By Brighid Adam
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.
The arrow’s arc was a beautiful thing. The arrow flew into the overcast sky, fletching shrinking from sight, before turning back down towards the ground, towards the earth that had born it, towards his brother…Ancestors forgive him, what had Li done?
The arrow slammed into Jiancheng’s neck. Blood sprayed. The Crown Prince clutched at the shaft sticking him, sobbing soundlessly. Where was his mirth now? A retainer ran to him, but it was too late. Li had killed men enough to know death.
From behind, Gao shouted: “Yaunji’s getting away!”
Li snapped from his reverie. If Yuanji got away and rallied, then the coup would fail. The entire empire would turn against Li and his house. If Yuanji succeeded, then the Dynasty would fail; he was too soft.
Li gave Galrock his head and the mighty beast sprayed steam with a roar. Bred by the famous horsemen of the steppes, Galrock knew the stretching planes, the great sky, the press of battle, and the glorious chase. Galrock’s hooves tore the hillside as they pursued Yuanji.
Knowing his disadvantage, Yuanji headed for the forest where luck mattered more than horsemanship. Li shot, but the gallop jostled his aim; the arrow just barely scraped Yuanji’s shoulder.
A pale face glanced back, and Yuanji screamed to the wind. He angled sharply to the right. Li loosed another. This arrow struck the shoulder of Yuanji’s mare.
The mare screamed but made it to the tree line. Yaunji plunged into the woods at full gallop. Foolish to do, but Yuanji couldn’t afford caution and neither could Li. So into the Old Forest, Li rode hard after Yuanji.
Up ahead, Yuanji screamed. The giant firs were impossible to see around, but Li thought the mare might have collapsed. If Yuanji were grounded, then catching him was only—
From out of nowhere, a branch swung and struck Li’s head. A flash of color. He fell and Galrock kept going. The soggy ground broke Li’s fall, but still drove the breath from him. Stunned, he laid on his back. Above him, the offending branch showered him with needles.
A whisper from the wind accused him, Murderer.
Startled, he looked around. In his head he felt the press of a thousand eyes. But only silence came from the forest.
It was his imagination, he decided. He had to find his bow, and he hoped Galrock hadn’t traveled far. He had to climb to his feet. Held down by his armor, he struggled to turn onto his stomach. He rocked back and forth, like a turtle. The mossy mud sucked at him. He must have looked the fool and—
Footsteps. A muffled squish. Yuanji stepped somewhere behind Li, just as Li gained his knees. Straining his neck, Li couldn’t see, but he heard Yuanji’s breath behind him…Yaunji kicked Li in the back, driving Li into the mud. Twine—still attached to Li’s recurve—slipped over his head and landed on his neck. The yew gave good leverage to Yuanji as he garroted Li.
Instinct. Li grabbed the line. He couldn’t pull even a fraction of breath. Nothing helped. He threw a fist behind him, but his armor’s metal joint stopped him. He reached and bucked, pulled and scrambled. Each move cost him more. He needed air.
“Kin-slayer,” Yaunji said. “You’ve shamed us for the last time.”
The words haunted Li, and even as he lay dying, his guilt tormented him. Inside his mind, the voices spoke again, each distinct and each aged. The spirits of his ancestors brought forth accusations from where they rested among the trees. Time slowed.
Murderer, said one. Dishonor, screeched another. You’ve brought blood to your father’s door…
The back of his throat felt raw, but he couldn’t cough. He tasted blood. Moss and mud pressed into his face. He knew he was dying even as his ancestors accused him of treachery and shame. They threatened him with condemnation, which would force Li to suffer an eternity as a wandering spirit, a wailing soul remembered by none. They would damn him unless Li defended his actions…For the sake of his soul, he argued.
What choice had I? Li asked. They plotted against me and they corrupted our father. Faithful was I, not they.
The fury of voices swelled, but one voice with a slow and ancient cadence, the foremost forefather, spoke apart from the din. Your brother stands among us, leveling accusations against you. You murdered him when he returned from making sacrifices in our name.
Sacrifices? Li wanted to scream. Jiancheng cared nothing for your honor in life, only for his own. He spent the afternoon hunting in your grove, and he would have spent the evening with our father’s women. Ask him. Ask him if he dealt faithfully to me.
Shall the elder submit to the youngest? The forefather asked.
Then search my heart. Li said. Try to find disloyalty to our father. I’ve fought and bled for him. While I strove to protect him, my brothers plotted. Search Jiancheng for the truth. Had he not dealt wickedly to his servants? Had he not conspired to destroy my house? Had he not sought to send our father to an early grave? …Wise spirits, search for the truth.
The voices clamored, seeking among themselves an answer. Their response came divided. Murderer, declared some, while others shouted, Justified!
Yuanji tightened his hold on Li’s neck. Thunder shook the earth. For a weak moment, Li worried he’d died and the spirits had come to chase his soul from their sacred grove…But as the sound increased to a roar, he realized he heard the charge of his men, led by Galrock.
Yuanji threw down the bow and fled. General Gao arrived with ten riders and half the party broke off to pursue the prince. Gao and two others jumped from their saddles to pull Li from the mud. The twine fell from Li’s neck, but he still couldn’t breathe.
They pounded him on the back, but nothing helped. They shook him, they heaved him, up and down…All in vain.
Why do you block my breath? Li demanded of the spirits. They were closer now than ever before. He could almost see them. They wisped like incense.
Why would we release a murderer? The forefather asked.
Li grasped for any reason: Yaunji would stand with them soon. Without a doubt, Li’s men would slay Yuanji. Li would be the sole heir.
Should I die, who will remember my father? Should his memory be blotted out from all under heaven?
The forefather remained silent as precious seconds stretched by. General Gao’s face blurred, as did the rest of the forest. Men and women in stately gowns stood over him. He thought he saw Jiancheng sulking. The forefather was short and bald, with wrinkles wrapping his face. Finally, he nodded.
Remember us, the forefather said.
Phlegm and blood spilled from Li’s mouth. Air. Precious air. It filled his nose, his mouth, and his lungs. He tasted air like he hadn’t breathed in years: fresh, citrus pine, heather, and the fragrant earth…Scents all more pleasing than the finest lilac perfume.
The rest of his men returned. They carried Yuanji’s head by the hair. They dragged it along the mud; needles and dirt stuck to his ragged neck stump.
Li felt the immediate and pressing need to remember his ancestors, to honor them, to sacrifice to them something dear and worthy of their honor.
“Bring me an unblemished son,” Li commanded. “And build me an altar of stone…”
After such a sacrifice, Li would be forgiven by his venerable ancestors. For how could they not? Remember us, the forefather had commanded. And so Crown Prince Li would.
Gao frowned as the soldiers threw rocks into a pile. He acted as though he meant speak, but bit his tongue. Li raised an eyebrow and Gao cleared his throat. Finally, Gao asked: “What of the Emperor?”