, causing as much disrespect and shame as a woman of my status could. Liu Bei. I thought him a peasant turned warlord, not worthy of his own zi name. He was an upstart, a rival to my brother, an enemy to Wu. When I arrived in Gong'An, I carried my one hundred swordmaidens with me with the intent to harass his men and openly defy his wishes.

He was forty-seven, over twice my age, when I first met him. He had arms too long, where it looked like he could scratch his knees while standing straight and ears too big, as if they grew incrementally every time someone said something wonderful about him. "Oh, Master Liu Bei has the makings of an ambitious hero." "He has Tiger Generals, the greatest in all the land." "Only Master Liu Bei can restore the failing Han Dynasty." Comments like the last carried the implied, unspoken insult that even my brother would eventually bow to him. What import was it that the peasant was directly related to the Imperial line? This is a man who had taken half a lifetime to scratch out a small swath of territory, an undesirable who grew up selling wooden mats and shoes alongside his mother. I despised him all the more for the reverence in the eyes of others.

I hated him, then loved him. I suppose that is the way of many marriages.

A'dou

A'dou is a name which is neither his given ming nor courtesy zi, but it is nevertheless his name. He is Liu Bei's son, which by extension makes him my son as well. When I first met him, he was two years old with chubby cheeks of morning rose and bright eyes that were too busy looking at the world and everything in it to blink or close. I only wish the world he saw was pristine, unravaged by war and death and conquest.

I fell in love with him when I first saw him, when he held his arms out for me to pick him up as if my arms were where he had always belonged.

Zhao Yun

At the height of my war against my own wedding vows, when I sought to sow disorder and discord in the streets of Gong'An, the disciplinarian Zilong was my adversary. One of my husband's Five Tiger Generals, Zilong was the only one who did not tread carefully around me. Upholding the alliance between Liu Bei and Sun Quan mattered to him, just not as much as lawful order. Thoughts of what would happen to the alliance did not keep him from cracking my ribs when we fought in the marketplace.

I do not fault him. My swordmaidens and I had descended onto the trade district, harassing the vendors, overturning their tables and carts, demanding to know why they came here instead of Wu to hawk their wares.

Zilong appeared with what had to be twice as many men as I had women. Anger smoldered in his eyes and his lips shook with rage, making the long strands of his mustache and beard quiver. He called out to me.

"I respect your swordmaidens enough to approach them cautiously. How about you, Lady Sun of Wu, do you respect them enough to not throw their lives away needlessly? Will you face me?"

Perhaps I expected leniency given my station, but in our duel he showed none. This general was the survivor of a hundred battles and countless duels; my sword skill and wushu were no match for his. The duel was over quickly and decisively when he delivered a crushing kick to my side, sending me into a vendor's stall with a shower of wares and splintered wood.

As I lay there gasping for air -- my swordmaidens tending me, vendors gawking, his men smirking under their helmets -- I remember, through the pain shrieking in my chest, wanting to see the entire city burn for this insult. Embarrassment and rage flooded me.

"Do you know what this means to the alliance?!" I screamed at him.

"This?" he asked nonplussed. "It means nothing to a warrior. It means everything to spoiled girls."

After the healers applied their salves and bandages, and my chief swordmaiden asked about sending notice to my brother, I thought of Zilong's words and shook my head. I would damn myself to this existence before I proved him right. Oh! How I hated him. I bit my lip to keep from screaming.

In these days, with hindsight as my greatest teacher, I can only respect Zhao Yun for teaching me what a warrior is, something well beyond wushu and swordplay. I no longer doubt the stories ofhim, like the time he went behind enemy lines a thousand strong to rescue A'dou when Cao Cao cut off Liu Bei's forces.

I know he has saved A'dou. For that, I can only love him.

Zhuge Liang

They say Kongming summoned favorable winds at Red Cliffs, a feat I do not question now. Back then, I did not believe. Instead, I wondered how my husband could appoint a man of twenty-eight years as his chief advisor. Then I saw what he was capable of, his quiet power. I started believing.

I had learned five Southern styles and one Northern one, discipline as a warrior, grace as a woman. I would learn magic.

Kongming did not protest or question, but nodded sagely as if he knew I would come to him all along. He taught me of fire gazing and water visions, life poems and death bindings. Because of him, I learned the meaning of numbers, their true value beyond simple arithmetic.

If nothing else, I name him because none of what I do tonight would be possible without his teachings.

Cao Cao

No talk of these trying times would be complete without mention of the devil Mengde. I am loath to name him, for to give him name deprives me of the joy of enriching your waters with the poem of someone honorable, beautiful. Even now Cao Cao, this dead man I have never met, robs me as he has ever robbed me.

His Kingdom of Wei stretches across the empire's heartlands and northern reaches, a tremendous shadow that falls across both Eastern Wu and Shu Han. That shadow creeps slowly, inexorably south.

Cao Cao knows war. He has massacred thousands, bringing city after city under his heel. Cao Cao knows power. He relocated the Imperial capital to his greatest stronghold. When he moves his hand, the boy emperor, last of the Han Dynasty, speaks exactly the words Cao Cao wishes.

I speak of him as if he is not dead, three years gone, expired in a soft bed far removed from the blood and carnage of battles at the age of sixty-five. His son now sits upon the throne of Cao Wei. The same devil fills him, a devil that officially usurped the Emperor's throne, ending the Han Dynasty.

Red Cliffs

This place birthed the Three Kingdoms. Conception started with a letter Cao Cao sent my brother demanding his surrender. "Sun Quan," it said, "our Emperor grows tired of your little rebellion in the south. He has the Mandate of Heaven and me as his promise to unify the land. The promise marches to your doorstep, eight-hundred thousand men strong. If your door is not open, we will beat it down. Your family line will end with you."

Zhongmou almost acquiesced. Eight-hundred thousand! Who had heard of such numbers? My brother's forces at the time numbered thirty thousand.

It took Kongming, sent to Wu by my husband-to-be, to persuade my brother to war. He promised twenty-thousand men and immortality in a battle that would live forever in history, a battle that we could perhaps win. Bolstered by the magician's confidence, my brother resolved to fight this lopsided battle with only fifty thousand.

I was not so resolved; I would not be satisfied until our numbers had one hundred and one more. Zhongmou responded to my request swiftly, without hesitation.

"Impossible! Women have no place on the battlefield."

"We are swordmaidens," I said. "There is no a better place for us than the battlefield. Surely it's not behind the unguarded walls of the city, waiting as prizes for the hungry men of Wei."

"Tell me, what happens if you or your maidens should fall in battle in sight of my units? Or if they see you swarmed and cut off from aid? Think, Renxian, of what your presence will do to the men's morale."

"I do not care to think of men who are not men enough to be warriors! Tell them to act like my maidens, who will not cry, who will not run, who will give their all in battle and die valiantly when bested. If they cannot do what my maidens can, then perhaps your army needs fewer men and more women."

His reluctance was still plainly visible, but he relented and our meager forces met Cao Cao's army on your waters. Surely you remember that night, Chiang Jiang. Cao Cao's forces were not used to a river as grand as you. These men were not sailors; they were barely soldiers, as many of them had been forced into service. Our men were different. We were experts to your currents. Certain death drove us like desperate horses under a cruel bridle. Fear made us fight with every measure for our next breath. Fear made us brilliant.

Cao Cao put to water hundreds of mengchongs. The assault warships, covered in hardened leather, literally filled your waters as far as the eye could see, row after endless row.

But it seemed not a single man in Wei could sail worth a damn. To keep from drifting, to reduce their weakened army's seasickness, they chained their mengchongs together. It forced the warships into a close, intimidating formation.

Cao Cao expected our men to defect. It came as no surprise to him to see a squadron of our capital ships sailing toward his with flags of surrender. The surprise came later, when he discovered they were fire ships, filled with kindling, dry reeds and fatty oil instead of men. In smaller boats that followed our capital ships, our men set the mengchongs ablaze with flaming arrows. Our burning mengchongs crashed into their chained ones and the fires spread throughout the enemy fleet.

The few thousand half-drowned men and horses that reached your southern banks had to contend with us. For my swordmaidens and I, this was our first true and likely last battle. After being caged behind walls for so many years, we sprang unleashed at the enemy, ferocious like clouded leopards. I lost myself in the heady rush of my surging qi. Only when the enemy before me broke into an all out run did I come to my senses. I looked to my swordmaidens around me, all of whom had smiles on their faces, thirsty gleams in their eyes. None of them had fallen.

Brother Zhongmou was not so lucky. His forces had taken severe losses in the battle. Liu Bei's warriors, like mine, seemed to come away unscathed from the fight and he grew more powerful because of it. The Battle of Red Cliffs had given way to land for Liu Bei, a kingdom all his own. The balance of power had shifted, making for a shaky, uncertain alliance.

And what makes strange bedfellows more comfortable than sharing a marital bed?

Gong'An

Gong'An was a city I was predisposed to hate, no matter how beautiful its gardens or tranquil its courtyards. The port city lay in the heart of Shu, the foreign land my brother shipped me to as payment for an uneasy alliance. I sailed there along your waters. Do you remember my angry, bitter face staring into yours as you carried me to my new home?

Within hours of my arrival, Liu Bei married me. I could have protested, but I refused to give him the satisfaction. Were my protests heard by my brother Zhongmou, who bartered me away no matter how much I pleaded? How much would this lusty, ancient man's hand be stayed by excuses of a long, tiring journey? He wanted young flesh beneath him, something I could only try to delay from him. There was no point denying him a body already sold, but my spirit was mine still and he would not claim it.

This is when he surprised me. Our wedding night he made no move to disrobe me. "We must consummate our marriage," he said, "but there are many ways that bodies tryst in harmony, yes?" He moved his legs and hands into a fighting position, one I would later know as Northern Crane.

I stood there, confused until he said, "Reveal yourself to me. Perhaps through one of those many Southern styles I was told you know." I raised one fist beside my head and thrust the other fist toward him like a gift. Thus we sparred our wedding night. And the parrying, dodging and taking of blows was the only flesh exchanged that night. I thought it kind.

His kindness did not matter. I still treated Gong'An with the delicacy of a stampeding bull. Kindness would not make this my land or my laws, which made me and my swordmaidens lawless. My husband tolerated my rebellion even if his general Zilong did not. Liu Bei made no mention of it at night, when he would come to my chambers and invite me to spar in the gardens outside.

Those gardens, secluded by walls, held a meticulously shaped pond with an arching red bridge, carved stone works draped with ivy, an abundance of plants: lotus, peony and orchid flowers, bamboo, peach, and pomegranate trees. This place was the closest thing to home for an exile; I found comfort here. For two months, I willingly took Liu Bei's offer to spar, with me picking up the intricacies of Northern Crane while I laughed at his poor form when he tried to imitate the art of Jiao Di.

"Enough," he said one night. "I resign with the knowledge that tonight will not be the evening I master this style."

He invited me to sit with him in the pavilion overlooking the pond. The full moon's light reflected off the calm surface, causing everything around the pond to glow, including my husband. He looked at me with soft eyes, as if beseeching the favor of a rival lord.

"I would ask you to take my son into the city, so he can see how the people live."

"You own this city, Liu Bei. Why not go yourself?" I asked. Truthfully, I enjoyed those moments I spent with A'dou in the palace. My issue lay in Liu Bei, who presumed to ask anything of me other than a fight. Even now, without the benefit of others to hear me, I still called him by his ming name.

His grimace was slight, as if enduring a bee sting, and he shook his head. "When A'dou is with me, he sees nothing other than how royalty is treated. A man who only knows how to be treated like a lord will surely not govern like one. He needs to see people as they live. So it must be you and him, in modest clothing and without your swordmaidens. Even in peasant attire, I'm afraid my big ears give me away."

I was more intrigued than suspicious. No harm would come to me, the lynchpin of the alliance, even more so with his son in tow. Besides, the last time I had snuck out of a palace I was a girl of twelve years, defiant even then. His idea rekindled girlish notions; it sounded like fun.

Gong'An was a different city when viewed behind a modest straw hat without my swordmaidens in tow. The people were lively, the streets full of riotous laughs and boisterous calls of merchants peddling fresh fish, jewelry, fortunes and earthenware. A'dou took the scene in with wonder as he looked in awe at the various vendors, a street performer strumming the strings on a pear shaped pipa, at the column of soldiers marching toward garrison. He clapped in delight seeing a group of children playing Blind Man.

"Hungry, mama," A'dou said to me, looking up with eyes I had yet to say no to.

We stopped for beef and noodles spiced southern style with garlic, chili peppers, ginger and star anise. The food reminded me of younger days in Jianye, stories of my childhood that made me smile. I was about to tell A'dou one of my favorites when the people of Gong'An told me one of their own.

"Lady Sun comes this way!" a young boy yelled, running into the restaurant and pointing behind him before darting off to places unseen.

Many patrons jumped up, fear on their faces. Two men braved to peek from the doorway, while others stood transfixed, unmoving. After a moment the couple turned to the others, bitter looks on their faces.

"I'll thrash that boy next time I see him," one of them said. "He plays a cruel prank."

The rest of the restaurant let out audible sighs and began to relax. Then they all talked. No matter who they were or their station in life, they came together like family in their hatred of me.

"Sun Renxian and her swordmaidens are a plague, a horde of yowling cats clawing at everything they see."

"Whenever our lord enters Lady Sun's chambers, he feels a chill in his heart."

"I hear Master Liu refuses to consummate the marriage."

"I heard the same. He only took Sun Renxian's hand to ease her brother's fears."

"She is a symbol of an alliance, not a real lady of Shu," one man said. "When our master finally sits upon the Dragon Throne, he will find a true empress, one worthy to perpetuate the Han Dynasty."

A moment later I sprang from the chair and put my foot into that man's chest, sending him sprawling across the restaurant to crash into the doorframe. I took off my straw hat, letting my hair cascade down my back.

"Anyone who has grievance with Lady Sun, now is your chance to air them directly!"

I could have been the devil Mengde himself the way everyone fled. Even the restaurant owner shot out of the door like a crossbow bolt, leaving the place empty save for me and A'dou.

He giggled, his mouth full of noodles that dangled from his lips. My own lips quivered; all I tasted was rage. I stormed back to the castle, A'dou in my arms and crying because I cut our trip short.

Liu Bei was in his bedchambers, looking over the papers that littered his desk. He stood up, a smile on his face that quickly evaporated when he saw my angry countenance. I ripped my robe off in fury and stood before my husband naked for the first time. "You would stand before a princess of Wu and treat her like a pet? To keep me at arm's length and murmur this treatment with hushed whispers to the joy of your people? No more, Liu Bei. I will no longer stay removed from my lands without being given a true stake in yours. I am your wife. I demand you honor your vow."

His response was to leave me naked and alone in his bedchamber. First I gathered my robes. Next I gathered my swordmaidens, and we went down into Gong'An to make the citizens pay for my insults.

You already know how this ended, with Zilong cracking my ribs. What I've yet to tell you is this was the start of my convalescence, a true healing in every sense of the word. My husband came to my bedside that same night, the injury and wraps around my chest forcing my words to be short and measured carefully. He looked out of the window into a garden illuminated in the soft light of paper lanterns as he spoke. For the first time since being in Gong'An, I had to listen.

"When a common man takes something that doesn't belong to him, he is a thief. There is no respect given to a man who has taken what he hasn't earned, which is as it should be. Yet lords are not expected to follow these rules. Perhaps that is the root of our empire's decay."

He turned his gaze to me. "You cannot belong to me because it is clear you do not think I've earned you. So I have given to you what little of me you would allow, and I've accepted the same in return."

It was not only Gong'An that changed that day.

Tian He

Yes, Chiang Jiang, I give name to the Heavenly River above. Tonight is a night of pairs, is it not, and it is the only river I have seen that equals your majesty. As a child, I used to lose myself staring into its silvery depths as it arced across the bowl of heaven with eyes of wonder. Since then, I have gazed ever upwards at different times for different reasons. The Tian He is part of my life poem as much as you; a grand, silent witness to the events I speak.

When I cursed the heavens for my betrothal, the river took the brunt of it. It watched me spar with my husband night after night. After my injury from Zilong, the river saw me change.

It began small, with short walks at night with Liu Bei. We would stroll through the gardens, where he would tell me stories of his times in the north: of lords both noble and sinister, tragic battles, makeshift coalitions, fleeting alliances. One of his was with the devil Mengde.

"Allies? With Cao Cao?" I asked a bit out of breath. My injury kept my words short.

"Indeed." He nodded.

"What happened?" The devil Mengde truly seemed possessed to chase Liu Bei as far south as he could.

"He took control of the Emperor, so I joined a conspiracy to assassinate him," he answered. "But Mengde discovered the plot and killed everyone involved within his reach. He killed their families, including one advisor's pregnant daughter. Since then I've tried to stay just out of a reach that only grows longer."

We shared silence for a time, my husband's face creased, his eyes a thousand spans away. He blinked away what were surely grim memories and gazed at the night sky, a look of wonder on his face that I could wholly understand. "The will of the Emperor comes from above. No man should be able to etch his own desires over the Mandate of Heaven."

Perhaps the great silver river above knows the exact night and moment my husband stopped talking of his storied past and began asking for my own, as I do not. I just remember it being effortless, a stream of harmless curiosities that no one ever wanted to know about me. How'd it feel to be the only sister among so many brothers? Did I climb trees? Had I ever snuck out of the palace? Questions upon questions; I found myself talking incessantly. No complaint or interjections came as he listened. He laughed alongside me at my childhood pranks, his eyes saddened when my voice cracked speaking on my father and brother's deaths. We lost hours in those gardens that only the Heavenly River would be able to find.

Then came the seventh night of the seventh month for the Qixi Festival, a night even the heavens celebrate. Liu Bei took me into the city, where the streets were alive with music and joyous faces were aglow in the light of a hundred paper lanterns. Young women and girls in their best clothes lay fruit out as offerings to the Weaver Girl and the Cowherd, the lovers in the sky separated by the Tian He. People burned paper: fashioned coins and crude dolls and secret sentiments folded up to defeat prying eyes. Boys laughed and chased one another around the cages of magpies caught for the festival.

"You look beautiful," my husband said. He wore the simple tunic of a farmer, his face and ears largely obscured behind a straw hat. "I hope you are not embarrassed to be seen with me." His head bowed to indicate his disguise.

"Not at all," I replied. I wore a disguise myself, one of lavish embroidered silk, my hair bound up with precious jade combs, my lips stained red. I think the people of Gong'An couldn't imagine the Lady Sun not wearing a scowl for make-up, dressed in anything besides a hundred swordmaidens.

When it came time to gather in the central square, Liu Bei took my hand to lead me, something I did not object to. Under the fanfare of music, city officials released the magpies. Together, they flew up to heaven, where they would create a bridge across the Tian He so for this single day of the year the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl could reunite.

I looked away from the shadowy flitter of the birds and the starry expanse behind them to eye Liu Bei. He had forgotten his disguise as his neck craned skyward, a look of delight on his battle weary features.

"I have a sentiment," I told him.

He looked to me. "What is it?"

"I would like you to take what you've earned, Xuande." It was the first time I had ever spoken his zi name.

The Tian He witnessed our first kiss, there underneath the bridge of magpies built to reunite the lover stars. We consummated our marriage that night. I became Lady Sun of Shu.

Thus began our year of magic, magic more powerful than anything Zhuge Kongming could ever command.

Jiangling

My husband had departed on the winds of opportunity, seeking to expand his domain in the north and west. It was only one province over but it may as well have been on the far side of the Heavenly River for the access I had to Xuande. Magic no longer grew in Gong'An and the beautiful colors of the garden had drained away, leaving a city that seemed a hollow, muted ghost.

I took refuge across your waters in the port city of Jiangling. Although I carried the authority to manage the city, I left the administration in the hands of the men Xuande entrusted. I delved deeper into the secrets of I Ching with Zhuge Kongming, the secret of water scrying and power of death binding. I also taught a school of wushu, training farmers and merchants, especially women. A'dou, six years old now, stayed by my side, eager to help and learn martial skills. This wasn't life with Xuande, but it was still good. I found distraction here and happiness in infrequent bursts.

Do you remember the day a solitary mengchong came from the east along your waters? First the warship landed across the river at Gong'An before coming here. I had no doubt they sought me.

"Lady Sun, I have been sent to escort you back to Wu," the captain said, his expression grave. "Your mother is dying. She wishes to see you."

The news drained what little color was left in my world. I couldn't make preparations to leave fast enough. The city magistrate assured me he would send word flying to the western war front, the best messenger, the fastest horse. The words I wanted to say to Xuande came out rushed, exasperated; the useless thought of wishing he was here to talk to directly refused to be quelled. Then I felt gentle tugs on my tunic; I looked down to see A'dou looking up to me.

"Can I go, Mother?"

He still had eyes that made "no" impossible to voice. I smiled at him. "Would you like to see my homeland?"

His emphatic nod and fierce smile back settled the matter.

"This is unwise, Lady Sun," the city magistrate said. "Think how our lord will take news that his son is not safe within our borders."

"There is no place under heaven safer than with me. A'dou will come and I'll hear no more of it."

Even though the expert sailors of Wu rushed to make way, it felt like forever before we left port, every second made an eternity for me to dwell on my mother's failing health. Finally upon your open waters, we encountered yet another delay.

A small junk sailed swiftly toward us from Gong'An. The sailors resisted slowing down until I began barking at them to yield. When the junk reached the mengchong, a solitary grappling hook flew up to dig into the side. Moments later, Zhao Zilong hoisted himself onto the ship. His eyes scanned the deck until they found me.

"I have come for A'dou," he said.

"How is it you know the business of this ship from Gong'An?"

"I do not pretend to know its business or care. I am a general; it did not take a great strategist to see this ship came for you and if you would care to board it, A'dou would be with you. I cannot permit it."

"I am his mother," I said, a cold rage building in me. "Who are you to permit anything?"

"I am nothing more than a servant of Liu Xuande, but loyal enough to swear my life to him. My lord has but one son of his body, a son I have risked my own life to see safe. He cannot leave with you."

"Zilong, you worry for nothing. I'm merely going to see my sick mother. Introducing her to her grandson is important to me. We will be back in less than a fortnight. His safety is guaranteed with me."

He dropped to one knee. "Forgive me, Lady Sun of Shu," he said, "but it is not your motives I question."

Zilong had never called me "of Shu," which was at this time only an informal name for my husband's lands. The message was clear; he considered me a lady of these lands now, my intent without question. I looked up to the crew of the mengchong, all armed soldiers of a rival state.

I shook my head, as if that alone could negate the suspicions he never put to voice. "We will return," I said evenly.

"A'dou cannot go," was his simple reply.

The sailors began to yell and point. While Zilong had slowed us down and kept us occupied, he had ordered capital ships to sail. Now a half dozen mengchongs bore down on us swiftly. We could not outrun them without full sails, something I knew Zilong wouldn't abide unless he was dead.

I nodded to my husband's Tiger General. "So be it. When I return, you will face the full measure of my wrath."

He bowed. "As it should be."

I did not doubt I would be back within a fortnight. Still, I hugged A'dou fiercely before surrendering him to Zilong.

Jianye

The city that had once been home became a prison. Jianye hosted a healthy mother and scheming brother. And I, the brat turned fool, was there as the first spoil of war.

My brother had heard of Xuande's victories in the west and they disgusted him. "He scarcely has to fight any battles!" Zhongmou spat. "Everywhere he goes, generals and men defect to join him. 'Here comes Lord Liu Bei,' they say, 'the true Emperor of the Han.' Rubbish!"

"They go to him because he is worth going to," I replied. "The same reason I must go, Zhongmou."

"You would leave Wu?" he asked. "You would tell our people he is indeed worthy of the Dragon Throne?"

"I care nothing for thrones!" I shouted. "He is my husband. My place is with him."

"Before you were allied by words you were allied by blood, Renxian. Here is where you belong, a clear message to our people and theirs of the strength of Wu loyalty and the weakness of Liu Bei."

My brother had used me twice.

Under house arrest, the only news of the outside world I received were hints of war and rumors. Some talked of border skirmishes between Shu and Wu. More rumors said the devil Mengde had finally descended from the north, forcing my husband to contend with his massive army. Other rumors still said I had never loved Xuande and abandoned him the first moment I could; only Zilong's intervention prevented me kidnapping the heir.

Using the only resource left to me, I gazed in fire and looked through water. Sometimes the visions were clear and sharp as cut glass. While the banners of Shu flew in northern fields fending off Cao Cao's invasion, the banners of Wu waved over the city of Gong'An. My husband's men clashed with my brother's. No matter how different the battlefields, they all produced the same sick feeling in my gut.

Sometimes the visions were murky. It was only through fire gazing that I saw my Xuande cry. The vision did not offer a reason for his tears and I cried with him in my longing to be with him. Fear trembled in me as I wondered if he believed the rumors that I had never loved him.

Baidicheng

Though I am almost out of names, I name Baidicheng despite my never seeing it. I know little of this small town which sits along your banks, but what I do know compels me to name this horrible place in the same fashion I named the devil Cao Cao.

Forty-nine days ago, Xuande died there, sick and defeated by my brother.

It was late spring.

Chiang Jiang

Finally we come to you, great river. You have beheld all these people, all these places in your majestic waters. Your waters course strong like life's blood through this country. You are eternal. Who better to be the final name of my life poem than you?

Though the Han Dynasty has disintegrated, the People of the Han remain. Future generations of Han will sail and swim and draw from your waters, they will call you Yangtze, and in your current, they will hear my life poem. And in hearing it, these seven people and seven places will linger in their minds, their stories will issue from their lips. The people will find greatness in them, the beautiful magic which only lies in legends and myths.

They will hear it because of the binding I place now, one of unbreakable finality revealed to me by Zhuge Kongming.

This alone would be reason enough to name you, great river, but it is not the only reason I have.

Seven is sacred, the auspicious number of togetherness. Seven upon seven days ago it was late spring and my husband breathed his last. Now it is the seventh day of the seventh month and the Qixi Festival begins anew. Soon the bridge will form across the Heavenly River and the lover stars will reunite.

But the Tian He is not the only great river. Just as you will carry my seven names and seven places across time through your waters, so too I ask that you allow me to journey upon you once more.

Carry me to Xuande on this night of sevens, the auspicious number of togetherness.

I see the magpies.

It is time to embark.


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