This was a short story I wrote while I was developing a novel set in my setting The Thirteen Realms. The setting is based around Imperial China and a more Aristotelian/Newtonian concept of the solar system, and features a late medieval level of technology with travel between planets facilitated by massive skyships powered by magical engines. I’m not currently working on any projects in the setting, but this story is something I’m particularly proud of.
“Her Exalted Being, the Daughter of Heaven, Empress Hai Nan of the Everlasting Yiu Dynasty, named the Blessed Mother in View of the Sacred Heavens . . . ”
None of her children could honestly say she earned that last title in her fifty-seven years. The Empress skimmed through the rest of the titles they’d crammed into the first span of the long scroll.
Her Exalted Being, then, decided this copy of the collected letters of Enlightened Master Kang was almost useless to her, if they spent that much space on the title page puffing up her own ego. She shook her head as she rolled through it until she reached the middle of the tome, wondering if they had even bothered with standardized chapter and verse.
Surprisingly, the scribes had. Each character was calligraphed in painstaking detail, with side notes to each chapter in the margins of each column.
“The Empress Hai Nan expressed her love for this passage during the Spring Awakening, in the one hundred and forty second year of the Everlasting Yiu Dynasty,” she read.
She certainly did not remember that. Her eyes turned to the verse in question.
“All things must be given their proper name, for from this springs the everlasting well of wisdom.”
She tapped the passage absentmindedly. It seemed a bit embroidered from what she remembered; likely the invention of some bored copyist. The added poetry seemed to fit the occasion. She could use this to open the ceremony, certainly. She read through it again, committing each character to memory.
“All things must be given their proper name . . .”
A memory struck her, from her days studying the classics when she was a mere Nameless among dozens of Yiu House claimants in the capitol. She had scribbled her own note in the margin of her workaday copy, when she thought her instructor wasn’t looking.
“Yu Bei the Wide Bottomed must have been doomed from the beginning, if this is true.” She remembered every stroke she’d scratched onto the parchment. That vandalism had certainly earned her a lashing.
Hai Nan rolled the scroll closed, laughing to herself. She counted herself ready to attend the first tea ceremony of this year’s Spring court. This was no empty ceremony, but a loan of precious time to confer with her most useful — and least trusted — advisors. She adopted a stately walk as she exited the small library.
Once reaching her destination, this youthful indiscretion that had momentarily buoyed her was put entirely out of her mind. Hearing of the death of one’s only granddaughter would do so to any woman, indeed.
“ . . . and the sagacious General Mai, in her wisdom, chose not at this time to pursue the fleeing rebels in their flight across the Desert of Glass, for in so fleeing . . .”
Hai had nearly bent the stem of her silver goblet in half as the messenger continued his extended reading of the poorly written epistle. Her mind was dissecting every word, searching for the one slip that the General had made, the one mistake that would be the woman’s undoing.
This meant she had to hear every awkward repetition the General’s tragically uninspired scribe had slammed into the letter in his feeble attempt to sound wise. She suffered through every single repetition of his favorite phrases. “Under the heavens,” was most common so far, though “in her mercy,” was a close runner up.
She had to listen to the words, had to tease out the hints of meaning hiding between each character. She had to focus. She couldn’t think about . . .
No. Hai blinked, focusing on her breathing as she let the grief dissipate into the ground beneath her feet. Her old meditative training given at her mother’s hands did not fail her, this time. After all, it would not do to weep openly at the fate of a sworn rebel to the throne.
She had a name to uphold. It had been a long three years.
Curse it. Listen to the epistle! She berated her own softness.
“. . . truly magnificent display of the power and majesty of Heaven, as fire lit the sky in great majesty. The mountain still seethes with that power to this day, three weeks after so great an eruption, though the blood of the traitors that followed the thief Regina has been purged by its majesty . . .”
Wait. Three weeks. Three weeks?
Hei raised her finger, and the messenger instantly stilled his tongue. She leaned over to her speaker, and exchanged a terse whisper.
Her speaker stood, his gaze directed toward the dome of the palace above, though the message shot like an arrow through the messenger directly.
“Her Exalted Being wishes to inquire as to your master’s motive in waiting three weeks to apprise us of this great victory. Surely an Ethereal longship could have been commissioned for this purpose? Could it not have completed the transit between the Realms in a matter of days?”
That last bit was the speaker’s own embellishment. Hai had known there was a reason she kept this one around. The messenger stammered, clearly unprepared to deviate from the written word he had been given.
“My master . . . I mean, her loyal servant . . . her Exalted Being’s loyal servant, I mean, she, um . . .”
Hai considered letting the messenger continue stammering out an excuse, but felt such a course less than prudent and not a little vindictive. She made a motion to her speaker.
“Continue your recitation if you would, chosen Face of your master. Though,” the speaker’s hand raised slightly, indicated he now addressed the official imperial recorder. “Let this counterpoint from the Exalted stand, duly written in the annals.”
“As Her Exalted Being wills it,” came the canned response from the scribe. The messenger rudely wiped a line of sweat from his brow before he continued.
The legal fiction that allowed Hai to spar had always amused her.
Striking a member of the Imperial family meant death on the spot. And yet, the Exalted Being desired not to lose her skill in swordplay. She could not well ask a sparring master to risk her neck because the Daughter of Heaven couldn’t be bothered to keep her guard up.
Daughter. The character morphed into Granddaughter, and . . .
No. Hai held the wooden sword before her, falling naturally into the Seventh Heavenly Form. At this moment, she was no longer a member of the Imperial family. No, she assumed another identity, officially a “counselor to the Realm” for the three quarters of an hour she spent swinging her wooden sword against her partner.
If Hai remembered aright, her official name was now temporarily Un Wan, “Dutiful Receptive.” She wondered what scribe had placed those two characters together, declaring them pretentious enough for heaven’s daughter to wear as she risked getting terribly bruised.
Today’s sparring master circled on the other end of the impromptu arena. This was a place Hai had not, in fact, built in her many years ruling from this place. No, three emperors had come and gone from this place while this perfectly flat, circular pavement sat in the exact center of the Imperial Gardens, viewed only by the palace servants and the closest relations of the Imperial Family itself.
That it was the perfect size and shape for a sparring ground was a happy coincidence. Regina’s birth had been the same way.
The sparring instructor barked a command, and Hai adopted her ready stance. Her mind swam in memory as her body moved in rote precision.
Regina’s mother — Hai’s eldest — was dying. The final victim of a wasting sickness that apparently struck only inner members of the Family. The supposed poisoner had never been caught, but the damage had been done. Almost.
It was wisdom that bade Hai send her only grandchild away from the capital. Wisdom, mixed with youthful foolishness.
Her counselors had begged Hai to send the babe away, once the live, healthy birth had been confirmed. She had deliberated for three weeks. Too long, now that she looked back on things, but she had been a different woman then. More cautious in her actions.
As if to emphasize the point, Hai chose this moment to attack, swinging the carefully weighted practice blade even as she danced about her instructor’s perfect counter. She met only the wind. This opening, she rationalized, she intended but to test the man’s defences.
In the end, the idyllic realm of Jolim, the bluest rising star during Mallim’s lengthening autumn nights, was chosen as the princess’ home. There awaited wide seas and fertile farmland; great works of rudimentary art and literature; a respectable farming family duly, and secretly, selected.
The child was smuggled away under cover of night, the plan finding no resistance. This, even before the infant child had gained a name. She would have to receive that from her foster parents, in a language unfamiliar to Hai’s trained ear.
Hai stepped back, efficiently parrying her opponent’s stroke while barely moving. She had long respected the art of swordplay. Physical strength was key; thus, conserving such at all costs stood as its most vital tenet.
Well, that, and making sure the bastard didn’t slash you to ribbons while you stood there catching your breath.
Their plan had all the trappings of the most dramatic of theater. Even now, Hai wondered at how well it had worked. Her last living heir, now secured in safety and secrecy absolute. She would learn wisdom from the life of the lowest peasantry, and would carry that wisdom into the highest circles of power.
Wisdom. Was it wisdom that stole her away from the capitol for a second time, barely before she reached adulthood? Wisdom, or misguided ideology?
Hai actually cried out as she parried the last blow, judging the angle wrong and transferring too much of its power directly through her arm. She savagely counterattacked, ignoring form for the moment to vindicate her sudden pain.
Surprised, her instructor nevertheless blocked the frustrated stab as if swatting aside a fly. Hai stilled her anger, returning to the calm emptiness within her as she withdrew.
Breathing heavily, she resumed the clockwork dance.
The stack of assorted scrolls she requested arrived at her study later that afternoon, soon after the sparring session. Hai was still a bit out of breath from the exertion. She thanked the servant with the usual courtesy, watching him bow in the proper way before retreating with a practiced backwards step out of the room.
The door slid closed, leaving her alone again.
The constant drip of the fountain outside lulled her into a meditative stupor. Was she so powerless that she couldn’t even stop her supposedly loyal general from executing her only living heir? That’s what it was. Execution. No careless casualty resulting from a misguided rebellion.
Regina had exposed herself, as if in a game of stones, and Tang Mai had swiftly taken her piece off the board.
Hai realized she had read the opening sentence on the top letter at least four times in a row before she tossed it on the pile. “To your Eminent Majesty, a letter of greeting from your humble servants watching day and night over your charge . . .”
Eminent Majesty, because the foster family knew only that a local lord had enlisted them; certainly they could not guess their patron’s true identity. The games they had played to keep that girl safe sounded like a bad joke, now.
She heard the door slide open again. Surprisingly, looking into the head tea-master’s kindly gaze gave some comfort as he silently set the tray down next to the mats and seated himself in the usual spot.
Still, she wanted to be alone with her thoughts for now.
“If you would take your leave, with my thanks,” said Hai, hoping her tone of voice would convey her sincerity. The mute master simply bowed and slipped from the room without another sound, as was his way.
Her predecessor had cut out the man’s tongue for a minor indiscretion. Yet, the aged gentleman had not failed to prepare tea for that emperor every day, as he now did for Hai. She, in turn, had not failed to remember him when she had drawn up her final will and testament a decade ago.
Hai poured her tea, and her mind fell back into another memory, one rising to her mind unbidden.
“You will sit with your face passive, level with your partner, though without looking directly at them, unless you wish to challenge them directly. Which,” Hai had said, “you may wish to do, if the circumstances permit. Otherwise, as befitting your standing as Princess-”
“I told you,” Regina had said, her face passive, yet tilted at just the wrong angle, “I’m not an star-burned princess!”
“Direct statements should be avoided, save for speaking with servants,” Hai had responded. She did appreciate her granddaughter’s fire, though she wished it wasn’t directed at her.
Regina had turned away, then, her hand brushing aside the teacup placed before her. Hai sighed.
“I’m sorry,” she, the very Daughter of Heaven, had said. If she was to teach her heir propriety, she should show the same. “I know this isn’t what you thought your life would be; honestly, at your age, I would have kicked your teeth in if you told me I’d be standing at the top of this tottering peak in ten years time.”
Regina had turned back again, wearing the expression of determined sincerity Hai had fallen in love with the moment it had lit her granddaughter’s face.
“ ‘Learn to accept that which is, and not that which you wish to be.’ I know.” She had assumed a more practiced pose, though not without some difficulty.
“Master Song,” Hai had nodded, naturally recognizing the quotation. “If I had known your instructor had neglected such basic etiquette, I’d have flogged him myself.”
“You still can,” Regina had said, a hint of a smile now gracing her face.
“That I can,” Hai had agreed. “I know it’s been hard for you, though I must say, your High Imperial is probably better than mine,” she continued. Regina’s lacked education in many courtly things, yet her skill in the language stood as the largest exception. “If you need any help at all in easing the transition, please, do not hesitate to ask. I’ve been known to move mountains for family before.”
Regina had raised her teacup to her lips, the motion betraying the fact she had paid closer attention to Hai’s instruction than she let on.
“I’ll have to find you a worthy marriage,” Hai had continued, as her granddaughter’s expression soured. “A worthy wife would cover a multitude of courtly indiscretions.”
They hadn’t found anyone near worthy for her granddaughter, however; not before her flight from the capitol. This thought rudely returned Hai to the present, to her empty room with its tea cooling in the pot beside her.
She poured two cups anyway, leaving the second as an offering to the dead.
Yan Liu came to her as the sun set, his silken robe thin over the delicate form his spirit inhabited. Hai had set out the lantern on her porch overlooking the garden, and arrived at the threshold of her balcony as was agreed.
The man said nothing, but took Hai in a warm embrace, one she welcomed in the cool summer night. Then, returning his familiar silence, she shared a bowl of rice wine with him. No words need be spoken.
Yan gestured toward the bed, his face quizzical. Hai looked instead out toward the horizon. She repeated a poem she had written two weeks before, and Yan sighed in appreciation. She was no poet, but she was grateful the man at least pretended her short haiku was worthy of a wistful gaze.
The night drew on. The realms appeared one by one in the sky; first Helon, and the mighty Ethereal bridge that sparkled across the sky. Then red Velion, winking into being directly overhead. Against the horizon blinked blue Jolim, and then distant Keroin, two realms conjoined in one eternal dance.
Tollin in golden splendor rose against the eastern sky later into the night, accompanied by distant Orion. The bardic realms shone not on the capitol in early summer.
Hei did not put much stock in astrology. She would have run the charlatans out of the palace like the bone readers, had the people not followed every stroke they committed to paper. And yet, on calm nights like these, she could see the appeal of looking to the heavens for guidance.
She could understand, and yet not empathize. The heavens shone distant and empty for her tonight.
“She’s stolen a precious heirloom,” she remembered her servant saying, three months before. “At least, that’s what the esteemed general’s steward has set forth.”
“Stolen?” Hai had asked, the notion a frank surprise.
“That is what he said, though no description of the trinket was given.”
Hei had leaned back in her seat, the shock of learning Regina had fled the capitol still ringing in her ears. Then, finally, “Did the esteemed general submit a formal accusation?”
“Not yet,” her servant had said. “She is, however, expected to this afternoon, while you hold court.”
Hei had been reluctant to send any force after her granddaughter, instead entrusting her Minister of Knowledge — her spymaster, by a more polite name — to track her movements from afar. General Mai, however, used the apparent slight against her family name, the esteemed Song house, to rally her forces. When it was discovered Regina sought refuge among rebels in . . . oh, how did the general say it?
“A forgotten province in the northernmost corner of Jolim.”
This full pronouncement, undoubtedly written and calligraphed by the general herself, she chose also to read for the court. Her arrogant tones still rankled Hai to this day, as the Daughter of Heaven was forced to offer grudging support for the general’s plan.
To keep the peace, her ministers had said. Your granddaughter is in no danger.
Hei stood, the light of the sun long since fled from the horizon. Yan gestured again to the bed, and Hai gave a half shake of her head, demurring. Then, she spoke and broke the silence once again.
“Send me Ie, if you would.”
The second consort to her Esteemed Being was a solitary sort, only appearing in public for the most formal of occasions. She was, however, a beauty surpassing any Hai had laid eyes upon. Tonight, the empress would make love to her, for the first time in over four years. Perhaps, for but a moment, she would be free of her memories.
The sex was good; better than Hai had remembered. Ie held her close, and slowly massaged her back as they finished. Why Hai waited so long for this? The night drew close around them, and soon enough Ie had fallen into sleep. Hai lay exhausted, ironically too tired to fall into sleep.
Instead, she lay beside her lover, absently stroking her face and bare shoulder, brushing the hair that had fallen in front of her eyes.
Ie had a very traditional look on her, for one so young. Regina had been completely different; her manners forthright, her face burnished by hard work under the unforgiving sun.
At the thought of her granddaughter, Hai relaxed into her feather-down mattress, her satisfied sexual exhaustion fading into emptiness. That void sat always on the periphery of her mind, waiting to envelop her whenever it got the chance.
Hai breathed in and out of her nose, mimicking sleep. If she pretended hard enough, she would slip into unconsciousness. That’s how it worked, right? Ie stirred next to her, shifting her weight from her back to lean against Hei. The empress rolled to face her consort and lover.
That move saved her life.
A flash of silver out of the corner of her eye jolted Hai fully awake, as it embedded itself in the bed behind her neck. Hai sat up immediately, the motion dislodging Ie from her. She saw her consort scramble to her feet, as her eyes searched for the assassin.
Another flash of silver, this time grazing her cheek as the throwing knife embedded itself in the wall. Hei’s eyes went wide as she realized her nearly fatal mistake.
Ie was the assassin.
The consort circled her, betraying reflexes born from what must have been a lifetime of training. Hai stopped her analysis short. Such analysis did not matter now. Ie no longer had the jump on her.
Hei lunged at the woman, trusting Ie would not expect this, as her fingernails raked across the assassins skin. Ie pulled back, her eyes momentarily widening at the empress’s daring. A spark of hope flared. The consort was out of her element. Every assassin trusted almost solely in stealth, killing their targets before they were detected.
Hai had the advantage.
She backed up to the sliding door, reaching for her cane. She hadn’t used the thing in years, but it still proved useful. She held it out before her, falling into a familiar sword form.
If her sparring master could see her now. Well, he’d probably complain about her perpetually lazy posture. But still.
Ie — if that was her true name — charged. Hai relaxed her grip, presenting an opening for the assassin. She took an instant to look upon her once lover’s face, seeing only grim determination there. No hatred.
Then, at the last moment, Hai spun, smoothly twisting the cane in two to reveal a hidden blade. Ie may have been a good lover, but she was a sloppy killer. This was Hei’s final thought as she slashed across the assassin’s neck.
Ie collapsed to her knees, her now-blind momentum dumping her against the wall. A steady stream of blood sprayed the thin paper as she gave her final gasps of life. That red stream eventually slowed to a trickle.
Hei collapsed against her bed, the adrenalin coursing through her fading as quickly as her lover’s life. No, her false lover. Ie had stood by her side for nearly a decade. Had she lain in wait all this time? Or was her conversion to the assassin’s trade a later development?
Perhaps her enemies put pressure on the girl’s living family, placing the knife in her hand and demanding Hei’s head in ransom. Such tactics were commonplace among the annals.
Hei reached out to ring for her servants, so they could cart the body away and clean her stained floor. Her fingers brushed against the gilded twine that hung from the ceiling, attached to the servant’s bell. It bounced against her hand.
She stopped short. A door opened in her mind. Another possibility.
Then she pulled back, standing up. She still had the unsheathed blade in her grip, her knuckles white as she held onto it. She looked down at her hands, expecting to see them shaking uncontrollably.
They weren’t. In fact, she was completely calm.
She crossed over to her writing desk, kneeling before it and turning through the papers there. She had wanted to pore over them when she had time, reading between the lines so she could tease out the mystery of her granddaughter’s flight from the capital, and her eventual demise.
Why had she stolen from the General, for instance? That detail still tugged at her memory, defying explanation.
Hai raised her eyes, looking across the room at Ie’s silent form. Well, nearly silent; blood was still gurgling from her neck. Her body was far more youthful than Hai’s, but their proportions were nearly the same. She probably only stood an inch shorter than the empress, if her memory served.
The last pieces of a plan clicked into place within her mind. Hai walked out onto her balcony, carrying a candle. A torch burned there, and she used the flame to light the small wax taper. Then, back in her room, she divested herself of her nightclothes. Reaching for a closet she hadn’t used in years, she pulled out a traveller’s cloak and shoes, belting it around her with a rope she pulled down from her four poster bed.
Then, taking the cane in her hand, she walked over to the paper wall Ie lay against. She set the cane against it, then pulled her signet ring from a pocket in her underclothes, pressing it into the assassin’s hand. The muscles were still supple; rigor mortis had not yet set in, at this early stage.
Hai realized this was the first dead body she had seen in person in her long life.
She set the wall aflame from the candle. They would find only a charred body, hand clutching her signet ring. Most would assume the obvious. Crossing quickly over to the balcony, she slid over the railing and into the garden, as the palace behind her started to feed itself to the hungry flames.
Hours later, seeking shelter under a massive Cypress tree, she felt the weight of her name lift from her shoulders.
Under the stars, then, she filled the night with bitter tears, the torrent of her grief breaking past the high brittle walls she had erected all about them.
“You need to use your proper name.”
“What do you mean, my ‘proper’ name? I’m sorry, but I’m not going to call myself by a name I can’t even pronounce.”
Hei awoke, her eyes momentarily blinded by the morning sun. The familiar voice of her granddaughter still echoed in her ears, as she rubbed the sleep from her face.
Standing up, she realized she was far too old to sleep out on the road. The tree she had lain against had drilled fun new aches into her back, and she groaned as she stretched. Her heart beat an empty rhythm in her chest. The grief that had felt so raw and painful the night before had retreated into dull sobriety, settling into the deepest pit of her stomach.
The wisdom her granddaughter had spoken echoed again. It retread the Enlightened Master Kang’s own proverb, one that came readily to her lips.
“All things must be given their proper name, for from this springs the everlasting well of wisdom.”
Yiu Hai Nan was dead, burned in her own palace. She could see the epilogue of that woman’s life writing itself already. The house of Song would come to the fore, General Mai taking up the mantle of empress — all due to the love she held for the empire’s people, of course. A new dynasty would be born from the ashes of the old.
The woman found she no longer cared.
“Thank you, granddaughter, for helping me see Wisdom,” she whispered, feeling the ancestral spirit of her daughter enter her bosom. “I will take your name, and see that justice is done by it.”
She would visit the place of her daughter’s death, and find among the dead what answers she could.
The question hung in her mind, but she brushed it aside. She would decide, based on what she found. No minister would advise her, and no petty nobility would oppose her.
Regina set her face to the west, whence departed ships to the starry realms above. She had a long journey ahead.