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Erotic Death Tales by Hitomi
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                                                                  "Discarding Armor"              "Song of the Cicadas"
FIRST KNIGHT

1.

I followed the young-lady-in-waiting down the endless columned corridor of the Imperial Place in
Loyang.  It was mid-summer and the middle of the day but I could not help feel the chilling down my
spine as I headed towards the secluded garden.  I was never a coward.  Being a weathered soldier and
a commander of the imperial guards for so many years, I had witnessed battles and executions of
unspeakable gory and cruelty.  Yet this was no help for me whenever I was summoned to her
presence.  If there was any person I feared in this world, it was this woman who called herself the
Empress Regnant Shengshen, or the Ruling Holy Empress, the first woman in the long history of the
Middle Kingdom to put on a robe with dragon motifs embroidered on it.  All women before her, no
matter how powerful they were, could only dare settle with the phoenix.

I was only seventeen when she ascended to the throne. But her story was well known to all, whispered
in low voices in market places when the secret informers were thought not to be present.  We learned
that she was born low and had entered into palace service of the former emperor, the father of her
late husband, how the emperor admired her beauty and wit and yet became suspicious of her
intelligence and ambitious heart.  She was ordered to be confined to a nunnery when the emperor
died, but that failed to stem her rise to power.  The new emperor had her arranged to be returned to
the palace and step by step, she advanced to the throne of the empress.  We heard of how she had
killed her own baby-daughter in order to put blame of her rival, the then Empress who was then
demoted by the unsuspecting emperor and later removed silently.  She gained power during the long-
sickness of her husband.  When the emperor found out what kind of woman he had placed next to him,
it was too late.  She had him in her power and there was a suspicion that she had poisoned him in
order to reign supreme, an accusation she flatly denied.  She made another son “emperor”, but had
him disposed and exiled when he proved uncontrollable. His name was Li Zhe and he was now living in
the provinces, under practical house-arrest.  She was ruthless to opposition, unmerciful to any threat
to her throne, employing magistrates who were so skillful in torture that the very mention of these
could kill a faint-hearted man.

One never knew what kind of fate was waiting when summoned.  I kept telling myself that I had nothing
to fear; that I had not plotted against her in any way.  But many apparently innocent men had met sad
fates.  To the Empress, innocence was defined not by absence of actual deeds of conspiracy, but by
mere suspicion.  And no one was above suspicion.  

But I knew it was not just fear that made my heart race.  Despite her cruelty to potential rivals, she was
an extremely capable ruler.  She was terror to the nobles who yearned for a return to Tang lineage;
she had changed the dynasty name to Zhou when she attained supreme power.  Her reign was also
one during which the Middle Kingdom was feared by the enemies on its borders and the common
people could look up to just rule and peace.  She was untrusting yet could be generous when loyalty
was proven, wise in choosing the right officials to do the appropriate jobs.  She could see through
people’s hearts, both the good part and the more shady one and she dealt with both in deserving
manner.  The feeling towards her was always mixed: loyalty, admiration and of course, fear.

We were at last near the end of the long corridor now.  This was in the deep part of the palace in which
entrance by male, other than the Emperor or eunuchs were forbidden on pains of death during
previous dynasties.  But the Tang rulers were different.  Having nomadic blood in their veins, they
were much more open in this.  This was one reason why she could attract the eyes of the then
crowned prince when she was still a concubine of his father.  No, I must not let the slip of mind lead to
the slip of tongue.  Such slips could have fatal consequences. They were not Tang anymore.  The
current dynasty was supposed to be Zhou, though the heir was apparent still from the Li family, instead
of from the Wu clan, which was the family name of the Empress Regnant Shengshen.  

We reached the north end of the planked walk and made a turn into the garden.  It was another world
there: such green and spectacular collection of floral wonders.  We crossed the exquisite stone
bridge under which carps swam in leisure.  They were probably the only living things that could
breathe freely and not had to worried about the mood of the Empress.  I saw her now, her back turned
away from the entrance of the pavilion, hands behind her back, the fiery dragon on her gold-threaded
imperial robe attesting her absolute power over the universe.  I hastened my pace and went down on
my knees as was proper for one of her subjects.

2.

“Xu bin, commander of the imperial guards, wish your Imperial Majesty everlasting life!”

My eyes were on the ground but I sensed her turning round.  

“Rise, commander.” It was a voice without any sign of displeasure.  I felt an immediate relief, and rose.

“Look at me, commander.”

I obeyed.  

She had aged considerably since the last time I saw her.  I knew her age: seventy two, but she had
always looked younger than her actual years.  Even now, the outline of her face suggested a rare
beauty when she was chosen to accompany the emperor, or should we say, the emperors, one after
another.

“How long have you served me, commander?” She asked.

“Seven years, Your Majesty.” I answered.  I could even remember the actual date.  She had personally
salvaged me from certain death, after I was accused of being one of the guilty officers who had plotted
for her overthrown and tortured to unbearable limit to extort a confession.  I was fortunate; the other
officers met their ends shortly.

“Ah, how time flies?” The Empress was so moody today.  She paused and then renewed her
questioning. “You have heard of the recent debate on whom should I pass the crown when I would be
gone one day, haven’t you?”

I felt a chill run down my spine: it was a question that could lead to immediate arrest, the torture
chamber or the execution ground. The Wu princes, her own line, had been maneuvering for her favor
to succeed her, to the exclusion of the Li princes, her own sons.  The court was divided in opinion,
and an open show down could erupt anytime on this issue.  

It was useless if I tried to evade the question.

“Yes, I have.” I spoke and awaited the onslaught.

“So, which opinion would you think is more appropriate for me to take?”

Cold sweat run down my temple.  I would not fear facing an enemy ten times my own numbers, even a
hundred times, then to answer this question.

“Speak, commander.”

“It is not my proper place to give opinion on such issues, Your Majesty.”

She sighed.  “I know what you are thinking, Xu Bin.  Have no fear.  I will not hold it against you one way
or another.”

“But why me, your Majesty?  I have only twenty-five years of life experience and a low ranking
commander.  There are so many more who are more qualified than I am.”

She laughed, with a sad tone.  “Those vultures?  Do you really think they will let me know the truth, the
right path for me to take?  Xu Bin, I asked you because I knew I could trust you.  You are brave, and
loyal.  Look around you.  Do you see any guards?  And do you think I am not aware you are one of the
best swordsman among my subjects?  That you can do great damage to my self if you have a mind to do
it?”

I sank to my knees. “I will never do such thing, your Majesty.  You always have my total allegiance.”

“Rise, Xu Bin.  If I suspect you have ever nursed such a thought, you would not be here today, or still
be alive, for that matter.  As I said to you, you have my trust and I want your honest opinion.  Should my
nephew Wu Chengsi be made heir apparent or should I made a decree that the throne would be
reverted to the Li lineage after I was gone?”

Her eyes seemed to have drilled into my brain, like swords that I could never parry away.  I had to take
a chance, one way or another and I knew she could sense if I had spoken my mind.

“Your Majesty, Prince Wu might not be fitting to govern over the empire, if peace and prosperity was
in the mind of Your Majesty for the common people.” The dice was thrown.  At the nod of her head, I
could find myself in chains.

She looked straight at me, remained silent for a time that seemed endless, then sighed. “You have
spoken truly, commander.  That was why I think too.  I just want you to confirm I am right.”

I breathed.

“That is the exact reason why I have you summoned here.  I want you to go to Fangling and bring back
my exiled son and his family.  The Zhou dynasty would end with my passing away.  Li Xian would be
emperor again one day.”

I felt almost turned into stone.  

“Why me, Your Majesty?” I finally asked.

“Because someone might not like the idea and would do something to ensure Li Xian would not arrive
in one piece and because despite my fame for being merciless, I do not want blood from my own family
to be shed again, not from Li, not from Wu! “ She raised her voice but there was more desperation than
anger in that. “And because you are an excellent swordsman, a proven commander and one I can
trust.  Do not betray my trust, commander.  Now go!”

I knew the meeting was at an end.  She had given me an order, a mission and she would not have to be
so selective unless it was one with considerable risk and she needed someone she could trust to
carry it out.

I had become her chosen First Knight.

3.

I chosen eight of my best men to go along with me. Eight would be enough, if they were good.  More
hands, if not up to standard, would only add to confusion and danger.  My chosen men were good.
They had been vigorously trained and proven in skill, courage and dedication.  I knew not every one of
them could come back alive.

The danger was on the return journey when we had to escort the future emperor back to the imperial
capital.

We reach Fangling without incident, and went straight to the rundown compound that was the home of
the future emperor for the past decade.

Li Xian was terrified to learn that a troop of armed men was sent by his mother.  He thought it was for
his execution or that he would be ordered to commit suicide, just like her brother years ago.  It was
with great effort that I was able to convince him that the Empress meant no harm and he was to be re-
instated as heir apparent. This was not exactly something he would be overjoyed to hear.  I could
understand that.  Heir-apparent or not, he would shiver with fear every night in the den of the tigress-
mother.

I arranged the escort as efficiently as possible, any delay would mean increased danger.  Prince Wu
would not stand idle and watch his chance of succession being snatched away at the last moment by a
once-disgraced prince.

This was the first time I saw Li Guo’er, the daughter of Prince Li Xian.  She was no more than fourteen
then.  It was a face one could never forget once set eyes upon.  She had every potential to become a
beautiful woman in a few years’ time.

The wife of Li Xian was also a good looking woman.  Though veiled, the thin gauze could hardly hide
her attractive face.  But I found her eyes troubling: they were eyes of a woman who could do anything
to get what she wanted.  With such a wife, the life of the husband prince would be less than tranquil.

We set off at dawn, the closed carriages transporting the couple and then their daughter flanked by my
troop.  I knew from the start we were being shadowed.

The first two days were uneventful.

On the third day, when we were fording a shallow stream, the shadows struck

Prince Wu had chosen his men well too: hardened fighters who were not afraid of anything.  They knew
what kind of price they had to pay if they failed.  Disappointing Prince Wu was never an option they
would choose.

There were twenty of them, outnumbering us by nearly two to one.

The attack began with showers of arrows that were concentrated on the carriages.  If I had not had the
foresight to have these hardened by thick strong wood planks, the prince couple and his daughter
would have been turned into porcupines. Failing to make a kill, the enemy, all masked, charged.  I drew
my sword, ordered two of my men to throw a protective ring around the carriages and led my men to
deliver a counter-charge.  Blades clashed, shields were hammered in by heavy maces, armors gave
way to mortal cuts and limbs and heads littered the bank of the ford.  They were good but my chosen
men were better.  We lost two men, they were slaughtered.

Then, I heard shouts behind my back.  I brought the horse around and saw four more masked riders
charging at the carriages.  
I was not unduly worried as I knew my two left-behind men could hold their own until we could ride
back to reinforce them.  But when one of the doors of a carriage, the one carrying the future beauty
princess was slid open and out came running a frightened maiden on her feet, my heart almost jumped
out of my mouth.  To add horror, one of the attackers broke off the engagement and was galloping at
the runaway princess, his sword swinging high to a position to bring it down onto her swan-like neck.  
There was no way I could not get within range to block that cut in time.  I could see the horror in her
eyes as she turned to face her foe.  The blade was now being brought down and in a flash, her head
would fly.  I gave a yell and send my own sword through the air.  It sank into the chest of the attack just
in time to stop the blade from doing its work.  The rider was thrown off his saddle.  The girl was safe,
for the moment.  But the danger had not passed.  Another rider had broke off the fight and was in full
pursuit.  I had no weapon now and it was too late to wait for the others to come to our aid.  Without
thinking much, I spurred my mount into full gallop, snatched up the princess by the waist and settled
her horizontal on the saddle.  She did not try to struggle.  The purser was very close now.  I could
sense the tip of his sword pointing directly at my back, ready to ram in as his mount gathered speed.
We were heading a dirt-road, uphill and this would give him advantage as we had to slow.  To run him
out was not an option.  I let him get closer and closer and just as his blade was to run me through, I
threw my body weight to one side, hanging on only with a foot on a stirrup.  His blade missed me by
less than a faction of a horse hair.  I let it pass, grabbed at his wrist and had it snapped.  He uttered a
cry of pain.  I did not give him the chance to curse as I snatched the sword that had fallen out of his
hand and buried it into his neck!

The fight was finally over.  We lost four men, half our numbers.  The enemy was annihilated.

I helped the princess sit proper on my saddle and started our trot back to her anxious parents.  She,
on the other hand, seemed undisturbed by the close brush with death.  She had large round eyes, with
intelligent pupils that danced with an internal fire.

“You saved me.” She said. “You will always be my champion, my First Knight.”

I smiled and did not pay much attention to it.  She was little more than a child then.

It was years later than I finally understood what that act of titling would mean.

4.

The imperial reunion was more cordial than expected.  

The Empress could be forgiving when she chose to; her son only too relieved when he found out that
her rage at him years ago had been erased clean.  He paid her his allegiance and retired with his wife
to the lodging prepared by his mother.  It was not really a prince palace but definitely an improvement
over the rundown house at his place of exile.

Prince Wu was furious but there was little he could do; his fear for his aunt, the Empress, was as
intense as anyone else’s.  I knew I made a dangerous enemy though and one day, score would have to
be settled.

The surprise was the princess.  The Empress took such a liking of her, her granddaughter being pretty
and intelligence, she decided to keep her in the imperial palace and raise her personally.  Her
daughter, Princess Taiping and Shangguan Wan’er, the secretary to the Empress and some said the
latter’s same-sex lover, also liked Li Guo’er at first sight.  I had met Princess Taiping many times; the
same was true with Shangguan Wan’er, both of them women of exceptional beauty despite of their
ages.  The princess was in her mid thirties while Shangguan in her late thirties and did not look it.
Shangguan was also famous for her beautiful poems, quick wits and promiscuity.

I was awarded handsomely by the Empress and in time, forgotten about the task completed.

It was four years later when I saw Li Guo’er again.

5.

I had predicted that Li Guo’er would become a beautiful woman.

I was wrong.

She had become a dazzling one.  Many would say that she was THE most beautiful woman in the entire
empire, counting right from the beginning of the dynasty!

I realized that when I was summoned into the palace again, this time with a more pleasant task: I was to
teach the Princess Anle, the official title of the rescued princess now, to ride.  She actually could ride
but she had demanded that someone proficient to perfect her skill.

“And who do you want to be your teacher?” The doting Empress had asked.

“Xu Bin, my First Knight.” She was said to have replied.

I was astonished that she could still remember my name.  After all, it was over four years and her world
had changed.  From a prisoner who could be executed at the whim of the Empress, she had become a
much doted over grand-daughter, and a spoiled child.  Child, was perhaps not a very proper term.  She
was eighteen, grown body and soul.  When she glided across palace floors, she put all other beauties
there in shame.  Young nobles and military commanders secretly feasted on her charms and would do
anything at her bidding.  The body, once thin and fragile, had bloomed, the silk that graced her torso
accentuating her figure to the lustful eyes of the court.  She did not mind, as if the admiration of men
was her plaything she was entitled by birth, something she could not live without, and yet not
treasured when obtained, to be flung into the dark corners of her closet, a forgotten trophy that was
allowed to rust and decay in sad silence.

Though I had been warned, I was still dazed by her glow.  It could not be helped.  It was like that special
flower sent as   tributes from Tianzhu, a country on the other side of the Kunlun Mountains.  Used
properly, it could save your life; too much of it, it would be the death of you. The trouble was, with Li
Guo’er, no one was able to stop before too much was taken.

I was approaching my thirty now, an age not old enough to refuse temptation of something beautiful
and too young to heed the advice of the wise.  Of course I dared not hope for any special treatment,
being only an army-man.  But the first time when I lay my eyes on the peony in full bloom, I knew I was
lost.  Worse, she led me on, coyly at first until it was too late for me to turn back, too late for us to turn
back.  Her first lessons were always accompanied by Xiao yun, her trusted maid-in-waiting and we were
discrete.  But soon, she began to abandon caution to the winds, Xiao yun was sent away deliberately
into a safe distance as we walked our horses through thick woods offering shelter.  I knew what was
coming but I kept lying to myself that it was nothing but my imagination.  “How could it be possible?  
She was like the brightest star in the milky way while I was just a common soldier, the rank of
commander would be a source of joke to the nobles who were relentless to go around her like bees
on nectar.

“Go fetch me some water from the stream, Xu Bin.” She told me

I obliged.

When I was back, she was standing there, naked.

We looked at each other, the sound of cicadas drowning around us, eroding our senses and
constraints.  The water was forgotten.

I knew it was not love.  She was not capable of it.  To her, it was a conquest, an affair, a past-time, a
fulfillment of a crush long time ago, perhaps even a showing of gratitude for once saving her life.  

We tried to push off such unpleasant thinking from our mind.

We laughed and made silly plans.

“If we have a child, how would you name it?” she once asked.

“Will it be a boy or a girl?” I asked back.

“Let us pretend it is a girl.”

I thought it over and said, “Yuen Zhi”

“Yuen Zhi?” she repeated the name I proposed.

“I once had a sister and her name was Zhi.  She died when she was seven.  I still missed her.”

Virginity was never at issue under Tang or Zhou banners.  Father and son could share the body of a
woman if they wanted to.  Nobody would expect such a beauty as Guo’er to remain pure till her
wedding night.  Of course, we would be in grave trouble if we were caught; at least I would be in mortal
risk.  As for her, the worst thing would be a severe scolding.

We embraced, necked.  She had me striped and our limbs entwined together.  

To me, it was heaven.

6.

We met again, and again.  Xia yun provided us the needed cover so that Guo’er and I could enjoy our
moments of bliss, in the woods and later, in one of those hundreds of secret chambers inside the
imperial palace.  Later on, I learned we were not alone in this amorous game.  The Empress had her
favorite lovers, besides Shangguan.  She liked men, even at this age and had taken two brothers,
Zhang by family name, into the palace as her bed-pets.  Princess Taiping and Shangguan Wan’er were
not stainless either.  Among their loves, men from the Wu clan frequently warmed their beds. It would
be a gross underestimation to think the Empress did not know about these.  But somehow she turned
a blind eye to it, as long as it was not threatening her base of power.  Perhaps, she thought that
intimate relations between the members of the Wu and Li men and women would cement the gap
between these rival families.

She was right.

What she did not expect was their common animosity against the Zhang brothers, who were trying to
grab power through their common senile lover, the Empress.  But that would come later.

Guo’er suddenly broke off relationship with me when she turned eighteen.  I was devastated but had
thought about such possibility earlier.  After all, this could not go on forever.  She was a princess and
one day, she would be given out to wed an appropriate suitor.  

She chose one of the Wu men.

This, I did not understand.  The Wu men were so incompetent and power hungry, that none of them
stood a good match for the most coveted peony of the court.  

The wedding was a demonstration of the wealth and strength of the Empire.  Though her father was
still under her grandmother’s thumb, the princess had all blessings from the Empress, now that the Li
family had united in matrimony with one of the Wu.

Six months later, she gave birth to a child.

Rumor had it that she either had mated with her husband prior to the marriage, or that the child was
never from his seed.  

“Who was the father?” That question inside my head was never answered.

After that, I was sent on a military expedition to the north-west of the Empire.  There was little fighting
as the nomadic tribes were more willing to give tribute than to create trouble, having learned their
lessons the hard way.  Border garrison life was monotonous and lonely.  I spent my time practicing with
my martial skills.  I could no longer find anyone a close match with my sword now.  That brought little
comfort as there seemed no opportunity to use my skill in real battle.  I rode, and came to know each
mile of the ground, savored the majesty views of snow-capped mountains and icy glaciers, hot deserts
and strong wine made from mare’s milk.  I thought of Guo’er now and then, was aware that perhaps I
would never saw her again this life.

I did hear stories about her, gossips about court life, as well as about the aging and ailing empress.  I
could remember her face, her body, her passion, her abandon in my dreams.  I could still remember the
scene when she was riding in front of me, when I rescued her from certain death and her calling me
“her first knight”.  It did not matter anymore now.  Or so it seemed.

Then, messengers brought news that the Empress had died.  A year before that, a palace coup was
staged against the Zhang brothers whose heads were cut off by angry soldiers.  The Empress was
forced to abdicate but no one dared lay a finger on her.  She died alone, in a cold palace and was
buried into the mausoleum with her passed away husband, the later Emperor.

Li Guo’er’s father, Li Xian, became emperor, again.

It was a beginning of something good.  The new Empress, Li Xian’s wife, the woman in whose eyes I
sensed fore-coming trouble, wished to become like her mother-in-law.  But she was not Empress Wu.  
She matched the latter’s ambition but not her wisdom.  She was also bad influence to her daughter.  
Without the late Empress’s supervision and guidance, Li Guo’er leapt from bed to bed, and when her
husband was killed in a rebellion by her step-brother, she married her deceased husband’s brother,
another Wu.  Her style of living brought the empire to near financial collapse.  A special kind of dress
was conceived from her idea.  It was made from feathers of a hundred birds and would show different
colors when looked upon from different directions.  Her father, the Emperor, was unable to rein her in.  
She had been his only treasure during those years in exile and her very name, Guo’er, was named
after the wrapping cloth when she was born, a name tender and reminiscent of those early days.

Li Xian was never material for a competent emperor.

It was heart-breaking to hear such things about a woman whom I had once loved, still loved.

When I received order to return to Chang An, which had replaced Loyang as the imperial capital, I went
with a sad heart.
I arrived at the capital among unsettling rumors, that the Empress was so bent on following her mother-
in-law’s track that something horrible was being boiled.  When I joined my unit which one of the elite
regiments the Empress had placed great faith in, the mood was eerie.  She thought that by showering
gifts and gold on the officers, she would be able to buy their loyalty.  She could not be more wrong.  I
saw men spiting on the gold pieces once the back of the Empress’s envoy was turned.  Chang An had
become a boiling booth for impeding trouble.

Hardly anyone remembered that I was once the horsemanship teacher of the imperial princess now.  I
was into my middle years and though everyone respected my experience and skill with weapons, I was
viewed as only one of the many commanders and not someone so different.

But someone remembered.

On a hot night, I had a visitor.  It was Xia Yun.

“She asked me to bring this to her First Knight” She said and placed a silk envelop into my hands.

I open it.  The name of a girl was written on a piece of yellowish paper: Yuen Zhi.

“What is the meaning of this?” I was puzzled.

Xia Yun led me to one side.

“When Her Highness gave birth, it was a pair of twins, a boy and a girl.  She bribed to have the secret
kept and only presented the boy to her husband and asked me to bring the baby girl to a nunnery
nearby to raise, hoping one day, she will be able to inform you.”

“What?” I grab at her wrist. “Are you telling me that I have a daughter?”

She nodded.  

“I want to see her.”

“No!  You cannot!  She asked me to come to tell you this, so that you can take your daughter away, to
somewhere safe…”

“What do you mean by somewhere safe?  Is she in danger?”

Her face went so pale.  “I cannot say.  The sky is so red these nights.  And so many comets.  Something
terrible may happen.”

“Stop this foolish talk.  Can you show me where the nunnery is?”

“Yes, I can lead you there.  But not tonight.  I have to be back.  I will come back when it is possible.”

She slipped out of the tent and disappeared into the darkness.

7.

Fate was always a capricious whore.

We did not have a fortnight.

One summer night, there was loud beating of the drums.

“The Emperor is dead!”

It was said he was poisoned, and many said the suspect was his own wife and her daughter was a
collaborator.

“Impossible!” I had shouted.  “She might be a spoiled child, she might be promiscuous, she might
crave for power, riches, but she would not commit patricide.  She was not capable to do that.”

The men looked at me, perplexed.

“Are you trying to speak for the witch?” a fellow commander demanded.

“I speak only the truth. And if you call me a liar, we can settle it with our blades.” I glared back at him.

His face went red, but then he backed off.  He knew what it would cost him if he dared draw his weapon.

Things rushed.

A new emperor was proclaimed.  He was a son of the late emperor.  People said the Empress Dowager
was bidding for time to gather her forces.  The air was tensed with rumors of coups and conspiracies.  
A smell of death wafted over the sky of the capital.

8.

The heat was suffocating.

A storm was about to break and the sky was lighted up by the flash of a horrendous lightning.

It was as if the elements knew something would happen this very night.

The garrison had been put on alert, all commanders and soldiers had put their armor on and had their
weapons at the ready.  Nobody gave the reason.  There were so many possibilities that no one dared
offer any.  In silence, we waited.

Then it came.

A fast rider in uniform rushed into camp, shouting. “Rise! To arms!  Prince Li Longji and Princess
Taiping had raised their banners and now attacking the palace. Down the traitors!  Down with the
witches!”

It immediately created a commotion.  

“What does it mean?”  “Is there another coup?”  “Whose side should we fight for?”  “Are you nuts? We
fight on the side of the just!  The mother and child poisoned the late emperor and put on the throne a
puppet one, didn’t they?”  “Who can say?  What good would that do to them to have the emperor
removed? And who will benefit most when the late emperor was removed?  Not the Empress for sure!  
She would lose her greatest protector!”  “Enough of this messing by women!  First the Empress
Shengshen, and now this?” “Don’t you dare tarnish the name of the late Empress Shengshen!  She had
been a good ruler.  We all had peace then.  Look at the mess now!”

The argument went on and on.  Even the generals were unable to come to a common ground.  
Everybody knew something must be done, but if the course chosen was on the wrong side, it would
bring doom to all.  Treason was punishable by whole-scale execution! It was understandable to wait a
while more to see which way the wind blew.

But I could wait no longer.

She had sent me a message, a secret.  If she did not feel herself in grave danger, she would not do
such a thing suddenly.  It was almost certain that she sensed her predicament in this coming storm.  
Did her mother really poisoned her father?  Was she an accomplice?  Was she a willing one?

I slipped out of the tent where heated debate was being carried out and found my way to the stable.  
My old companion seemed expecting me and quietly let itself be saddled.  I quietly rode out of the
camp, the sentries at the gate recognized me and did not give me trouble.  

Once out of the camp, I turned my mount to the right, in the direction of the imperial palace.  Even in
the distance I could see the flames lighting up a darkened sky.  The sound of men, of fighting, of dying
was being carried across the land.  The key would be the loyalty of the imperial guards.  If they held the
gates long enough, the forces of Prince Li Longji and Princess Taiping would be scattered by
reinforcement from the outside garrisons, seeing that the revolt had failed.  But if the guards
collaborated……

I was about to put my horse to a gallop towards the direction of the flame when a rush of hooves
dashed out from the dark.  A single rider, a woman.

She went straight for the gate of the camp.  At first I thought it was Quo’er but then a woman’s scream
shot through the night air.  It was the Empress!

I reined in my horse and waited.  There was such a cheering in the camp.  Some one mounted the
wooden watch-tower, with a pike.  On the tip of it was a severed head with long hair, that of the
Empress.

“Foolish woman!” I cursed.  She had thought that by escaping into the camp would ensure her safety.  
She had tried to win the loyalty by showering gold.  She never understood that by the very act of
escaping, she was signaling defeat and no regiment would stand on the side which had failed.

“Quo’er!”  I woke to the unthinkable horror.  I must reach her before they did.  Did she try to escape
too?  No, not she.  She was too clever for that.  But staying inside the palace would not guarantee her
safety, or that of her new husband.

I kicked my horse to full speed.  When I reached the palace, the gates had been thrown open.  The
guards had thrown in their lots with the rebels.  

I leapt down from my mount, drew my sword and rushed in.  There had been much fighting prior to the
giving in by the defenders.  Bodies littered the ground behind the gates: soldiers, eunuchs, maids-in-
waiting...  Thick smoke was enveloping the grand buildings now.  One could highly identify which way
to go.  In a sense, this was a good thing.  The rebel soldiers would also find it difficult to find their way
to her too.  It was easier for me, for I had entered this palace for so many times, each corridor brought
back memories.  I passed doors that once led to chambers of bliss, I ran across lawns similar to the
one where once an old woman in imperial robes bearing dragon motifs asked me to go and bring her
son, and granddaughter, to safety.  The old empress was long gone, so was the son.  Where is the
grand-daughter now?

“You are my First Knight!” she had said, in her innocent childlike voice.  

Things were so much simpler then.  I fought, I killed, I saved. And I delivered them to safety.  Or did I?  
Is THIS the safety I had fought for her?  I turned another corner, ran into a group of men with bloodied
blades, like drunkards wheeling about, laughing, looting.  Close by were the bodies of several young
ladies of the courts, disheveled, disrobed, dishonored.  I gave a shout and charged and before any of
the men realized what was happening, cut all their throats.

More shouting!

And a commanding voice.  “She had taken refuge in the palace.  You must find her and kill her! She
knows too much!”

I knew who he was: Prince Li Longji.  And he was trying to find Princess Anle and had her slain.  But
why did he said she knew too much?  Too much of what?  

I wanted to rush up to him, to make him talk.  But he had too many armed men surrounding him.  I could
not fight that many.  

I dashed through a side corridor.  

Another group, a woman in the lead.  I recognized her, Shangguan Wen’er.  She must be in her mid-
forties now and yet she was still good looking.  From secretary to the late Empress Shangshen, she
had become the concubine of Li Xian and allied herself with his wife.  But now it seemed she had
changed sides and joined the camp of Princess Taiping now.
Have these two women forgotten how they had loved Quo’er when she first arrived?  I made a shout
and charged.  Her protecting guards were taken back by surprise and fell like wheat under the scythe.  
She was brave, even when she found she had nowhere to run, her back against a wall.

“I do not want to kill you.” I said. “I just want to know one thing: who poisoned the Emperor?”

“The Empress Wei…”

“Do not lie to me!  What would she gain with the death of the emperor?  She was not ready!”

Her face paled.  

“Do you want to live, or do you want to die here right here?” I hissed.

She lowered her head.  “It was him.  He planned it and put it over their heads.”

I knew who “he” was and I knew who “their heads” were referred to!

“You bunch of murderers!” I raised my sword.

She looked at me, closed her eyes and bared her neck for the cut.  

“Go! For the sake of the old days, I am not going to kill you.  Go!”

She fled.

I pressed on, the blade of my sword drank more blood.  Where is she!

Then I saw the body of a man, a noble.  I kicked it over.  I knew this face: it was her second husband.  
He was fleeing from a nearby chamber.  I took a deep breath, walked towards it and pushed open the
gate.

She was standing there, facing me, wearing a red silk gown with the motif of a phoenix.

We stood like pillars of stone, looking into each other’s eyes.

A tear rolled down her beautiful face.  

“You have come, my First Knight.  You have finally come.” She said.

I grab her wrist. “No time for this. Come.  I will take you out of here!”

She pulled back, her head shaking.  She refused to go.

“Are you mad?  They will kill you!”

“Let them!  I do not care any more.  They killed my father, and now my mother is gone, left me to my
fate.  Why should I live?”

I did not have the heart to tell her that her mother’s head was already at the end of a pike.

“You do not deserve to die!”

“Don’t I? “ She laughed, hysterically.  “I was their whore.  I had willingly become their whore!  They said
things behind my back, called me right, said I brought the empire to ruin.  Nobody ever asked me if I
wanted this!  Why was I born into this nest of vipers?  Father and son, brothers against one another,
husbands and wives, cousins.  The only rule in this place was never who was in the right and who was
in the wrong.  The only thing mattered was who had the power, who had more soldiers!  We are
doomed!  They, he, would never rest until he had my head, to show the end of a witch!  He will not stop
until he achieves what he wants to do: Emperor!”

“Come with me!” I tried to drag her.

“No! You cannot save me!  You know that!  There are so many out there that once you walk out of here,
they will cut you and I into pieces! Go! Save yourself!”

“Then, let us die together.”

She shook her head again.  “I do not want you to die here with me, First Knight.  What do would it do, to
you, to me, to our daughter?”

I felt my stomach turned inside me.  I knew she was right.  Even the best swordsman in the empire
could not fight his way out with a princess who had lost her will to live.

“What can I do for you?” I said in a low voice.

“Take our daughter away from this land.  It is cursed!” She told me the name of the nunnery where
Yuan Zhi was kept.

I nodded.

“And tell me I am beautiful, First Knight”

“You are.  You always will be, inside my heart.”

She managed a sad smile, then turned and walked to her dressing table where a shiny bronze mirror
stood.

I walked behind her and saw that reflection in the mirror, a face so dazzling, the most beautiful in the
empire.

She brushed her hair with a comb decorated with turquoise and precious stones.

“Do not let them capture me alive, First Knight.”

My heart ached at her words.

“I will not.” I promised her.

She smiled.  This time, there was less sadness, more serenity.

She looked into the mirror once again.  I knew.  Such beauty was captivating, even to the owner.

I let her eyes stay on that reflection for a blink of an eye and then the face was no more, her head
parted with her round shoulders and the torso toppled onto the ground facing the ceiling.

I took up the head and wiped away the blood stain.  It was a beautiful trophy for the beasts outside.  I
did not mind. It was just a head, a part of her former self  Her spirit was no longer inside.

I pulled open the door.  There were more than forty rebel soldiers crowding the yard.  I raised the head
and they cheered.  They thought I had come in order to see justice done.  I threw the head towards
them and as expected, it created an immediate confusion.  

“For our daughter.” I muttered and walked away.


9.

I found the nunnery.

Xia Yun was already there, with a little girl whom I knew instantly was Yuan Zhi.

We did not speak.  The sorrowful looks told all the tales and she wept for her late mistress.

The whole of Chang An was wild in celebration as we three wrestled through the celebrating crowds.

We passed a monastery which the killed Empress had made so much donation in the past years.  The
heads of mother and daughter was impaled onto bamboo rods and erected high as display.  I put my
hands over the eyes of Yuen Zhi and Xia Yun and walked towards the outer gates.


Epilog.

We traveled in the direction of north west border.  Once leaving the territory of Tang, I could find
friends among the nomadic tribes.  These people I had fought and conquered once, and made friends.  
They were good people, pure at heart, forgiving of past dues and had good memory of pledged
friendship.  We would never return to the Middle Kingdom again.   I sometimes wondered if Yuen Zhi
would grow up as beautiful as her mother.  But that should not be a problem.  She was no longer a
princess, no longer a fought over prize.  She was just my daughter.  

Xia Yun stayed with me and as lonely man and woman, we became couples.  Both of us knew I would
not love her as I loved her former mistress.  But that should not be a problem too.  She was content
with what she had and she loved Yuen Zhi.

Not long after we left Chang An, there was another attempted coup.  This time, Princess Taiping tried to
seize power.  She failed and both she and Shangquan Wen’er lost their heads.  Li Longji finally became
emperor.  He brought prosperity and power to the Empire, for many years.  Then he fell in love with a
woman, the wife of her son, and made her a sub-queen and she finally led to internal war which
devastated the land.

The Empire never recovered.

(End of story)

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Comment from: Hitomi
Date: July 26, 2012

oops.  I never realized this was up.  
Seems nobody does too.
Thanks, Othello.


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Comment from: Nastassja
Date: July 26, 2012

Hello Hitomi! Sorry I haven't been online for a while, but of course I was so
delighted to check in here and see your new story. I like the new little teaser
on your contents page that announces your newest.

This story has all the poignant elements that you are so adept at capturing.
The essential nobility of your characters (and not just their station in life,
but the nobility of their hearts and spirits) always touches me. Bravery and
tragedy are also beautifully captured. I felt such an ache in my own heart at
the end.

Everything you write comes alive with the richness of history and
character...I feel that I know these people when I come to end of their story.
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Comment from: Othello
Date: July 26, 2012

My pleasure in posting this fine tale, Hitomi. I agree with everything
Nastassja says...you do indeed bring your characters to life with your
writing, and this story of the First Knight is woven with the skill of a master.
Well done. The moment when her sadness becomes serenity was sad and
lovely all at once. Those are the moments of subtle passion that you create
like no one else.

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Comment from: Hitomi
Date: July 27, 2012

Thanks, Nastassja,Othello.
Yes, I like this story too.
Princess Anle was not really a character much loved by the common people
in China.  She was described as promiscuous, greedy for wealth and power.
This is no surprise as Chinese history was written by male pens and she lost
in the power struggle which cost her life.  But even her critics  spared no
words to describe her breadth-taking beauty.

Othello, I really appreciate your finding a good picture to go along with the
story (though the attire is of the much later Qing Dynasty) thanks all the
same.
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Comment from: Nighthawk
Date; July 27, 2012

Hitomi

You already know my thoughts on this story, from when I read it on Dead
Skirts,

I just wanted to stop by and let you know that you and your tales of history
are very missed.

I was worried that you may have stopped writing, I know you were having
trouble with your muse, and I hope that has been resolved, and that I can
read another one of your stories very soon.....You are greatly missed my
friend.

Vern
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Comment from: Hitomi
Date: July 30, 2012

Thanks, Nighthawk.
Don't worry.  I would sooner be dead than to give up writing. I do not wish to
push my muse till she is ready though and recently, a lot has happened in
my family and city that I must divert attention to.  Besides, it is Olympic time.
Guess people are more interested in the sport arena than the snuff one.
Haha.

I will be back, promise.
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