By Brighid Adam (Complete story A Coup at the Gate)
Prince Li strung his bow with trembling hands. He didn’t quake at the thought of battle. Of that he’d seen plenty. It was the betrayal that sickened him.
Down the road from the gate’s battlements on which Li stood, his quarry emerged from the Old Forest: servants, guards, concubines, and two riders draped in silk. Those he recognized—his two brothers. Today, Li would murder his kin.
Standing beside Li was his most trusted adviser, General Gao, who had served through the cold northern campaigns and had won Li’s respect. His hard eyes now followed the silken party’s ascent. Their slow pace gave Li minutes to prepare. “You’d best speak to the men.”
While climbing down the ladder from the battlements, Li slipped and barely caught himself on the next rung. He swung and crashed into the wood as his arms strained to hold him and while his feet scrabbled for footing. It was his damned armor’s fault. Made from interlocking pieces of thick, trident shaped steel, his armor covered him from neck to knee. It was heavy and cumbersome. Finally, with sore elbows and bruised ribs, he reached the bottom.
Hidden behind the gate, Li’s men waited for him. Each of them, all tried veterans, had proved loyal a thousand times over. Each of them had been trusted to secrecy until after the deed.
His stomach turned. He hesitated. Could he do it—slay his own blood? He’d rarely seen eye to eye with his brothers, and he trusted Gao’s council, but…
“If your brothers reach the palace,” General Gao reminded, “then they will slander you to death. Already the emperor listens to their treacherous agents…”
Gao had pushed hard for today, and perhaps for the wrong reasons. After years of serving faithfully, Gao had been arrested, castrated, and scheduled for execution. And all for the slander spread by Li’s brothers. They had placed a wicked word before the emperor through bribed consorts and perverted concubines.
As easily as they corrupted the emperor, they had blackmailed a servant into poisoning Li. He’d spent weeks bedridden, but still managed to intervene on Gao’s behalf, placing a good word before his father, the emper—
“Prince Li,” Gao prompted. “Your men.”
Li strode down the line and greeted each soldier by name. They stood straighter and their spears higher. He tried to exude confidence for his men. He held a stoic face and in turn locked eyes with each man. They bore his personal sigil upon their right breast, the double sunburst. There’d be no hiding after the attack.
His eldest two sons stood ready for inspection. Their request to fight had initially been refused, but they were persuasive: Should Li fail, all his household would be executed. Their lives were already at stake, so they may as well fight. The sight of them galvanized Li onward.
A watcher shouted from the battlements, “They’ve stopped, three bowshots from the gate.”
“Bring me Galrock,” Li called, summoning his steed. Forward stepped the giant stallion from the barbarian steppes. He’d been a gift—more of a tribute—from the conquered tribes. Li had just mastered Galrock in time for his first triumph. Not long after that, his brothers had grown suspicious and jealously bitter.
Galrock snorted and danced; he sensed the coming battle. After Li grabbed the reins, two retainers helped him mount. Gao handed Li his bow with a nod that said: you’re doing the right thing. But Li didn’t feel it, not in his heart where it mattered.
“Open the gates!” Li commanded, and his men rushed to comply. They lifted a heavy locking bar and pulled open the gates. The hinges groaned. His brothers were visible through the widening crack. His stomach turned, violently, and he fought down the urge to puke. There was no going back. He crossed the threshold and rode out to meet his brothers: Crown Prince Jiancheng and Prince Yuanji.
They sat on their dressed mares and gawked when they saw him. Their retainers pointed and murmured, letting a prized stag drop to the ground. They’d been hunting in the Old Forest.
Li had hunted with his brothers there once, and only once, in the Old Forest. There the trees stood majestically upon land set apart for the ancestors. There, hunting felt like sacrilege. Li had felt watched the entire day.
That day sped through Li’s memory. The servants had stirred up the game, chasing a stag towards a drunken Jiancheng, who drew a ridiculously gilded bow—one that had impressed Li at the time—and mistakenly shot one of the servants. Never before and never after had his brothers laughed so hard. That night, Jiancheng and Yuanji got piss drunk. They tried forcing Li to take a concubine—a pert and southern woman with pale skin, doused in lilac perfume. But Li hadn’t known what to do with the woman. So his brothers took her instead. And they laughed. They laughed at Li who was too young and stupid to know what goes where. They never let him live that down. Eventually, after years passed, Li gained command of the armies in the frigid north, leaving his brothers to play with their worthless whores.
Li’s men poured from the gate as he rode forward. “Ho there,” Li said, calling to his brothers.
Jiancheng spat to the side and his men stood frozen. They didn’t realize the stakes, not yet. But Jiancheng did. After all, he had to have known there’d be consequences.
“Little brother,” Jiancheng mocked. Behind him several Consorts of the Emperor laughed; they’d clearly mistaken Li’s intent. They still thought Li a joke. Jiancheng arrogantly called for his bow.
“Have you practiced your shot,” Li asked, “or should I tell my boys to hide?”
“Wait and see,” Jiancheng said as he fumbled an arrow. His bow had changed little from over the years. Long, gilded with gold, and studded with gems, it made for difficult shooting from horseback. That was why the barbarian hordes preferred the shortbow, such as Li’s simple yew recurve.
Despite the difficulty, Jiancheng drew and aimed. On an impulse, probably fed by guilt, Li let his brother shoot first. The gilded bow twanged. The arrow punched through the air. Li had misjudged the bows ability, for it unleashed a powerful shot…
Into the earth, the arrow struck hard. Had that arrow hit Li or his stallion, it might have pierced armor. Li couldn’t afford that risk a second time. He had no choice left.
In one smooth motion, perfected by years of battle on his father’s behalf, practiced by decades of brutal war, Li nocked, drew, aimed, and loosed.
Finish reading: A Coup at the Gate