Chapter 1 - Prayers of Last Resort by A.J. Hall
He was not born a bad man.
He was born the first son of the richest and most powerful family in the district, an area of windswept upland in the north of Da Liang, where the wealthy raised horses to mount the armies and cattle to feed them, and the poor scratched a living off overlooked corners of unpromising soil. He succeeded to his father’s estate before the end of his twenty-fifth year.
He was born with little imagination, and, because of the blessings fortune had bestowed on him, found it unnecessary to cultivate even that little.
As matters turned out, it would have superfluous for him to have been born bad.
Historians report that in the latter years of the reign of Emperor Xiao Xuan that wise and benevolent monarch increasingly turned his attention to the scourge of land theft. The execution of Duke Qing for that crime, and the impeachment of dozens of his allies, clients and imitators sent shockwaves throughout Dai Liang.
Only in Langya Hall, where all knowledge reposes and unorthodox conclusions are drawn, did anyone observe that if an abuse has become sufficiently prevalent to draw the attention of the Son of Heaven himself, even the fall of so great a personage as a Duke Qing is unlikely to eradicate it completely.
In the first year of the reign of Emperor Jingyan died Hou Xinyi, a peasant farmer with the enviable reputation of having never refused to put out a hand to aid a neighbour in distress. He left behind a widow of equal repute and a daughter, Hou Yourou, then eight years of age.
Seven days after Hou Xinyi’s death, two men came to the farm bearing a paper which, they said, he had executed two years ago, as security for a loan. As the creditor was now dead, they regretted to inform his widow that the entire sum had fallen due.
In vain his widow protested that her husband had vouchsafed to her no knowledge of any such loan. Why, they scoffed, would a man discuss his financial affairs with a woman? One who could not even read, let alone understand a legal document. They would give her two days, and if she could not pay the principal together with compounded interest, they would take the farm against which the debt had been secured.
She was neither a stupid nor a timid woman. After a night’s careful thought, she left her daughter in charge of the poultry and the goat, with strict instructions to crawl into the brush or hide in the thatch should any strangers approach the farm. Then she began the thirty li walk to Meiling township, where the district magistrate had his seat.
The case was hopeless from the outset. Hou Xinyi had been as illiterate as his wife; it was impossible to say whether he had put his mark on a document he knew and approved, or a document he did not understand, or whether someone had forged his mark and brought witnesses to swear, under penalty of perjury, that he had affixed it himself. His widow had her suspicions, but, as the district magistrate himself pointed out, suspicions were not evidence. If either of the first two possibilities were true, the debt was due and owing. And, given she had not discharged the balance of proof on the third possibility, then the very allegation was slander, and deserving of an official fine.
The district magistrate raised his head. Hou Xinyi’s widow saw his eyes meet those of the bailiff of the greatest landowner in the district, standing at the back of the courtroom. Saw, too, a subtle, acknowledging nod pass between them.
That was the end of her life as a free woman. The loss of the farm would have merely beggared them; the fine for bringing a frivolous case threw her and her little daughter into slavery.
The local landowner acquired their contracts. Hou Xinyi’s widow had not been deaf to the stories about him traded around the village well. She shuddered, but set herself to bear whatever the heavens decreed, in the hope of a better life for her only child.
She survived for two and a half years: quite three months beyond the average for that landowner and that district.
Just long enough, as it turned out, to give Hou Yourou the faintest sliver of a chance.
In the fourth year of the reign of Emperor Jingyan, a female outdoor slave on the estate of an important landowner in the district of Meiling, while being justifiably chastised by the overseer for dereliction of duty, pulled a sharpened metal stake from amid her garments and struck out at him. She did not land a killing or even a debilitating blow, but the confusion caused by the attack allowed three other slaves to make a break for freedom. By the time they had been recaptured, flogged and the rebel slave executed as a warning to would-be imitators, it became apparent that her small daughter (who was of an age to begin to make herself valuable) had also gone missing. The slave takers, grumbling at the imposition given the strenuous day they had spent already, were sent out again.
By the time her mother’s hand struck the overseer, Hou Yourou was already two hours from the estate and running hard. Honoured Mother had enjoined her not to worry, and on that head she was admittedly less than entirely filial, but Honoured Mother’s instruction to leave the estate as secretly as possible and with all speed: that she achieved.
The problem was that she had no real plan. She and her mother had only been able to discuss the “what if — afterwards” in snatches for fear of being overheard. Hou Yourou had absorbed, however, that the vital point was to remove herself as fast as possible to somewhere her owner’s authority held no sway. Unfortunately, the nearest place which met that condition was Da Yu.
Terror of the monsters of Da Yu had been instilled into her from birth; her fear of her owner was of less than a quarter of that duration. It said something for his character that, the moment she was off the manor’s grounds, she headed due North, even into the teeth of a rising gale.
The manor’s slave-takers were fully aware of the propensity of their quarry to bolt North, particularly the younger and more naive ones. An incautious footprint eliminated any doubts they might have had.
They were well-nourished men who knew the territory and were long experienced in the stratagems of the hunted. Inevitably, they eroded Hou Yourou’s lead. She was struggling up a small wooded hill when she heard a shout behind her, mostly blown away by the wind, and knew pursuit was near.
She put on a spurt. Her throat was on fire, her lungs labouring, her heart about to burst, and, at last, her legs collapsed beneath her. She crawled a few paces further on her knees and collided with a slab of stone which reared perpendicularly out of the hillside.
Even if it had not been almost dark she could not have read the characters inscribed upon it. She knew whose tomb this must be, all the same.
For an awful quarter of a year during the Before Times, they had gone to bed every night wondering if the monsters from Da Yu would be roaring through the village before dawn. Once, Honoured Father had found her crouched, trembling and too scared to cry, behind the goat-shed. He had taken her in his arms and told her not to be afraid; General Mei had brought his army from Jinling. General Mei would save them all.
Some time later, the day came when an armed rider was seen galloping South along the major road to Jinling, crying out at intervals, “Alas! Victory!” General Mei had indeed saved them, but would not be returning to Jinling. Instead, his bones would lie forever on the hill on which he had stood to make his dispositions for that final, decisive victory over Da Yu.
She managed a feeble sketch of a bow towards the stone.
“Honoured Sir, you saved us all once. Please save me now. Please let me die here, not be recaptured. Please.”
The wind howled across the plain and through the trees on the ridge. One could hear voices in it. Perhaps. One voice, at least: light, almost amused.
Praying for death at Meiling? To me?
The noises from further down the slope were getting louder, the slave-takers’ long legs eating up the hillside.
“Please, honoured sir. Please. Death, not recapture.”
The leading slave-taker could have been no more than thirty strides away from the stone when the wild boar burst from the undergrowth and charged. He barely swung himself out of the beast’s path; the howl of anguish from lower down the slopes showed his fellow had not been so lucky. He turned and ran back into the wood.
Hou Yourou slumped at the base of the tombstone. The wind was rising, and the voice she thought she had heard before might, indeed, only be a trick of the imagination, spun from the sighing of the branches above her.
Not today, little sister. This is neither the time nor the place.
As everyone at Langya Hall knew, the carrier assigned to swap out the pigeons at the Meiling Outpost would inevitably make a minor detour on his journey to leave offerings, burn joss paper and, often, a long letter from the Young Master before a certain tomb on a hill overlooking the Meiling plain, just below the cliffs.
On this particular occasion the carrier left his horse and wagon at the foot of the slope, shouldered the bag containing the offerings, and walked up through the woods.
Over the years the carrier had found everything from autumn crocuses to barbecued haunch of rabbit laid by way of offering before the tomb of General Mei, who in the annals of Langya Hall bore another name, or perhaps more than one.
He had never before seen a bundle of rags which, when he approached closer, turned out to be the body of a small and emaciated girl-child placed hard against the foot of the stone.
His first thought was that if the locals in these parts had taken to child sacrifice (and given the wild and woolly nature of this district, he wouldn’t put it past them) he hardly cared to imagine what they might end up raising by choosing this particular tomb at which to do it.
On closer inspection, however, it appeared the girl had got here on her own bare, blue, bleeding feet and that, improbable as it seemed, there was still a feeble pulse fluttering at her neck.
He scooped her up, muttered a “sorry, sir, be back later” in the direction of the tombstone, and headed down the hill at a run.
No-one, it was said, had ever managed to surprise the Pigeon Mistress of the Meiling Outpost of Langya Hall.
“Ah, the missing puzzle piece,” she observed, when, having seen the high courtyard gates shut behind him, he unloaded both the expected and the unexpected deliveries from the wagon.
“You knew about — her?”
“I inferred. We’ve had a lively last couple of days. Capped by two slave takers from the Lord High Turd’s manor being found in the river at first light.”
She nodded. “Fortunately for the locals, though they must have been two of the worst-liked men in the district, even that suspicious bastard couldn’t claim foul play. One of them had plainly been gored by a boar, and the other, who seems to have been carrying him back to get help, slipped going through the ford, bashed his head against a rock, and drowned. The river was running high last night but I suppose he thought he hadn’t time to go the extra four li to go round by the bridge.”
She held out her arms and the carrier surrendered the unconscious body into them.
“Look, you see the pigeons properly put into their coop — it’s the empty one at the end, water and grain in the usual place — and I’ll get this one indoors and start warming her up. I mean, this young lad. Don’t forget to thank the Young Master for sending me an apprentice boy; heaven knows I’ve been asking him long enough. Goodness knows how many times I’ve mentioned that in the tea-house in the village.”
The carrier settled the pigeons, watching with his usual fascination those birds who were new to Meiling Outpost pecking nervously around those who were familiar with the place, as if they wanted to pick up along with the grain hints about the place to which they had been transported.
Frankly, the carrier wished them luck. He had been trying to understand the Mistress of the Pigeons of the Meiling Outpost for several years, and she was still as opaque to him as when he started.
He left the birds to their delicate dance of advance-and-retreat, and went indoors. The stove had been stoked, the braziers lit, bricks warmed and wrapped in thick flannel blankets. The inner room steamed like a cavern in the mountains where the hot springs welled up.
Heat hit him like a wall.
“Don’t overdo it. That’s a child, not an orchid!”
The Pigeon Mistress loomed over him. “Except the cold she’s taken is so deep in her bones it’s as if she’d frozen from the inside out; it’s streaming off her in waves. We’ll be lucky if we can save her. I suppose, given you came here straight from the Hall, you’re carrying tangerines?”
The sheer effrontery made him splutter.
The Pigeon-Mistress raised a thick and eloquent brow. “Offerings gratefully accepted, then. Oh, don’t look at me like that. The wind was blowing straight out of Da Yu last night. The only scrap of shelter for miles around was in the lee of that gentleman’s gravestone.”
“But—” he protested.
“Had the wind shifted one point east or west she couldn’t have helped but freeze to death. Even though it stayed steady, I’m surprised she survived the night. Especially since she’s so malnourished the scars on her back have reopened. Which is why I need the tangerines. They’re the only thing for it when you get a case as bad as that. And at this time of year, those are most likely the only tangerines north of Jinling.”
He moved uneasily from foot to foot. “Are you saying —?”
“Not saying anything. Except you can either believe it was pure coincidence she found the one spot where she wouldn’t die of cold, and was found by the one person who wouldn’t hand her straight back to the manor out of greed or fear, and he just happened to be carrying the one thing that she needs to cure her scurvy, or you can believe that she had help. But I don’t care. The kid needs those tangerines more than he does, and that’s all there is to it.”
Over the years he had learnt there was no point in arguing with a woman who wore that expression. He handed over the fruit, and watched her drip the golden juice between the child’s lips. At length the Pigeon Mistress raised her head.
“Ssh! Sleeping. Move further away.”
They decamped to the outer room.
“But if the Young Master asks about the offerings?”
“If he asks, then he’s not the man I think he is.”
She paused, then added, “They apprenticed me to the Pigeon Keeper at Langya Hall when I wasn’t much older than this one. I’d been there about eighteen months when a bird came in with news of a plague in Xian, or somewhere like that. Only, as luck would have it, the apprentice on duty had family in Xian or wherever it was, and he was terrified. So, like an idiot, instead of putting the bird into the quarantine cage as he should have done, he put it straight back in with all the others. Ever seen the putrid squint run riot in a loft?”
He shook his head.
“Pray you never do.” After a rather incoherent interval, she added, “There were some proper little troopers in that loft. I’d known them since they were eggs.”
“And —?” he prompted.
“I’d just finished dealing with — with the bodies. No; I volunteered. I didn’t want to risk one of the others treating them like they were just pieces of rubbish. I wanted to make sure they knew someone was there who knew they mattered. Right at the end. But when I’d finished it was if I’d forgotten how to think, or even how to walk. I just sank down by the side of the path. And then — there he was, sitting on his heels in front of me, asking me what was wrong.”
She lifted her cup to her lips.
“We all knew the Young Master had a patient, but none of us had seen him. We only knew that whatever the treatment was for whatever it was he had, they tried to give the worst of it to him when there were storms on the mountain, in the hope it’d muffle the screaming for the rest of us.”
He shuddered, imagining how it might have been.
“And the state he was in — I mean, some of the pigeons I’d just been dealing with looked healthier than him, and they were dead. But anyway, there he was, asking what was wrong, and I just burst out, ‘They’re all gone! There’s none of them left!’ Of course, I think at first he thought I was talking about my family — though if he’d ever met my family, he’d have understood why I prefer pigeons. But you know Langya Mountain. If it isn’t plague in Xian it’s famine in Yequin or war in Southern Chu. So I suppose his assuming I’d just been told all my family had been wiped out made sense, in the circumstances. But even when I managed to get him to understand I was talking about pigeons, he didn’t change. Not at all. He just stayed there, saying, ‘Name them to me. Tell me what you remember about them.’”
She took a deep gulp of tea, and stared into the far distance. “I think I might have been there an hour or more, telling over the names, and little things about how they were when they were squabs, and messages they’d brought, and hawks they’d dodged, and every time my voice felt it was drying up, he’d say ‘Carry on. How can the lost live, unless we hold them in our hearts?’ I only stopped when the Young Master himself arrived and started yelling to split the heavens. Turned out his patient wasn’t supposd to have left his bed.”
The carrier hushed his voice. “So you met that person?”
“Once. And I’ve heard the rubbish everyone says about him, too. He wasn’t a sun-born spirit who knew the soul’s history from its start, like they claim. He was just a man: one who got dealt a shit hand by life, played it anyway and cleaned up the table. But I owe him one. Also —”
She leant forward. “I’ve been sending reports to Langya Hall about what’s going on in this district for years. Ever since I got here. And as far as I can tell, nothing is going to happen unless — just on the off-chance — someone with money to burn and an abstract interest in land crimes on the Northern borders turns up at Langya Hall, and manages to phrase their question in just the right way to pull my dispatches out of the archives. Tell me, is that right?”
He recoiled. “But that’s the way they’ve always done it. It’s the way it works.”
“But is it the way it should work? Could you bring me some pigeons?”
“I — what?”
“I don’t mean right now. I mean, next time you come. Look, mostly we’re spoke-and-wheel. In-bound pigeons, out-bound pigeons. Langya Mountain — Langya Outposts — Langya Mountain. But that’s not the complete picture, is it? We all know that when the Young Master really likes someone, he’ll let them set up an off-network loft. All I need is an out-bound pigeon for one of the unofficial lofts. Three would be better. Six, better yet.”
What she was asking was unprecedented; impossible. But he had seen that frail bundle lying against the granite stone in the morning light. He was a man blessed with both sisters and daughters, and did not lack imagination.
“No promises. I’ll see what I can do. For now, I need to go and complete some ceremonies. But what I’m going to do for offerings, since it seems someone just stole my tangerines —”
She ducked her head, a smile twisting up the corners of her lips.
“I started baking earlier this morning: can’t think why, I just seemed to be in a good mood. These have just come out of the oven. Red bean pastries. No, get your fingers off. They’re offerings.”
The Empress Dowager wrung her hands within her sleeves. Her son turned, his brow twisting.
“Honoured Mother, is there something wrong?”
She cast her glance downwards. “Not wrong, precisely. But I have received a mis-sent pigeon, and it — bothers me, a little. No matter, no matter.”
“A mis-sent pigeon? But surely —”
“As the Emperor knows —”
“As you know, dear, unworthy as I am, I’ve been greatly favoured by Langya Hall in matters of medical discussion. A few years ago, the Young Master sent a few birds and an apprentice, so I might cultivate a small loft in a corner of my palace and to let me share my thoughts on remedies and so forth with him. Entirely unofficially, of course. But it seems a basket of pigeons which I suppose were birds Langya Hall intended to use for messages to me, was by mistake sent up to Meiling —”
If one could bet on the two syllables most likely to provoke the Emperor to violent action —
The Empress Dowager’s hand caught her son’s wrist.
“It’s nothing like that. The message contained nothing of military import. Just local politics. I gather the local landowner isn’t at all a nice man, and has done some very dubious things. But surely, the local magistrate would have alerted his superiors had there been anything truly amiss?”
“Tingsheng, we honour you!”
The toast by his mess-mates echoed to the rafters. One last time he bowed graciously and then edged his way out with a distinct sense of relief.
Yes: on the one hand he was a junior officer who, while an ensign, had proved himself in an unexpectedly torrid action against Northern Yan, gained the next step in rank at a young age and, as the proverb predicted, been rewarded with a tough posting to the Northern borders.
On the other, he was the Emperor’s adopted son, so to the envious his advance could be attributed to that relationship, no matter what the truth behind it.
On active duty it mattered a great deal less, since there his talents or lack of same were open for anyone to assess. Nothing so straightforward applied in the capital. Even so early, toasts were coming thick and fast, which shortened the odds that this evening’s regimental function would end with someone saying something either impossible or imprudent for him to ignore. Accordingly, Tingsheng had seized upon his grandmother’s dinner invitation with that sure instinct for exploiting an opening which several of his superior officers had already noted as one of his greatest strengths.
After all, everyone could understand the obligations of filial duty, especially on the eve of departure to a turbulent military outpost. No need to rub it in that, in Tingsheng’s case, his grandmother was also the Empress Dowager.
The late spring evening was light and warm. Tingsheng expected to find his grandmother in the garden, near the pigeon-cote which had become one of her chief pleasures over the last years. Instead, he found his adoptive father standing beside the wood-and-tile structure holding a white pigeon in his hands.
He dropped to his knees.
“Honoured Father! Long life and health! May you reign a thousand years!”
The Emperor turned. “Get up, get up. This is a family party, not a state banquet.” He gently detached the bronze cylinder from the pigeon’s leg and released it into the coop. “Give me a moment while I read this — Oh.”
“Honoured Father? Is it bad news?” He dropped his gaze. “Forgive me my inquisitiveness. If it is a State secret —”
The Emperor frowned. “There is no reason you shouldn’t know — in fact, every reason why you should. Given where you’ve been posted. Come. Walk with me in the gardens a little while before dinner. It’s quite a story, and it began with a mis-sent pigeon —”
Through a window, the Empress Dowager watched father and son meander through the palace grounds. After a little while, she smiled and went into the kitchen.
“I think it may be prudent to delay the meal for some little time. Concentrate on preparing the cold dishes until I tell you differently.”
While Tingsheng was the only one of the three slave children taken from the palace prison to battle Baili Qi who had been formally adopted by the Emperor, in every other respect the three were closer than brothers.
Accordingly, when Tingsheng asked if he might assume Lu Yuan’s identity for the purposes of travelling through Da Liang before taking up his new posting at Ganzhou, Lu Yuan simply said, “Well, just don’t go round committing any capital crimes while posing as me, will you?”
“I’ll try not to. And, if I do, I’ll certainly make a gallows speech revealing my true identity.”
Lu Yuan raised his eyebrows. “A gallows speech in which the condemned man asserts he’s really the adopted son of the Emperor, travelling in disguise? Are you quite sure that hasn’t been tried before?”
“Well, probably not by the actual adopted son of the Emperor, travelling in disguise. Anyway, it wouldn’t be for my benefit, but for yours. To save your reputation, Yuan-da-ge.”
Lu Yuan laughed.
“Leave my reputation to look after itself. Just play it simple. No capital crimes, no gallows speeches. Come. I’ll walk you out.”
The commander of the Meiling Fort was a friend of the district’s largest landowner. So, too, had been the previous commander, and the commander before that. Things, the landowner had found, worked much better that way. And if people didn’t start out as friends, there were always ways.
The commander had sent him a letter of introduction for a new lieutenant passing through the district on his way to take up an appointment in one of the forts in the chain that guarded Da Liang’s Northern border. The letter made it clear that the lieutenant in question was a man of no family at all — the landowner flicked idly past some paragraphs rambling on about a martial arts tournament some years ago — but had patrons of worth and merit in the capital. Might the landowner perhaps see fit —
He tipped the letter into the brazier but, when calling his butler to supply him with another jug of the forty-year-old wine, mentioned that they expected a young officer shortly as a guest.
A first-class intelligence network cannot live by pigeons alone.
Apart from any other consideration, Langya Hall published the List (it published several lists but so far as the jianghou was concerned only one rated the honorific.) No-one who might hope to feature on the List wanted to upset Langya Hall. Nor could Langya Hall cut off such a varied and important source of information as the jianghou.
Once sure her new apprentice could be trusted to tend the birds while staying away from external notice, the Pigeon Mistress of Meiling Outpost found it convenient to make the fifteen li walk to Meiling township for the purposes of acquiring whatever gossip had not percolated to the village on her doorstep.
Meiling Fort was itself little more than a half a decade old; a brash, raw presence on the borderline. Artisans had come in their thousands to craft the fort walls and shape its defences. Not all of them had found it profitable or convenient to return to Jinling. Once the fort had been declared open for business armourers, wine-merchants, proprietors of gambling hells, madams and inn-keepers had rushed to set up establishments in the shadow of those formidable walls, expanding the existing village tenfold. Livestock, bloodstock and provision markets opened up, and began to do a roaring trade.
Officers had ladies, non-commissioned officers had wives and other ranks had women. All three categories flooded into Meiling, and the locals opened tea-houses and dining establishments to cater for each.
Given that the Pigeon Mistress of the Meiling Outpost had been cultivating and selling medicinal herbs for some considerable time, it was hardly surprising that she should spend a day every few weeks coming into Meiling township to sell some of her produce, make useful connections for future sales, and generally catch up on gossip.
On this particular May evening she was recruiting body and spirit in the best of the tea-houses when a spare, badger-haired man well-in worn leather gear passed by her seat and hissed a bare three syllables into her ear. Less than two hundred heart-beats later, she paid her tab, shouldered the bamboo-wood creel containing the day’s purchases, and set off homewards down the rutted main street.
As she had expected, she was less than a li beyond the boundary stone when the badger-haired man caught up with her again. This time he was not alone; he was in the company of a young soldier, the latter riding one horse and leading another laden with baggage, including, she noted with some indignation, a bamboo cage containing three very familiar (and rather travel-sick) pigeons.
The young soldier, catching her look in that direction, hastily bowed to her over the pommel of his saddle. “Honourable Madam, please be assured that my body servant proceeds on to Ganzhou in a wagon with the heavier luggage. I parted with him not twenty li ago. These birds travelled in the wagon until then. I apologise to the Honourable Madam if my care of them was less than —”
He looked nervously from her to the bamboo cage.
She wasted no words. “A leather strap, please, one of you. Or a length of rope, at least.”
In a very short space of time she had divested herself of her shopping creel, tied it to the pack-horse, and assumed control of the pigeon cage herself.
“Now,” she said, “I trust I may depend on your company for the rest of the journey, Zhen Ping da-ge? And your companion, too? I am a nervous and feeble woman, and two men died in consequence of a wild boar attack in this district less than half a year ago.”
Both men assured her of their protection. She smiled.
“Also, it is getting late. The inns in Meiling township are all run by gougers, and infested with bedbugs. I can hardly confess to my correspondent in the capital, the next time I release one of those pigeons, to having permitted you to stay in any such place. I trust you will accept my hospitality for this evening.”
The little compound was overrun by sweet vines; the hanging lanterns glowed with a welcoming gold light in the dusk. Glorious smells drifted from the kitchen, and a chorus of contented coos and chirrups emanated from the pigeon enclosures. Even if his hostess’ comments about Meiling’s inns were exaggerated, Tingsheng thanked his luck that he was here and not there.
He took his time washing and making himself fit for company. When he ventured into the courtyard, where they were to dine on this warm evening, he found Zhen Ping sparring with the outpost’s apprentice, who had only appeared after his hostess had whistled a curious three-note call on arriving at the compound gate. The sparring seemed to be a regular training session; when they broke off Zhen Ping gave a few words of instruction and correction, and then sent the lad in, presumably to spruce himself up before the meal.
“Good speed. And lightness technique,” Tingsheng observed.
“The kid’s getting there. And, as you know, sir, a style which depends on speed and lightness has many advantages over one which depends on brute strength.”
The subtle emphasis on the you was enough. Tingsheng turned to face Zhen Ping, and bowed.
“Forgive me, it would seem that you know me, outside our recent acquaintance, but I am afraid I cannot recall —”
“Why would you, sir? At Su Manor, you would have had little reason to notice me. And the last time I saw you was at the Hunting Palace, and there we all had other things on our minds. Sir.”
Briefly, Tingsheng let his eyes fall shut and was instantly back at Mount Jiu An. His first battle, though he had been only a bystander. The charnel house smell reeked in his nostrils; he could hear the screams of wounded and dying men, the whizz-and-thwack of arrows landing in the thin screen doors. He felt his shifu’s arm tight around his shoulders; promise of safety even within the antechamber of hell.
He opened his eyes to see Zhen Ping regarding him with cool assessment.
“So. Not a coincidence that we met on the road.”
Zhen Ping shook his head. “Frankly, sir, I gave up believing in coincidences years ago. And to be honest, I couldn’t say I’ve felt the loss. But in this case —”
He nodded meaningfully towards the archway, through which their hostess could be heard instructing her apprentice as to some matter to do with the upcoming meal.
“In this case, sir, we thought it might be advisable for you not to go under that person’s roof without someone to watch your back. After all, sometimes it’s better to have a bodyguard close at hand than an entire army two pigeon relays away.”
“You think this man is so dangerous?”
“Any rat is dangerous when backed into a corner. And this one is a king rat. It’s a gamble we’d be happier not to take. If anything were to go wrong that we could have prevented — well, how could we face him, afterwards?”
It was, of course, entirely possible Zhen Ping meant the Emperor. But, for a moment, Tingsheng felt a light, reassuring pressure around his shoulders.
Over the course of her short life, Hou Yourou had acquired a strong prejudice against mysteries.
The written word was a mystery which, she knew, had destroyed her mother and taken their inheritance.
Once she had satisfied herself that the Pigeon Mistress had no intention of surrendering her to her owner for the reward, she had determined her next task would be to ensure the written word was a mystery no longer. In this, the Pigeon Mistress (who was aware Hou Yourou’s cover identity as an apprentice sent from Langya Hall would fall apart once anyone discovered her inability to read or write) was entirely of her mind.
The library at the Meiling Outpost was small and, to an unprejudiced observer, perhaps excessively focussed upon the care and rearing of pigeons. Nevertheless, ability and commitment made up for much. During her first few months, her proficiency advanced remarkably.
She was not, however, confident of demonstrating her skills, especially not in front of a complete stranger.
That evening she had cleared away the meal, and expected to be dismissed to her sleeping quarters, when the young soldier who was their guest for the evening, whom the Pigeon Mistress had told her could be trusted completely, quite unexpectedly addressed her directly with a question about her progress.
The Pigeon Mistress smiled.
“I think you come on very well. Do the house honour.”
She commenced to set up her regular game of weiqi with Zhen Ping, as if to signal this was a test for Hou Yourou to manage on her own.
There was nothing for it but to answer their guest.
“Your humble servant puts forward herself for your inquiry, sir.”
The Pigeon Mistress had told her the soldier knew all about her escape from slavery. Indeed, his enquiries about her previous life on the manor were gentle but very pointed. Hou Yourou sweated inside her clothes. After a little, though, she realised his questions all began with phrases like “Who is the —?” rather than “Is there —?” or “What are —?” Imperceptibly, she began to see him less as an honoured guest from the remotest of possible worlds: more as if he were a senior servant visiting from another manor.
When, after some time, she let slip an idiom that had the Pigeon Mistress jerking her head up from the weiqi board, the soldier merely smiled and quoted back the notorious treble-punned rhyme about the Snitch, the Food-Hoarder and the Seductress, the three dark deities of the slave barracks. She laughed, and then stifled it, guiltily.
“No matter. But since you escaped, you have begun to study? How do you come on?”
Then his questions turned to her academic accomplishments, and that interrogation was least as thorough as she had feared.
At length he inclined his head.
“You have done much with the resources available to you. Your industry is to be commended. Though —”
One hand reached inside his sleeve. “My own shifu informed me once that — no matter how great the hunger for the written word, from whatever source — the classics are the surest foundation for excellence. This book was given to me by him at the start of my journey towards knowledge. Now I wish to pass it on to you.”
On the far side of the room, there was a small disturbance. It seemed Uncle Zhen had accidentally spilled his cup of weiqi counters onto the floor.
Undistracted, the soldier looked gravely at Hou Shorou.
“Wherever one begins, who can say where one might end? I hope this gift helps you on your journey.”
They made a long cast about the district, so as to come at the manor from a direction which supported the inference that Tingsheng had come straight from Jinling, without time or opportunity to gather local intelligence. They despatched a boy with a message from the village where they stopped for their noontide meal, to assure the lord of the manor, already primed by letter of introduction, that his humble guest Lu Yuan hoped to attend on him towards the end of the hour of the monkey.
By mid afternoon they topped the rise above the manor, from which they could look down at its vast pastures and paddocks, the stallions sequestered while the mares had foals at foot. At a distance, the manor bore an air of serene prosperity; as they approached closer hairline cracks appeared, in the illusion. The workers whom they passed carried out their duties in cowed silence, and if Tingsheng or Zhen Ping glanced in anyone’s direction they tried to make themselves appear smaller.
A similar pattern appeared once they got inside the main building complex. The groom leading their horses off to stables showed none of the eagerness to swap gossip which one might expect of a servant in a remote country district who was encountering visitors from Jinling. Zhen Ping followed him to see the horses settled; Tingsheng was escorted indoors.
A waif-like maid appeared in Tingsheng’s quarters, informing him she was bidden to attend to his every need. The wobble in her voice betrayed her assumption of what was included in that every. Despite the dark, backwards pull of memory, Tingsheng hoped that wobble derived from instruction rather than experience.
“Thank you,” he said crisply. “I am to dine with your lord very soon. Please take my formal robes and have them pressed.”
She gasped out loud.
As if there had been no interruption, he continued, “And —”
He paused. Any money he gave her would be snatched forthwith, by someone higher up the pecking order in the slave barracks. In any event, trapped as she was, even if she could keep it, how could she ever spend it?
“There’s a package of pastries in my bag. They put them up for me this morning, but we ate too much at noon. Perhaps you might enjoy them? They’ll be stale and spoiled by tomorrow. Take them. They’re yours.”
She ducked her head, snatched up his robes and the pastry package, and bolted.
The landowner gestured languidly, and the servant refilled their wine cups. The wine was extremely good: even in the Palace, such a vintage would have been reserved for feast days and distinguished guests.
Suspiciously good to offer a lieutenant of no family, dropping by on his way to an Army posting. Unless, of course, all the wine the landowner drank was of similar quality, in which case even those extensive estates might not be enough to support such extravagant tastes.
Tingsheng raised the jade cup in a toast, allowing his sleeve to cover his expression.
“Honoured lord, you do this person too much honour.”
The landowner smiled expansively.
“Why should I not? What, after all, do we not owe to the armies which defend our borders? Have you served in the North before?”
“Northern Yan, only.”
“Ah. A different terrain, they say. This is a harder landscape, you will find. One has to adapt to it. Adaptability is a most important quality in a young man who wishes to rise in the world. You do wish to rise, I take it?”
From his earliest years he had been a silent witness to ambitious men and subtle schemers. That note in a man’s voice was unmistakable. He gave the landowner the response such men always hoped to hear.
“Who does not?” He paused. “Though it is difficult for those without wealth, or a prominent family backing them.”
The landowner signalled, and the servant refilled their cups.
“True. Also, many say they wish to rise, and then — when the opportunity affords itself — nonetheless become their own worst enemies. I knew a young officer once, very like yourself, who had a most promising opportunity within his grasp, and yet at the end found himself with nothing. He died five years ago, in the second battle of Meiling.”
Despite himself, Tingsheng could not repress a twitch.
The landowner turned to face him.
“Speak your thought?”
“Nothing, nothing at all. It was a famous engagement. My paternal cousin fought in it.”
“Ah, I see. Yes, a great victory, but it came at a terrible cost to my estate.”
The final three words were trailed out, as if to provoke. Tingsheng took the bait.
“Your horses were carried off by Da Yu?”
The landowner snorted. “I wish they had been! Two of my neighbours did very well out of Da Yu’s reparations, very well indeed. No: these marauders wore the Emperor’s insignia and commandeered my horses for the Imperial army.”
His brows knitted in puzzlement. “Commandeered? But surely, the Emperor would not allow such a thing; the rate of compensation even in emergency purchases is fixed by decree —”
The landowner’s fist came down on the table with such force that the winecups leapt and the serving staff cowered into corners.
“But what profit is there in a forced sale? And that bastard commander ignored all my stewards’ suggestions and stripped me of the best of my bloodstock. I am hardly back now to where I was before, and the shifts to which I’ve been forced, to have my mares covered by stallions capable of imparting the traits I need — ”
He abruptly broke off. His voice, when he resumed, was calmer, though still with a bitter edge.
“All my horses are good, of course, but the official compensation rates are so unjust: simply to offer so many taels for a mare, so many for a gelding, so many for a stallion. Would anyone bargain for horses like that save at swordspoint?”
Tingsheng the Emperor’s son had often seen his father working late into the night reviewing complex problems of warhorse procurement and supply. He had by heart the tables of allowances and adjustments which required quartermasters, even in compulsory procurements, to take into account age, season, training and bloodline when quoting for stock. He could recite almost as readily the text of the memorials presented, with the regularity of a water-clock, by the great horsebreeding interests of Da Liang petitioning for adjustments to the same.
Tingsheng the junior lieutenant bowed over his wine-cup.
“War is a great disruptor; let us pray to keep it from these lands.”
The landowner laughed. “You are wise beyond your years. I had expected a young officer ambitious to rise to be anxious for a bloody campaign and chances to earn glory in the field.”
“Should such a campaign come,” Tingsheng said, a little stiffly, “I shall of course endeavour to perform to the best of my ability. But so far as ambition goes — swords and spears do not have eyes, and my superior officers have the ordering of the battle and the wording of the despatches that report on it. How can I trust simply to prowess in battle in order to advance?”
“Indeed a mature head on young shoulders.” The landowner’s expression was vulpine. “I trust our acquaintance prospers.”
He signalled to one of the servitors, who advanced carrying a carved ginkgo-wood box which, when opened, revealed a simple but beautifully crafted hair ornament in gold. A second servitor, unbidden, stepped up with a linen cloth, with which he wiped out the now empty jade wine cups, before placing them tenderly within a second carved box.
The landowner bowed. “Please accept these small trifles as a token of a friendship auspiciously begun.”
“I dare not, I dare not,” Tingsheng said, fending off those outstretched arms.
He roiled internally with indignation he dare not express. Everyone knew the code of conduct prohibited a serving officer from accepting gifts above a certain value from civilians, without declaring them to his commanding officer and obtaining permission.
The landowner smiled. “Surely your commander would not be so straight-laced as to object to your receiving such a small token of my esteem?”
Tingsheng would have given many times the value of the proferred gifts to be able to punch the landowner right in his supercilious face.
“I cannot say. As you know, this is my first posting to the district and I have not yet reported to my commander. How can I presume to know how such matters are judged by him?”
“Very leniently, I can assure you. We are far from the capital, and perhaps it permits us greater freedom in our customs. But, in any event, the problem can be easily solved. It is hardly as if your commander is likely to take an inventory of your belongings on arrival, or be able to compare it with your belongings on departure if he did.”
Tingsheng held on to his temper with an effort. “That, I cannot do. But, since you are so courteous, what I will do is declare your generosity on my arrival, and if he requires me to return them, then I will — with regret — be obliged to do so. If so, I trust you will forgive me.”
The landowner smiled indulgently. “Well, if you must, you must. Young men will have their scruples.”
The next morning they had put the manor some li behind them before Zhen Ping broached the issue of the presents.
“Depending on when and where it gets brought up, sir, accepting them could be made to look like a capital crime. Quite useful leverage to have against a young officer in a strategic posting.”
“I can’t quite see how,” Tingsheng observed. “I told him I was going to declare them officially.”
“Everyone says that, sir. All part of the dance. But I daresay, even if he believed you, he’s not going to take the chance.”
Tingsheng raised his eyebrows. “Explain.”
“Sir, we’re still the best part of two days from Ganzhou. And we’ll sleep out tonight, but, going to a new posting, I daresay you’d have been planning to spend tomorrow night at an inn, to give yourself a chance to get your kit in order and spruce up so to make a good first impression on your new c/o.”
Not only had that been Tingsheng’s intention, his host had even recommended a suitable hostelry: owned by the elder brother of one of the landowner’s concubines, a gentle three hours ride from the barracks in Ganzhou, and famous for its dry-braised deer tendons.
“Your point?” he asked, trying not to gape.
“I expect tomorrow night, from the inn, that’s when they’ll go missing. The cups, at any rate. They’ll probably leave the hair ornament behind.”
“It’s more valuable than the cups. The jade is flawed,” Tingsheng essayed.
“Quite right, sir. But if the cups go missing, the question of quality becomes a moot point. On the face of it, you’ll be down two valuable cups which you can’t declare properly even if you really meant to.”
It had been impressed upon Tingsheng in his first week of army training just how much trouble a young officer could avoid by trusting a senior NCO. Just how good at avoiding trouble an experienced NCO could be, that he had not previously realised.
“So leaving me in possession of a hair ornament which is equally incriminating whether I declare it or conceal it? Your suggestions?”
Zhen Ping shrugged. “We’re out in the jianghu. And between us we can account for most of the local lowlifes, but that doesn’t mean we can necessarily protect ourselves, our horses and our belongings against a biggish gang, especially not if they were to come on us unawares, say, round about the start of the hour of the tiger tomorrow morning.”
“Traditionally when watches become inattentive.” Tingsheng nodded. “And suppose we narrowly fended off such an attack — albeit at the cost of some of our baggage — then we would of course press on to Ganzhou without delay, in order to make a report of such dangerous people in the neighbourhood?”
Zhen Ping pursed his lips. “Perhaps just a little delay. Enough, say, to send a pigeon.”
Obtaining an audience of the Emperor was designed to test the stamina of any petitioner. Getting through to the Chief Eunuch Gao Zhan alone was to have scaled a formidable peak. A Duke and a Marquis, who had reached that elevation on this particular day, suffered a level of frustration which could hardly be imagined to find the final summit swimming above them across an untouchable blue void.
Gao Zhan, all smiling apologies, bowed, and assured them that doubtless his Imperial Highness would be able to attend to their memorials on the morning. As for now, well, there was urgent news to which the Son of Heaven had to give his attention. It was to be regretted, but, alas —
The Duke went back to his manor in a temper, and practised spear-throwing at targets until his wife and two principal concubines, normally at daggers drawn, found themselves unexpectedly in alliance and sent a joint deputation requesting him to desist.
The Marquis, who as a border lord had grown up accustomed to watching straws fly in the wind and gauging risk accordingly, retired to his study, ordered every large-scale map that could be procured, and studied them into the small hours.
Meanwhile, an unassuming middle-aged soldier, caked in white dust and clad in well-worn leather armour, was hurried through the back corridors of the Palace by no less a personage than the second-in-command of the Jin Guards, Lie Zhanying himself.
They came into the Imperial presence. The soldier fell to his knees and flattened his forehead to the floor.
“Well?” the Emperor said, turning on his heel and holding out a sliver of paper to the new arrival. “Have you anything to add to this — uniquely uniformative — despatch?”
The message read: “Situation complex. Attempted bribe: two jade cups, one gold hair ornament. Letter follows.”
Silently, Zhen Ping rose to his knees, reached inside his jerkin, pulled out a bulging envelope, and handed it to Gao Zhan, who in turn handed it to the Son of Heaven.
At the peak of the summer’s shimmering heat, when the Meiling plain cracked with drought and the farm slaves of adjoining manors broke out into brawling over animal watering rights, one sweaty dawn each district magistrate in the five local townships found an Imperial investigator and a squad of guards standing on his doorstep.
Each investigator bore a warrant signed by the Minister of Justice himself. The warrant required that the investigator be allowed to take possession of all records relating to land forfeitures and associated slave indenture contracts for the last thirty years. The warrant also made clear that any hint breathed to the outside world about the seizure of these records would be regarded with the utmost disfavour by the Son of Heaven.
Or, as the investigators translated the warrant for the benefit of those same district magistrates, any hint of these doings would, regrettably but inevitably, leave the magistrate in question lacking a tongue.
The imperial gagging order held.
Seven days later, the Imperial Inquisitor General rode into the district, declaring he had the Son of Heaven’s own warrant to investigate land theft in the vicinity. Simultaenously, the Comptroller-General of the Ministry of War arrived unheralded at Meiling Fort, with an armed escort of Jin Guards and a team of hand-picked audit clerks.
The ripples from the initial investigation moved inexorably outwards, eventually touching over half of the great families of the northern border. In parallel, the forts of the borderlands convulsed as revelations about officers bribed and trusts broken came to light.
As far as the local district was concerned, the biggest sensation was when the lord of the manor, his eldest son, brother and bailiff were beheaded in the market-place of Meiling township. By the Emperor’s express order, no mourning rites were permitted. The bodies were quartered and distributed across the mountainside, there to be devoured by whichever wild beasts might condescend to take them.
After that came the civil claims for reparations. Those proved even more brutal than the criminal trials. In due course every asset of the manor was seized and put up for auction for the benefit of the creditors.
Nothing was left out; not even the contracts (offered as a single lot) for those slaves who’d been shown as “escaped” in the manor’s ledgers and not subsequently accounted for by death or recapture.
No-one really expected any of them to reappear (one, indeed, had run off in the tenth year of Emperor Xian Xuan, so would be hardly fit for much if he did) so there was only one bidder: a drably dressed, broad-shouldered woman somewhat past her first youth. She took possession of the lot for a small string of cash and observed that the paper, being of the highest quality, would serve admirably for lining drawers.
On her return to the Meiling Outpost, the Pigeon Mistress extracted one piece of paper from the bundle and tossed it to Hou Yourou.
“Here. Take it as a gift. Do whatever you want with it.”
Next day, Hou Yourou headed up towards the tomb on the wooded ridge below Meiling heights. It was too late for flowers but someone had left a spray of vivid orange berries lying at the foot of the carved gravestone. She nodded approval, knelt before the offering bowl, lit the charcoal in the brazier and laid her slave contract upon it.
“Sir, a year ago I begged you for death. You refused. So, accept my life instead.”