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Chapter 1 - Five Times Ghosts Talked Among Themselves & One Time Someone Else Listened by A.J. Hall

Down to the rawest rookie, each man in the Imperial armies knows of the heroic action at Mount Jiu An, when General Meng Zhu’s three thousand men held the Hunting Palace for three days against the fifty thousand soldiers of the rebel Prince Yu, and saved the Emperor and all his household.

In his address to his men, Commander Yu, the officer commanding the last loyal troops in Jinling, makes a point of the parallels between their own situation and Mount Jiu An. To do them credit, none of his troops actually laugh in his face.

At Mount Jiu An the defence force had had twenty-four hours to prepare; a strategic position at the top of a steep wooded hill; three rings of defensive walls, barrels of black fire, and a commanding officer who’d topped the Langya List three years in succession.

His own five hundred men have a flight of steps. Their oaths. Pride. Desperation. And, for what it is worth, him.

Some time later, he looks down at his body, sprawled and broken across those steps, and winces at the two great cross-cuts across his back, the gaping wound in his neck, the destruction of his lower jaw. He counts his men. They have fallen so neatly, so close together. All his men. Not one has broken, not one has fled, not one has sought to surrender.

All things considered, it seems likely the boy Emperor will shortly be here to receive his apologies for this disaster in person, but at least his men have nothing of which to be ashamed.

“Good speech, that. Lot better than I managed back then. Never a great one with words, me.”

As a child perched atop his father’s shoulders, Commander Yu once saw the hero of Mount Jiu An pass no more than five strides away. Back then, General Meng’s face had been a relief map entrenched and embuscaded with wrinkles, its contours disguised by grizzled hair and beard.

The new arrival wears spotless parade armour in the style of half a century ago. His hair is glossy-dark, his skin no more weathered than is usual for a career soldier.

He is unquestionably the same man.

Commander Yu drops to his knees, stammering out his grief and regret.

“No, no. None of that. Get up, get up. What is there to blame yourself for? Dying before the reinforcements arrived? So did seven in ten of my men at the Hunting Palace. Do you suppose I’d allow anyone to think the worse of them for that?”

Reinforcements? What reinforcements? The armies are subverted. The Ministers are imprisoned, or dead. The Prince of Laiyang has taken everything. No-one can come. No-one is left to come.”

The General claps him on the shoulder; the force of the blow almost knocks him back down the steps.

“What? You think Da Liang could fall at a stroke to a smirking, treacherous, crooked-nosed princeling who hasn’t even worked out how to put his hair up?”

The General grins. It has knives in it.

“Look, lad, I realise you’ve had a bad day, but do try to keep your head on. Do you think young Tingsheng’s boy is just going to accept things as they are? Or Feizhan — he knows what he owes to his shifu, if anyone does. There’ll be fireworks coming. Trust me.”

He bends to mutter in the commander’s ear.

“All the same, no harm in making the ground heavier for Laiyang, eh? Rebellion is a sin against heaven; your fellow officers who have declared for the traitor know that already. Someone needs to rub it in. Giving men with a bad conscience a worse night’s sleep shouldn’t be beyond your powers, even now you’re dead.”

Commander Yu draws himself up to his full height. “Sir. I hear and I understand.”

“Then, officer, that’s an order. Make their dreams hell.”

On the highest terrace of Langya Mountain he hears Lin Jiu say, “The old master told me to say, the man who wore this never lost a battle.”

He sees Ping Jing clasp his own Chiyan Army bracelet around his wrist.

That is when his dead heart splits into three separate pieces.

First, because Lin Chen always used to dismiss his military pretensions as the least interesting facet of his personality, by far. It is intolerable to be used like this by the impertinent old trickster: as a symbol, as a shameless exhortation to Ping Jing to do the impossible, and then rise up and do it all over again.

(Lin Chen must be a hundred and two, at least. Lin Chen’s time is short, and his is infinite. Some day soon, Lin Chen must come face to face with him. Then he will make him pay.)

Second, because his snub-nosed cousin (twice-removed) takes the gift in a breathing, tear-haunted silence which has him calculating all the odds, every last one of them, with the precise and relentless accuracy of the dead.

(So many li from Langya Mountain to Jinling. So many troops in Jinling. So few men who need to be subverted, diverted or, in the last resort, killed to shut the capital tight against any relieving force.)

And, third, because at the clasping of the bracelet round his cousin’s wrist, the slopes of the mountain are abruptly covered in soldiers, invisible to everyone save himself: an army who knows the crime of which it was falsely accused three-quarters of a century ago is being enacted in truth in the capital at this very moment.

He lifts his hand to acknowledge them, and they roar back their support.

Even if Ping Jing can raise not a single living man to fight for the Emperor, he will have the Chiyan Army at his back.

For, the Young Marshal reflects, Lin Chen has not told the truth. He has lost battles before — these seventy thousand ghosts are proof of that.

What Lin Shu has never lost is a war.

She was born in a brothel, daughter of an assassin already three months dead.

She dies in the Grand Dowager’s mansion on the country estate of a first-rank Marquis. From the moment their family physician takes her pulse and gives a small, significant shake of his head, her deathbed is conducted with the utmost decorum and attention to detail.

All her family (apart from the Young Master’s oldest son, who is in Jinling pursuing a promising career in one of the Ministries) attend in strict order of age and sex to receive her last words of comfort and guidance. With a whispered word, she bequeaths her collection of instruments and musical scores to her youngest great-granddaughter, a better musician at fourteen than Gong Yu has ever been. Thanks be to heaven, little Niang will never have to earn a living with her skills in the pleasure houses of Luoshi Road. Gong Yu regrets, nonetheless, that her great-granddaughter is unlikely to play before the discriminating audiences her talent deserves. How Prince Ji would have appreciated listening to her!

On that thought, she passes.

The woman who comes to lay out her body gives a small, surprised gasp when she uncovers the great scar across Gong Yu’s back. (The last person to see that scar died almost twenty years ago. None of her living family know it exists.) Nonetheless, Gong Yu is confident the servant will not gossip. She came to Yan Manor forty years ago as wet nurse to the youngest and sickliest of the children, and her devotion to the family is absolute.

The family shrine breathes incense and glows with lamplight. The offering bowls are laden with tangerines, spiced cakes and nuts. Three serried ranks of the family, wearing sack-cloth and the fixed expressions suited to mourning, line up before her newly carved and lacquered memorial tablet to burn joss paper and perform the ritual bow-and-clap, bow-and-clap, bow-and-clap.

Gong Yu finds it all faintly absurd, and, as the ceremony continues, more than a little tedious. Her attention wanders.

At length, she becomes aware of a new arrival: a young man, standing in the doorway to the shrine, bewildered and travel-stained — no, those huge dark patches on his formal silk robes are not mud, as she had thought at first.

Their eyes meet, and her heart turns over.

Her eldest great-grandson, the brightest hope of three generations, has not responded to any of those letters in white envelopes which have flooded out of Yan Manor over the last few days. The family suppose him to be absent from Jinling on official business. Instead, he is here, his robes of office rent and bloodsoaked, and he can see her.

“Yujin! What on earth happened?”

The young man blinks. He blinks again.

“Excuse me, Miss —? ” He looks around the shrine, and the serried ranks of bowing relatives, all oblivious to them. “Do I know you?”

She looks down at herself, and mouths a surprised, ‘O’. Judging by her current attire, one can take the girl out of Miaoyin Court, but not Miaoyin Court out of the girl. All the same, while she can appreciate her great-grandson might feel some surprise at the presence of an entertainer dressed for a private command performance in the midst of the family’s ancestral shrine, he has been at court for years. One might have hoped he would have acquired more polish. Her own dear husband, after whom he was named, would have handled such an awkward encounter with infinitely more tact.

“Of course you know me. I’m your great-grandmother.” She gestures expressively around the ancestral shrine, including the bobbing heads of their family for good measure. “These are my funeral rites.”

“Tai nainai, you’re dead?”

“I’m eighty-six. I’m allowed to be dead.” Her tone is, understandably, tart. “What excuse do you have?”

He drops to his knees. Gong Yu is getting rather tired of seeing her family from this angle.

“I can’t be — ? Can I?”

His voice has the pleading note she remembers from when he was toddling about the place, falling down and grazing his knees, and insisting that only Tai-nainai could make it better.

She makes her voice very gentle.

“Tell me the last thing you remember.”

By the time he has finished stammering out his account she is incandescent with rage. More than twenty years ago, when this one had still been in leading strings, the elder prince of Laiyang had all-but broken Emperor Jingyan’s heart, his son’s peculation and corruption, checked many times, at last tipping inexorably into treason. Despite the previous emperor’s mercy to the traitor’s family, the younger Laiyang prince seems hell-bent on throwing Da Liang back into civil conflict. And now his creatures have murdered her great-grandson.

She looks round at her assembled family. Yan Manor has produced Imperial Tutors, Empresses, diplomats and warriors. The current crop have inherited the titles, scholarly habits, and reputation, without having the slightest notion of how to hold onto their fortune in the teeth of a ruthless, underhand, all-out assault. They will wait for the blow to land before they think of striking; they will listen to the voice of reason when they should heed the voice of terror, and they will never, ever, stoop to dissembling.

Yan Manor will go up before the corrupt Prince of Laiyang like pine-needles in a forest fire. Its integrity will fan the blaze, and its noble detachment throw oil on the flames.

But she —

She was born in a brothel, raised in the jianghu. She has run a spy network, assassinated a lord, spent time in an Imperial gaol, fought in the battles of Mount Jiu An and second Meiling, avenged her father’s murder and helped bring down the most powerful general in Da Liang.

She looks down at her great-grandson, and extends a hand.

“Get up, kid. So the Prince of Laiyang thinks he’s taken the capital, does he? Perhaps. But I don’t think he’ll find the Jiangzuo Alliance so easy a morsel to swallow. Let’s raise a wind to pin him to the ground.”

Mercifully, someone swipes off her head, before she can scream her agony aloud. Relief shudders through her. Whatever else happens, she has kept her dignity. Even now, fortune favours her. So it should. For what has she not dared for her son’s sake?

A voice sounds in her ear. “Ten men’s lives would have saved my beloved Lin Shu. He had but to ask and ten times ten men would have volunteered. But he did not ask. He would not ask. For what would his life have been worth, if he bought it at the price of his soul? Pingzhang gave his life, knowing the cost, and yet the brother he saved and the doctor who aided him are still weighted down with the burden of that choice. As doctors, we are bound to consider these matters. Does the harm outweigh the outcome? That is the principle by which we live and practise.

“But you took more than a thousand lives for your son, without either his or their knowledge or consent, and on the word of a charlatan, to boot. Did you even trouble to consider the risk? What evil did you buy for Da Liang when you made that bargain? A good soldier driven mad with grief and making himself a rebel’s tool is not the end, but the start of it.”

She turns, to see behind her a female doctor, robed in the simple white and blue of her profession. Anger flares up.

“How dare you question me? I am the Empress and I willed it so!”

The doctor’s face is a pure and perfect mask, like an ancient water-colour, a treasure of the Palace library. Her tone is barely inflected, but it needles, nonetheless.

“You were an Empress. Now you are a ghost. You will find that the walls of the Inner Palace, behind which you have sheltered so long, are as insubstantial as mist to the dead. Did it ever occur to you to wonder what happened to the maids and eunuchs whom you condemned, once their bodies were carried out from the palace beneath white sheets?”

She supposes they were properly disposed of. The Household Office of the Inner Palace sees to all such matters. What does this woman expect of her?

When she remains silent, the doctor supplies her own answer.

“Mostly, they return. Many entered the Inner Palace as children; some were born here. If they had family outside, they have long lost touch. They have no hope of funeral rites, except where the Palace affords them. Here is all they know. They throng the courts and passageways so deep sometimes, I wonder how the living find space to pass. You will see them presently.”

The Empress supposes the doctor means to frighten her. It will not work. She has faced bigger fears than the snivelling ghosts of a handful of servants. In her experience, servants are cowards who cringe before her authority. The doctor will, too, given time.

“I will? Well, then they will raise any grievances they may have in person — if they dare. What next?”

The doctor raises exquisitely sculpted brows. (The Empress concedes, hating herself for the concession, the woman has a truly lovely face. Had she not chosen to adopt such a degrading, unfeminine profession, she might have married well, made something of herself, uplifted her family. What a waste.)

“Those who died in the epidemic you caused will demand a hearing.”

The Empress shrugs. “If so, that will also be between me and them. What business is it of yours?”

The doctor’s voice is calm, unnaturally so. “Because it concerns the honour and safety of my descendants.”

For a moment, the sheer effrontery of the woman strikes her silent.

“Presposterous! Someone like you, to claim kinship with me? Who do you think the Xun family are? We are nobles, as far back as the records run. We have never needed to ply trades, we have always served the Ministries and the Court, we have never had to —”

Her gesture encompasses all she feels, but cannot express, about the sordidness which happens outside the Palace walls, where people such as this doctor dirty their hands with blood and pus and vomit, simply to scrape a living. The very thought is unspeakably grim. Thank heaven she has been spared it.

The doctor gives her a long, steady look.

“I do not claim kinship through your father’s clan, but through your husband’s.”

The enormity of the lie astounds her. Literally, she has no words.

The doctor smiles. “You forget: we are both dead. How dare I lie to you when those I claim as son, nephew, grandson could appear at any moment?”

Her face grows serious. “Believe me, I am the late Emperor’s grandmother, your son’s great-grandmother. I, too, once ruled the Inner Palace. It is a lesser thing than you think it, and a more important thing than you have made of it. But for both of us it is over. Now it falls to you to watch what you have created, powerless to alter the course of events by a single hair, and unable to turn your gaze away. Trust me. I truly pity you.”

She topples backwards to the courtyard from the highest balcony in the Palace. Her spine breaks in three places simultaneously. Her skull cracks open. Unspeakable agony breaks over her —- and washes her into nothingness.

Nothingness is pearl-grey. Warm. One could float in it forever.

She is roused by someone addressing her by name, using the familiar form suitable to a close family member. For a moment she thinks it is her brother, Feizhan. When she opens her eyes, though, she sees only a stranger, a scholar, clad in blue and grey, skin pale as the jade ornament that binds his hair.

Far across the Palace courtyard, her husband is climbing the great staircase, bearing in his arms a heavy burden, wrapped in fabric which trails down to the floor. Anger rises as a flame within her; it burns away the last shred of the pearl-grey fog. May he trip on those trailing lengths!

“You have already tripped him,” the scholar says. “Though he has yet to hit the ground.”

“I?” She contemplates the interminable horror of her months’ long marriage. “I did nothing. I could, I should have stopped him. But I did nothing.”

The scholar pulls her to her feet. His hands are colder than spring-water or snow-melt, but his eyes burn.

“Was it nothing when you faced down a bully’s blade to gain a clean death in a sacred lake for your maid?”

Joy washes over her in a dawn of gold and roses.

“Pei’er lives?”

The scholar bows. “She does. And, in consequence, the city gates are now opening to the armies of the Prince of Chang Lin.”

It is dark in the tunnel on the far side of the secret door leading from the secret room, and he cannot help doubting whether Ping Jing actually knows the way out, or if the tunnel may not have been blocked years ago.

It is not that he distrusts his cousin, despite Mother and Grand Chief Secretary Xun’s lifelong efforts to convince him that he must and should.

At least, it’s not that he distrusts Ping Jing’s intentions.

It is his own fortune he mistrusts.

He shakes. He shakes all over. He cannot stop shaking. He sees Mother’s face as she drives the blade into her stomach. He sees Anru — lovely Anru — running for the balcony. He sees Feizhan, turning to guard their retreat against hundreds of soldiers.

Out of this typhoon of hate, how dare he expect to emerge unscathed?

“Wait here, little brother. I’ll scout forward. Feel, there’s a platform. Sit down and rest.” He feels something pressed into his hand. “Flint and steel. There’s a lamp here, and kindling. But don’t light it unless you really feel you have to.”

Unless your nerves give out, Ping Jing means, but is too courteous to say. The Son of Heaven bites a lip which threatens to wobble, and steels himself to wait.

Time drags on.

In the dark he hears voices: not the cries of searching soldiers but low, conversational voices, close by where he is sitting. Voices — discussing a travelogue. Who talks calmly about the Records of the Land of Xiang when the flames of revolt blaze in the streets of Jinling, and the blood of his guards stains the steps of the Palace itself?

The thirteen-year old Son of Heaven has spent days feeling nothing but fear, fury, grief and guilt.

Curiosity has found no crack to enter. Now, though —

He strikes flint and steel above the little bowl of oil-soaked linen, and lights the lamp.

The voices continue uninterrupted, though he can see no-one. They are now debating the ethics of one who has borrowed a book passing it to a second borrower without permission of the person who loaned it in the first place. One voice sounds rather aggrieved; presumably, he is the owner of the book.

Was the owner of the book.

Dully, he wonders why he is so unmoved at being in the presence of ghosts. Perhaps his terror of the Prince of Laiyang has driven out lesser fears.

In any event, being where they are, the ghosts must be ancestors — had not Chang Lin Manor once been his grandfather’s home as a young man, before he became Crown Prince and moved into the Eastern Palace? And he has been praying to the ancestors ever since this nightmare began.

This time, his lip trembles with annoyance. So why couldn’t the ancestors actually answer those desperate prayers, rather than being so self-absorbed? Records of the Land of Xiang and book-borrowing ethics, indeed! Do the ancestors not know there’s a rebellion on?

Insight strikes. Perhaps, having sent his cousins Feizhan and Ping Jing to rescue him, the ancestors think they have done enough, and that if he cannot escape his fate given the blessings they have already heaped on him, he is unworthy to be the Son of Heaven.

Well. If that’s what they think, then he’ll show them.

He rises to his feet and extinguishes the lamp, just as Ping Jing returns round the corner of the tunnel.

“Hurry up, little brother. I’ve found the way out. It all looks clear for the moment. Let’s take advantage.”

As he follows Ping Jing, he hears the voices start up again. The book-owner has apparently dropped his grievance over the Records of the Land of Xiang and, instead, seems to be congratulating the other on how true to type his water-buffaloes breed.

The Son of Heaven shakes his head. The ways of the ancestors are indeed opaque to mortal men.