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"I don't have all day," the guard snapped, jostling his keys, "When I call you out, you come. Disobey me, and I'll throw you in a cell of your own. You can rot there for all I care."
The prisonkeeper smiled to himself. Everything had changed last night. He felt a small surge of pleasure at suddenly being able to show his hatred openly to the infamous human war trophy following meekly at his elbow. It had always galled him to think that the foreign brute had been trained in the martial arts as if born to a Chinese family. No one should have been surprised when the creature quickly surpassed all its classmates in martial skill. Such was the nature of the beast. But worse, this Xiongnu spawn had been given the education of an Imperial officer's son. The guard nearly spat in disgust. His own family scraped for a living while such riches were wasted on a pet. It was only a matter of time before the monster would hear the call of its kind--wild beasts in human form who still regularly visited murderous raids along the Great Wall--and turn on the very people who had rescued and raised it. Only a matter of time.
Kong Shan Yu ignored the man's tone, and stared blankly as the man hunched over the lock. The guard's disdain seemed the least important thing in the world right now.
The door swung open. The guard stepped aside, and with a shove between the shoulder blades, sent the boy stumbling into the cell. The heavy door thudded shut behind him.
"Keep it short!" came the muffled bark from the other side.
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dim light, which came only from a small window cut high in the stone wall. Before he could see, the strong, gentle hands of the prisoner came out of the darkness and took him by the shoulders. Though the captive was not small by Chinese standards, at sixteen Shan Yu was already half a head taller than he. The boy looked down to meet the beloved face of the only father he had ever known. He felt his throat constrict and his eyes sting.
"Tell me what happened," he demanded. The young voice was almost unnaturally deep, though it quavered with his effort to keep it from breaking. "There must be a way to stop this."
"No. There is not." Kong Xiang's voice was grim, defeated. "Before I left last night, I knew I would never return home from the Imperial Palace." He paused, and seemed to struggle for a scant moment to maintain his own composure. After a long silence, he spoke again in measured tones. "But my heart is glad that I see you once more, my son. In truth, when I left our home last night, I did not think I would live to see the sunrise." He gave a wry laugh and tilted his to the tiny window high above. "Well, I did not see it directly. But to see its light through that window is enough. I have had a chance to see my daughters and wife one last time. And now, you. An unexpected gift."
Shan Yu leaned forward, his gimlet golden eyes drilling into Xiang's. "You speak as if you're already dead. I won't let them kill you. Tell me what really happened."
The condemned man watched his son carefully, and found himself pleased. Even at this age, Shan Yu's size and bearing gave him a fearsome presence. Kong Xiang smiled slightly in the dim light, sure that his son could protect the family after he himself was gone.
Xiang reached up to put his arm around the boy's broad shoulders and led him to the wooden bench that served as the only furniture in the cell. "You already know what happened. Word has reached all of China by now that the Emperor's own greatest Warlord has tried and failed to murder him."
Shan Yu tore himself from under his father's arm and spun around to face him. "I already know the part about their posting that lie all over the city!" He spat against the wall. "But I also know that my father is not a skulking, inept assassin who lets poison do his talking for him."
Xiang smiled wryly. "True enough. If I had intended to do such a thing, the emperor would now be dead."
Shan Yu stared at him. "Is this a time for joking?"
Xiang shrugged. "What better time to jest than when there is nothing else left for me to do?"
"Everyone knows you are innocent," Shan Yu hissed. "But if I am to lead your defense against this treachery, I must know what really happened."
Xiang straightened and stonily met Shan Yu's glare. "No," he said quietly. And with a slight change in posture, he became the Kong Xiang of old, supreme overlord of the Imperial army. "My defense is not what I assign you, soldier."
"Your defense is the only thing that matters to me now."
Xiang's eyes flashed, though his face remained still. "You are insubordinate, Lieutenant, and you tread on dangerous ground. You are my soldier, and I your commander. It is I who tell you what matters, even if I can do so for only one more day."
"Stop. Listen well." Xiang's tone told Shan Yu that he would be wise not to argue further. "Your battle has not yet begun. The task you must now accomplish is far more important than saving me."
Shan Yu's reply was flat, lifeless. "What is my task, then, Commander?"
Almost imperceptibly, Xiang's voice softened. "It is to protect our family."
Shan Yu met his father's eyes. "This goes without saying, Commander."
"But you cannot do this and also defend me, Shan Yu. Think. Do you really believe that any rational challenge to my guilt will not be met with some horrific 'accident' befalling our House?"
Shan Yu's eyes narrowed. "Let them try to harm us. I..."
"Do not be an arrogant child!" Xiang snapped. "It is unseemly, and beneath you. Think. Do you truly believe that you alone can thwart Li Bangshe's assassins forever? Were you to attempt to stand against Li, the entire House of Kong would be lost."
Shan Yu tried with all his might to keep his eyes locked on his fathers', and failed. Miserably, he looked away. His Adam's apple worked furiously. "It is the curse I brought on our family the day you saved me," he choked through clenched teeth. "As always, I am the reason the House of Kong has no allies."
Xiang measured him stonily. "Lieutenant. Can you think of a situation in which self pity is helpful?"
Shan Yu bent his head and clenched his fists at his sides. His throat went dry, and icy shame seared across his scalp. For several moments, he could not speak. "Forgive me, General," he whispered at last. Then, lifting his head, he mastered his voice. "I await your command."
His face half-shadowed, Xiang was as silent and inscrutable as before. "I have made one last bargain with Li Bangshe. If I plead guilty before the Council tomorrow--if there is no contradiction and no challenge to his story--he has sworn to me that he will not harm our family. He will allow you to live in peace."
Shan Yu could not control a blinding flare of anger, and forgot himself. "Peace! At what price, Father! For this you would allow him to dishonor your name for all time?" He bit off his words, waiting for the rebuke. But it did not come.
"Shan Yu," Xiang's voice was suddenly exhausted, defeated. "Were I in your place, I would feel the same anger you feel. But you must control it for now. This is one battle in a war that must be won by strategy. Uncontrolled rage will destroy us all."
Shan Yu was silent now, waiting.
"I am a dead man, Shan Yu. Nothing you can do will change that. But if the five of you die because of this, then my life will have been worse than meaningless. Only you can save your mother and sisters, my son. I cannot."
Shan Yu glared at the walls as his rage slowly leaked away, replaced by despair. Trembling with the effort, he spoke softly so that no one outside the door could possibly hear.
"When I turned thirteen, you gave me my sword. The serpent-sword you found in the grasp of my dead mother, cut in half as she fell over me, trying to protect me from your troops. When you gave me that sword, you told me it was time for me to learn the ways of a man." He paused and swallowed silently. "My only hope is that I can fulfill your command, Father. Tell me what I must do. But first give me one last blessing. Tell me what really happened in the palace last night."
"Shan Yu." Xiang spoke the name slowly, with tenderness and sadness, as if willing the words that meant "jade mountain" to give his son their strength. "Shan Yu," he repeated under his breath. "If I tell you what happened, then the truth must never go beyond these walls. The certainty of my innocence will be my last gift to you. A gift you may not share with anyone--not even your mother or sisters--as long as they are within reach of Li Bangshe. You must quell any rumor of my innocence. For if any whisper contradicting Li's story were ever to escape, their lives would be forfeit. You must give me your word, Shan Yu. Because only you will be able to ensure that Li Bangshe keeps his word once I am gone."
Xiang lowered himself to the bench, tapped the spot beside him for his son to sit.
Shan Yu sat, leaned forward, clutched his forehead his hands.
"Tell me what happened."
"Do I have your word, Shan Yu?"
The boy looked up angrily, his hands curled, clawlike, towards his face. "How can you make me promise this!"
Xiang's voice was calm as dusk. "Do not think that I absolve Li, nor that we will not have our revenge, Shan Yu. But only once your mother and sisters are completely safe from him. You will have to engineer this. You will grow strong. And one day, you will know the time has come to exact payment for Li's treachery. But for now, you must give me your word to hold this secret inside you for as long as necessary. I trust you to know how long that will be."
Shan Yu rose and paced like a caged beast, breathing hard to control his rage and grief. He whirled, raised his fists above his head and slammed them against the stone wall. He stood very still for a long moment, his lowered face hidden behind his dark hair, before he spoke in a tight whisper.
"I promise, Dieh."
An odd euphoria swept through Kong Xiang. He closed his eyes and saw mountains. Snow-covered mountains. The memory of that day, thirteen years ago, soared through his mind with unexpected clarity. The day he had found his son, Shan Yu.
Moving easily with the canter of his grey stallion, Xiang sucked in the bitter cold, trying to clear his mind. His gaze strayed to the blue-white peaks of the Kunlun Shan around him, those staggeringly high mountains that would steal the breath and life of a man who dared climb too high. Yet somehow, the barbarian nomads living here managed to traverse those killing peaks. For years, they had done so, perhaps by winding through passes unknown to the Chinese. For years, they had rained down like flaming arrows upon the villages around Chang An, leaving paths of death and burning waste wherever they rode. No prisoners. No survivors.
It had gone on too long.
He rode in their territory now, commissioned by the Toba Emperor himself to travel into Khaam and seek out the barbarian kin of the Hsien pi who waged similar wars along the northern borders. His troops had orders to slay any tribesmen they encountered, thus sending a message that the murdering raids along the western edges of the crumbling Great Wall would not be tolerated.
Part of him found this mission distasteful. He knew that these savages, like all the northern nomads, were the deadly enemies of his people. Preemptive strikes like this one would save Chinese lives. Still, the soldier in him could not help but grudgingly admire the finest, fiercest warriors he had ever faced. He did not relish riding into these icy highlands, bringing death without open declaration of war, treating this proud race as vermin. After facing them in battle this morning, he would never again suffer his own soldiers to call them Xiongnu, "nasty vermin," as the ignorant populace did.
Caught by surprise and cornered, the twenty barbarian warriors had been hopelessly outnumbered by his five hundred troops. They had known they were doomed. Yet against all odds, the shan yu--the chieftain--and his men had roared forward, arrows flying and swords singing, into the upraised blades and spears of the Chinese army. Huge they had been. Deep-chested and thickly muscled, they had clung to the backs of their horses like burrs. Astride those misleadingly small, shaggy mounts, the men had been swift and agile as falcons. They had send a storm of arrows whistling down upon his army from a greater distance and with greater swiftness than should have been possible for mortal men. That small band of wild men had slain eighty-three of his soldiers before being subdued.
He had put the surviving barbarians to the sword. His orders were to take no adult male prisoners. They were too dangerous, and often preferred a suicidal escape attempt, usually killing several captors in the process, to being held. He could still see the fearless, undefeated face of the shan yu, brought before him in the grip of eight strong men. The weird, pale eyes in that tanned, angular face had jolted him, recalling to him the legends of ferocious, grey-eyed devils with dark, reddish hair who had thousands of years ago swept north from India, and only two hundred years ago traveled down again from the forests of the distant Sayan Shan to wreak violence along the northwestern borders of his land. It seemed impossible that any descendants of the Xue Chi could have endured such a perilous migration across lifeless desert and desolate mountains to come live here.
He shut his eyes and frowned. To die here, he silently corrected himself.
Unbent. Unbroken. The sight of that proud man's visage, his teeth bared and blue eyes glittering with hate as his life's blood left him, haunted Xiang. He had little taste for executions. There was little honor in a victory with such lopsided odds. But he was a soldier, sworn to do the Emperor's bidding. This, he would not challenge.
The wind hissing across the summits tore a mile-long wisp of white powder across the sky. There was immense power here. The spirit of the mountains seemed to him a living thing, and not at all friendly. Perhaps he was feeling the wrath of the Ancestors, the guardian spirits of the men he had executed that morning. He felt exposed and vulnerable.
The trail narrowed as they rode forward; where the path wove now, the canyon floor was no more than half a mile wide. On either side of them, dark cliffs thrust skyward for hundreds of feet before their tops rolled into the mountains beyond. A blizzard two nights past had sculpted immense, heavy outcroppings of snow that leaned like thick, folded arms over the edges of the cliff summits. They looked ready to slide off at the brush of a birds wingtip. Sparkling and bright with snowlight though this region might be, it was threatening, deadly. He scowled. The earth itself seemed poised against him.
As the army approached a blind bend in the canyon about a mile ahead, Xiang raised his hand, signaling his troops to slow their mounts to a walk and be silent. He had sent two scouts ahead, and they were due back any moment.
As the grim thought of ambush crossed his mind, a dark, riderless horse appeared in full gallop at the edge of the bend. Just behind it came a second horse, its rider, unsteady in the saddle, clinging desperately to its neck. Xiang brought his troops up short as the first horse thundered up, nostrils flaring. It slowed to a trot, shaking its outstretched neck and snorting loudly in agitation. The second clattered close and came to a jerky halt, sending its rider tumbling to the feet of his generals stallion. The young scout sprawled on his belly in the snow, his back bristling with arrows, some of them smoking. Slowly, a pink stain grew in the white crystals beneath him, then darkened to red.
He raised his head, choked out a mouthful of bloody snow and rasped, "Camp. Very...few," then succumbed to the seizure he had somehow held back. Xiangs horse shied at the sudden, violent movement, reared halfway and took a sideways crowhop.
Fury welled in Xiangs throat. He wheeled his horse to shield the fallen scout, made a sweeping gesture and roared to his troops.
As one, his soldiers surged around and past him, uttering a throaty battle thunder that rolled over the quaking rumble of their horses hooves. Fully armored, shielded and aware in advance of the danger around the bend, they would have no trouble with a small band of natives. This time, he let them go on without him.
Alone, he dismounted and dropped to his knees beside the dying boy.
The Warlord had seen death untold thousands of times. But something in these overpowering mountains was sapping his will to look past it. Somehow, today, he had had enough. As gently as he could, Xiang lifted the scout and turned him over to face the sky. The boy scanned without seeing, blood trickling darkly from his nose and mouth. "Dieh?" He gagged briefly on the blood.
"Im not your father," Xiang said quietly. Then, words he had never had the strength to voice suddenly escaped him. "I have no son."
The very speaking of it choked him. He gathered the boy in his arms and held him up, trying ease his breathing.
"Dieh..." With a spasmodic shudder, the soldier tensed. His eyes rolled up into his head, and he died.
Xiang stared silently into the round, unhardened face of the boy. Its beardless softness, its full lips were those of a child. He looked no different from most of the other troops.
Enough, he thought. Enough. He bowed his head and sent a prayer to the boys ancestors, asking them to guide him safely. He laid the body down in the snow and stared blankly up at the mountaintops. He felt their presence deep inside him, felt their anger, oppressive as a great snowbank ready to collapse on him.
" "What are you doing to me?" he asked them absently. "Does this blade lose its edge as it ages?" He shivered involuntarily. "Or are you casting a spell on me, Kunlun Shan?"
He could not bring himself to leave. For nearly a quarter of an hour, he stayed there, staring into the snow, his mind blank.
At last, he rose and mounted. His army had long since disappeared around the bend, but he had heard their distant, muffled yells bouncing off the exposed rock of the canyon. The sounds had died quickly. There must have been little resistance this time.
At the head of the bend, a half dozen of his mounted soldiers appeared, moving at an easy canter. Victory. He spurred his stallion and met them halfway, returning their salutes without enthusiasm.
"Captain Li," Xiang said tersely. "Report."
"Logistic support of the men we killed today, sir," said the young captain at their head. "These barbarians bring their women and elders along on their raids. They must have been bringing up the rear while their men made their way towards Chang'An."
"Women and elders," said Xiang slowly.
"And a few pups, sir."
"How many prisoners?" asked Xiang.
The captain glanced uneasily at his fellow soldiers, then faced his commander. "None, sir. No survivors, sir."
Xiang did not reveal the hot flush of anger that coursed through him, but he sent the officer a witheringly dark look that made the young man wince. Without another word, Xiang spurred his stallion down the canyon, dreading the sight that awaited him.
As he rounded the bend, he spied his army about a mile away, milling around a smoking encampment. Even from this distance, he could see some of the soldiers chopping at bodies with their swords and stabbing with spears. He gave his stallion a smack on the flank, commanding it into a full run.
"Stand down!" His voice sliced across his soldiers heads as his horse half-reared to a halt in their midst. Their buzzing conversations and laughter cut to absolute silence as each man instantly stopped whatever he was doing and faced his general. The entire army stood at rigid attention, all eyes forward. The only movement in the camp was Xiangs tall stallion's coursing back and forth along the pathways at a quick trot while his master scanned the carnage.
The bloody heaps of fur and felt were motionless, wherever he looked. He immediately saw through the quick attempt one of his soldiers had made to disguise a rape--something he absolutely forbade. A sick feeling dulled his rage. He slowed his horse to a walk, heard Captain Li and his lieutenants ride up and come to a halt. He did not have to look to know that they, too, were standing at submissive attention and awaiting his wrath.
A movement caught the corner of his eye. He spun to face it and yanked his horse around. Nothing. Then another twitch. There it was. A bit of yak hide was moving strongly, most of it pinned under the body of a buxom woman whose torso had been hacked through, almost to her spine.
Xiang dismounted in a swirl of red cloak and strode over to the moving pile. The womans face was frozen in a terrified snarl. Clutched in her hand was a long sword, far too big for her, its blade forged into waves that recalled the body of a moving serpent. The yak fur under her moved again and a small sound came from beneath. Carefully, Xiang took the womans shoulder, rolled her away from the fur and lifted its edge.
Bright eyes met his. The strangest eyes he had ever seen. Pale gold and alert as a wolf cubs, they stared back at him from under a dense thatch of black hair. The boy scrambled from under the yak fur and stood naked in the snow before Xiang. He could not have been even three years old.
All the power of the mountains rushed down and pinned him like the paw of a giant tiger on his throat. He could hardly breathe.
The boy stood staring at Xiang, panting slightly after having been covered for so long. He made no sound.
Xiang averted his eyes, indicating his non-hostile intentions in the only way he could muster. A few feet away he spied an overturned, oiled wooden basin. The side of the tent where it had struck was dark where the water in the basin had splashed and frozen on contact. Lines of now-stiff foam had drizzled down the taut canvas. Taking advantage of a bit of fair weather, the dead woman must have been bathing her son when the Chinese scouts had been spotted and attacked by the tribes sentries. She must have had barely enough time to retrieve that sword from the tent before the rest of his army was upon her.
He looked more closely at her face. Like the rest of the elders and women in the camp, she was Tibetan. He frowned, not sure that his officers had bothered to notice the difference between these folk and the warriors they had slain this morning. Those men had not been Tibetans. He was even more certain now that they had been northern warriors from the Sayan Shan. How had they come here? And how had these two people--Tibetan and Xue Chi nomad--come to such unsual alliance and intermarriage? He could only guess. But the implications were troubling.
Xiang knelt and used both hands to pry the sword's hilts from the woman's rigid hand. At this, the boy spoke the first word Xiang heard from him. "Ama!" he yapped sharply, taking one step towards her and gesturing as if he expected her to rise and fight the man taking her sword. The boy looked up at Xiang, and the general was stunned to see the look of canny wariness on the tawny little face.
He studied the unusual weapon for a moment. It looked familiar. But it was new, freshly polished and sharpened. It had never seen battle before today. He remembered hearing somewhere that in some of these barbarian tribes, a replica of a new fathers sword was given as a gift upon the birth of a first son. And then, with a chill, he remembered where he had seen that sword before. A blade identical to this one, but aged by battle and blood, had been wrested from the giant fist of the shan yu of the men they had fought that morning. None of the other swords had looked anything like it. He remembered seeing it glinting red hot in the pyre, its leather hilts curling away and turning to ash. It was gone now.
His gaze shot back to the boy, shivering silently in the snow. The son of the shan yu?
As the Emperors Warlord, he knew he should unflinchingly dispatch the boy. To spare the offspring of an enemy was to invite revenge. But as he looked into the intelligent, fearless eyes, another thought came into his head. The idea almost made him laugh at his own insanity. But as he made his decision, he found he did not care that such an unheard-of act might garner him a reprimand from the Emperor himself.
He looked directly into the boys eyes. "Little Shan Yu," he said, smiling slightly, "you will come with me." He held out his arm, palm upraised and called up his gentlest expression. "Come." He gestured slightly with his hand.
The boy did not approach him, but again turned his serious eyes to his mother. Xiang unclasped his cloak, bent forward and wrapped the boy in its folds. The child wriggled in mild protest when Xiang rose and scooped him into the crook of his arm, then quieted and stared at the carnage around him.
Kong Xiang turned to scan his troops. None of them had dared break rank. All but the mounted Captain Li Bangshe and his lieutenants were facing away, unaware of what had transpired. As Xiang led his horse to the head of the army, the only sound was the soft, crunching squeak of dry snow under his boots. The boy stretched his arms over Xiangs shoulder as he realized he was being taken.
"Ama!" He called out again, then placed his hands on Xiangs shoulder and stared back at his dead mother as the tall Chinese soldier carried him away.
A muffled boom sounded above them. Together, Xiang and the boy turned their faces upward. Xiang blanched to see the massive, curling crest of snow poised atop the rocky cliff not half a mile from them giving way and coursing towards the encampment like a white tidal wave.
His eyes grew wide, and his voice cut through the snowy rumble as the avalanche rolled down on them. "Mount up! Now! Go! Go!"
Instant pandemonium ensued as soldiers wildly sought their squealing horses, leaped astride them and galloped back up the trail, every man for himself. Xiangs stallion shied, his neck arching and tail fanning, as the general mounted and wheeled the beast to follow his men. He dared not look back. He could hear the hissing roar of death close on his horses heels. The boy's grip on Xiang's shoulder tensed, as he watched the suffocating wave tumble forward. Even in his wild state, Xiang found himself shocked to think that such a young child could be conscious of the danger.
Xiangs stallion surged forward, shuddered and snorted to feel waves of powder peppering his hocks. And then the roar of the mountains quieted and was gone.
Xiang turned in his saddle to look back, and the boy looked with him. Shrinking quickly in the distance where the shredded encampment had been, there was only a deep, smoking shroud of blue-white snow.
The old soldier came back to himself in the stone cell. He had been silent for a long time. Shan Yus fierce young face was bent close to his own. He had never been so painfully aware of how like the angular face of the Borjigin shan yu this face was. And how unlike his own.
Xiang felt his throat constrict so tightly that he had no hope of speaking in a normal voice. He felt alone and adrift, his only link to his old life his stolen son, Shan Yu. Overcome with love and sorrow for this lost boy--beyond memory of his real parents, beyond protection of the spirits of the Kunlun Shan--Xiang bowed his head. But Shan Yu was once again urging him to speak.
"Tell me, Dieh."
Xiang folded his arms and leaned back against the wall. His voice was barely a whisper. He did not dare risk being overheard. "As soon as I entered the Emperor's chambers last night than I knew that Li Bangshe was ready to make his move. His soldiers were all around, watching me far too closely to have good intentions. By then, there was no way to back out without letting him know I was aware of his malevolence. If I had left, our family would now be in grave danger. I had to see it through.
"I wondered how he would do it. I thought he might stage an 'accident.' Perhaps say that I had fallen ill and died right there in the fortress. But he is no fool, and well aware of my popularity with our people. He must be absolutely sure not to create a martyr. If he is the one who uncovers me as a traitor--if no one honors my memory--then his place as my successor will always be secure.
"The toady, Fang Xia, is in league with him. I don't know which of them is controlling this charade, but it was Fang Xia who escorted me to the Counsel Chamber. I wasn't sure at the time why he hovered so close, almost fawning over me when I arrived. As Chief Counsel, he has always seen me as a threat to his sway over the Emperor.
"But the Emperor is no fool. He is neither dupe nor party to Li's treachery. He lets the farce play out, presumably because he believes it is for the greater good of his occupying dynasty." Xiang sighed wearily. "This carefully choreographed chain of events suits his purposes well. Tomorrow he will be rid of the vexing, in-house dissident who has been foretelling that his plan to close the gaps in the Great Wall will invite attack, not thwart it. Coming from his top military advisor, such talk is dangerous. The more I warned him, the more certain people began to listen to me. He cannot afford to have his authority so openly questioned, since--as Toba--it is not his divine birthright." Xiang gave a bitter laugh and shook his head ruefully. "He would have been a fool not to allow Li this victory. And I played right into their hands. When I realized that no one was willing to listen to my plea for negotiations with the Hsien pi, I tried to appeal to their concern for what might happen to the Chinese villages along the northern border if the tribes did start a war over this Wall. His face tightened with chagrin.
"How could I have been so naive? Neither the Emperor nor our ambitious young General Li have any interest in making peace. They wish to extend their control to the lands far beyond the current boundaries marked by the Wall and purge the lands--from west to northeast--of the 'barbarians' there. My talk of negotiations with the chieftains must have hit their ears like hot lead."
He stopped, raised his face to the ceiling, stiffly rubbed the back of his neck and allowed his voice to reach a normal level. What he was about to say would be safe for a spy to overhear.
"But truth be told, Shan, I could be wrong about the tribesmen. You know as well as I that they live an incredibly hard life. The harshness of their land makes them fierce and ruthless. They have never shown any desire to talk or compromise. They do what they know best: rush in wildly and take whatever they can. Lopping off some Chinese heads in the bargain seems to make it all the more attractive to them.
"My love for you may have colored my view, made me wish to see something in them that cannot be. In you, I can see what they might become. But they are not likely to change their primitive, warlike ways."
Almost imperceptibly, Shan Yu stiffened. "Why should they change?" he said quietly. The Chinese schoolmates and fellow soldiers who had so often vilified him for his race made no distinction among the various nomadic tribes when it came to hating them. They did not care about the particulars of Shan Yu¹s bloodlines--only that he was Xiongnu from beyond the Wall. For this, Shan Yu could not help but feel kinship with the warrior-nomads of the wild lands to the north.
"Their ferocity might be why they have survived at all," he added, lifting his chin with a touch of indignant pride.
Xiang glanced up with mild apology, reached over and gave his son's knee a couple of gentle thumps with the butt of his fist. "You know that you need not rise to their defense on my account. I am sorry. I did not intend that the way it sounded. It was a hard lesson, watching you grow up alone and isolated from anyone like yourself. But it opened my blind eyes."
Shan Yu found himself discomfited by the growing distress in his father's usually calm and tempered voice.
"It hurt to see you ostracized by my people. I had hoped they would embrace you as I did, and see more in you than their own fears. But the clannishness and subtle cruelty of my own kind appalls me.
"I blame myself for what my army and my people have made you suffer, Shan. My foolish dream was the reason you have had such a hard youth. A soldier's life should be one of camaraderie and brotherhood. But all you received was hatred, veiled in grudging acceptance because you were mine." Resting his elbows on his knees, Xiang slowly shook his head. "But I suppose that men are self-centered and warlike, no matter their origin. A Chinese child raised by northern tribesmen might have suffered no less than you have, if he were allowed to live at all." His voice became tight and weary with frustration. "There have been times when I wondered if I made the right decision in bringing you home with me."
Stung, Shan Yu slowly turned to stare penetratingly at Xiang. He had never heard his father speak with such complete despair.
"The alternative was to kill me," he said quietly. "I'm not sorry to be alive. You may believe I've had a difficult time, but I haven't. My life is my life. I have as many happy memories as hard ones. The happy ones...they've been from home. From you and Mother and my sisters." He looked hard at Xiang, swallowing back the ache of knowing he was causing his father pain in these last hours. "I'm not blind. When carts full of bodies came home from the borders, I almost understood why I was so hated. I was ashamed. You remember. I always managed to get into a fight after every border raid." He shook his head and crooked his mouth ruefully. "I didn't do much to change people's instincts about me, did I?"
He studied the outline of his father's face in the dim light. Slowly the many times he had come home to that face, his own nose bloodied and heart aching from the hatred and disdain of those who should have been his comrades. This man, now condemned to die, was the one who had sat and listened until he had emptied his soul. Never interrupting. Never judging. And then, with a few perfect words, Xiang had always known how to take away the pain. He wanted sorely to tell his father this, but could not find the words.
He lowered his face and stared at his hands, already scarred from his martial training. "I know it wasn't really me they despised," he said. "You taught me that. I was just a convenient target. And that's why I was alone." His eyes narrowed. "But being alone made me stronger than the rest of them. It made me focus on my own inner way." He straightened and looked away. "From certain death you took me and gave me richly blessed life. In return, I will strive to bring honor to your name and to our family."
Xiang observed Shan Yu for a moment, his expression a mixture of love and awe. His ever-steady voice wavered, becoming a whisper once more. "I could not love a son of my own body more than I love you, Shan Yu," he breathed. "You have honored me and all my ancestors in becoming my son."
The wooden viewing slot in the door slid open with a crack. "Say your goodbyes," spat the disembodied mouth of the guard. The slot slammed shut before they could protest. Shan Yu and Xiang locked eyes, both surrendering to a moment of panic at the thought of their last moments together being cut short. Xiang spoke quickly, barely audible in the muffled gloom.
"You already have sensed the truth. Now you will have it. It is yours alone--our last shared confidence. The Emperor and I conferred for many hours in his Counsel Chamber last night. Again, I tried to tell him that closing the Wall was a mistake, that it would be seen as a challenge and a breach of borders that do not exist at the behest of both sides.
"Of course, he would have none of it. Li Bangshe at his right hand and Fang Xia at his elbow nodded at his every word. Li missed no opportunity to gainsay me, and I must say he has a honeyed tongue. If I were not aware of his motives, I, myself, might have been swayed.
"Yesterday, I was the Emperor's Warlord and closest military advisor. Last night, I finally lost him to the subtle guile of Li Bangshe and Fang Xia. When it became clear that my advice was not only unwelcome but would not be tolerated, I ceased trying to turn the Emperor to my way of thinking. I even apologized to him, thinking he might spare me and our family from what Li and Fang Xia had dreamed up to finish me. But the Emperor saw only a tired old war horse, worn out from battle and no longer willing to fight for him. A horse like that, especially one that has a tendency to buck, you feed to the dogs.
"We adjourned to dinner. I can't even describe the tension at that table. I've never seen so many shifting eyes in one room. The Imperial tasters came to do their duty as soon as we sat down and were served. The ones who tasted my meal and those of Li and Fang Xia were fine. But the other, the Emperor's taster.... Well, whatever they used worked quickly. The man was a writhing, foaming mess within minutes. And the guards were on top of me before I could move or utter a word.
"They searched me. It was Fang Xia who reached into my pocket and drew out a tiny vial of white powder. Of course I realized then why he had hovered so close to me when I had arrived."
Xiang leaned forward, elbows on his knees and cupped his face in his hands. From behind his palms came a muffled laugh. Wearily, he rubbed his eyes before lifting his face to the tiny window. Just within its frame, almost invisible in the distance, a bird of prey was circling in the pale sky.
"The rest is simply mystifying," he said, rearing back to stretch away the stiffness. "How could anyone believe that a military strategist with my history would be stupid enough to try to poison the Emperor at his own table? They must be painting me as some wide-eyed, raving lunatic just dropped over the edge. Because somehow, the entire city--no, all of China!--is being led to believe that I actually tried to kill the Wei Emperor because he would not listen to my treasonous talk about the Wall and trying to make peace with the tribal chieftains.
Tomorrow at noon, I must confirm the lie. I will plead guilty in front of them all, before I am executed. If I do not, our family will die, too, at the hands of Li's assassins. They are well versed in the art of making such things look like tragic accidents. Not even you could hope to stop them, my son."
Shan Yu sat stunned and motionless on the bench. He had known to his core that his father was innocent. But the shock of hearing what had transpired sent cold daggers through his chest. He had promised his father that he would never reveal the truth. Now that realization and the sense of complete impotence that came with it made him feel physically sick. At least when he had been ridiculed and bullied by his peers he had been able to fight back. It hadn't taken long for his tormentors to learn to avoid physical conflict with him. But this! This was an enemy he could not touch. He had given his word.
He rose, stumbled from the bench to the edge of the cell and pressed his forehead against the stones, shutting his eyes tightly. He stood still, trembling with the effort of holding back his rage until a half-stifled roar of despair welled up and escaped his clenched teeth. His shoulders shook. His fingers, seeking anything to destroy, clawed at the stones. He could not contain the fierce tears that spilled from between his tightly squeezed eyelids, could not face his father through the shame of letting himself weep.
Choked words escaped him between deep, shuddering gasps. "I'm sorry, Father...I'm sorry...I thought I was strong. I'm not. I dishonor you."
Xiang was instantly behind him, his powerful, battle-aged hands gripping his son's shoulders.
"There is no shame in feeling anguish over injustice," he whispered. "But save your anger, my son. Use it to hone yourself. I am only one man. Save your anger for the many. For many will suffer if Li is allowed to bring his plans to fruition.
"I have asked you to keep this terrible secret. I have placed a burden on you that few men could bear. You must bear it, my son, to protect our family. As long as Li Bangshe thinks his secret is safe, so will our family be."
For a time, the only sound in the cell was Shan Yu's ragged breathing, as he tried desperately to control his emotions. When Xiang finally spoke again, there was new strength in his voice, as if a great weight had been lifted from him. Urgently, quietly he spoke.
"But Shan Yu. If ever there comes a time when your mother and sisters are safe from Li--if you can place them out of his reach--then you will be free to do what must be done. Destroy him. He has ambitions beyond what we know. Left to his own devices, he will try to drive the warrior tribes--all of them--to extinction. He will resort to treachery again. Have no doubt of it. The tribes are disorganized and wild. But they are your people, Shan Yu. Your blood. Save your anger. Let it breed in you without consuming you. If you can tame it and use it, you will destroy him."
Shan Yu whirled and dashed away the tears with the heel of his hand, silently vowing never to free them again. He rose to his full height, met his father's eyes. His own were shining with cold hatred for the unseen enemy. Kong Xiang stepped back to admire the sight, momentarily reveling in the dark, fearsome visage of the man who would someday exact payment from his traitorous enemies. He felt an incongruous sense of peace and control. The Dragon's egg was laid in its nest. Time would see it develop, gain form and strength. Its talons would be his son, Shan Yu the Terrible. He wished he could live to see it.
The metallic noise of key seeking lock rattled through the cell. A click, and the door swung smoothly open. "Enough time. Out!"
Shan Yu turned to his father for the last time and uttered a wrathful, whispered promise. "I will not fail you, Dieh."
Xiang took his son's elbows, pushed him to arm's length to view him just once more. Then, too quietly for the guard to hear, "My son, I will always be with you. Know this. No matter where you are or who else is fighting at your side, I, too, will be beside you, flying with you into battle. Look for me, Shan Yu."
The guard stalked into the cell, angrily showing his long, yellow teeth, and swelling his bulk threateningly. "Didn't I tell you I wasn't going to say it twice!"
Slowly, deliberately, Shan Yu turned on him. From beneath his dark, arching brows a seething look of contempt. From between his fangs, a hiss. "Thendon'tsay ittwice."
The man stepped back a pace, blinking in surprise, then shrinking back as the barbarian strode past him. The look in the guard's eyes was one Shan Yu had seen many times before, but it had never seemed as sweet as at that bitter moment.
Up the steps and into the hall, he turned to face Xiang one last time as the guard scuttled in front of him and clamped the door shut. Inside the dark cell, Kong Xiang stood straight as a sword, staring sightlessly through his own tears at the spot where his son had been. "At your shoulder I will fly, Shan Yu," he whispered. "Like a falcon."
copyright 1998, D.M. Krempels
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Continue the story in Blue Sage.