Some daring assassin tried to ambush the First Emperor at Bolang Sands!
The news spread, shocking an empire.
A carriage in the First Emperor’s entourage was smashed to splinters. Enraged, the emperor promptly ordered a nationwide manhunt. The assassin was said to be Zhang Liang, a native of Hann, but no one could catch the man to close the case.
There were many strange stories about the assassination itself. According to the strangest, the assassin’s weapon had been a giant metal hammer, a hundred and twenty catties in weight! Too ridiculous. But no other explanation existed for the astounding destruction that single blow had caused, and most accepted the story in the end.
In the thirty-fifth year of the First Emperor’s reign, an even more alarming piece of news spread from Xianyang: the emperor had ordered more than four hundred and sixty alchemists and scholars buried alive! They’d wasted tens of thousands in expenditures without creating the immortality potion they’d promised him, and so they died.
Crown Prince Fusu, for his objections to the massacre, was exiled to the northern garrison at Shanjun.
There, far away from the capital, they were constructing a border wall on a massive scale.
Ying Fusu, sitting unhappily by the watchtower, watched the endless flow of convict workers below, ears filled with the undulating clamor of horns and the “peng-peng” of earth being rammed into blocks.
Commander Meng Tian patrolled for a while longer, then slid his whip back through his belt and came to sit beside Fusu. “Crown Prince, don’t worry. This is only a brief lapse in His Majesty’s great wisdom. He’ll summon you back soon.”
Fusu gazed at the Great Wall, winding unbroken into the distance. “Maybe,” he said. His voice sounded uncertain.
He held no grudge against his father for his loss of favor. All he felt was worry and deep fear.
As the son closest and dearest to the First Emperor, he alone realized that his father’s order had not been a rash, spur-of-the-moment misjudgment. He was sick, terribly sick. More terrifyingly, his father himself did not know.---
“We wish to become a Real Being.” The First Emperor sat upon his bed, in high spirits as he gazed upon the Immortal-Gazing Shoes the servant had slipped onto his feet. “Have you heard of Real Beings?”
Li Si, standing at his side, shook his head blankly.
“They enter water without wetting, enter fire without cooking. They can fly upon clouds and vapor, live as long as heaven and earth themselves live. Ah---” He sighed regretfully, voice full of longing. “We truly admire Real Beings. From now on, call us ‘Real Being’ instead of ‘Your Majesty’. Also, we need peace and tranquility. Cease your attempts to get our servants to inform you of our movements.”
Inwardly, Li Si startled. “I would not dare,” he said, head down.
“You would not dare?” The First Emperor snorted. “You’ve already dared!”
Li Si knelt, not daring to raise his head. The First Emperor stood as his servant dressed him in a newly-tailored Smock of Cloud-Thickets. “The last time we were at Liangshan Palace, looking at the escorts you’d sent out below the mountain, we’d said: ‘Such an ostentatious parade!’ No more than an offhand remark, but you decreased the escort the very next day, no? Ah, Li Si, you’re too smart for your own good. Have you heard the saying: ‘so sharp you cut yourself?’”
Li Si, in a cold sweat, prostrated himself. “I... I have committed a misdeed worthy of death,” he said shakily.
The First Emperor turned towards the mirror, examining his new attire from every angle before nodding in satisfaction. Glancing towards Li Si, he said: “Stand up. We’ll let it pass this time. But only this time. If it happens again, we can’t promise what we’ll do with you, understand?”
Li Si stood. “Yes. Thank you, Your Majesty...”
“Oh?” The First Emperor growled.
Li Si hesitated, then understood: “Thank you... Real Being.” The words sounded unnatural in his voice.
The servant started on the First Emperor’s Crown of Rising Firmament. The First Emperor tipped up his chin to let him tie the straps. “There were forty-two servants and aides at my side that day, at Liangshan Palace. I’ve-- ai, loosen the straps a little! Zhao Gao, are you trying to strangle me-- I’ve executed them all. Too much work to interrogate them one by one. Remember that they died because of you.”
Chill after chill crawled up Li Si’s back.
The First Emperor walked over. He patted Li Si lightly on the shoulder and said gently: “Well, things aren’t that serious. We know you’re loyal, that you were only trying to better cater to us. But we wish to become a Real Being now. If you know of all our movements, too much of the mortal world’s dust will cling to us, and that will hinder the divine spirits when they try to appear. So it has to be this way. You understand, don’t you?”
Seeing the First Emperor in his strange clothes, so calmly airing his madnesses, Li Si felt fear to his bones.
The First Emperor made a gesture. The servants scurried to his side, escorting him towards the palace doors. Li Si hurried after him. “Your M... Real Being, the petitioners in Xianyang Palace...”
The First Emperor waved a hand, not bothering to turn his head. “We told you already, you and Feng Quji can work everything out between the two of you!”
“But there are some things that only... only Real Being can decide.”
“We trust you.” The First Emperor turned, said impatiently: “Do as you’d like!”
Li Si said: “It’s been three months since we held court. There are issues of governance...”
“Governance! Governance!” the First Emperor snarled. “We higher beings have things more important than governance to take care of, understand?” He left with a toss of his sleeves.
Li Si could only watch the First Emperor depart into the distance. Was this the same fierce, ambitious young ruler who’d received him when he presented Memorial Against the Expulsion of Foreigners?
“Chancellor, we’d best go back now,” Li Si heard someone behind him say.
“Oh.” Li Si turned. “Grand Historian Zhong.”
Grand Historian Zhong Xiu approached to Li Si. “Chancellor, you should go back,” he repeated. “With things as they are, there’s nothing we can do.”
Li Si’s heart ached. “I long for the King of Qin from before.”
Zhong Xiu sighed. “We all feel the same. You should follow the example of Military Minister Wei-- if the roads are impassable, retreat. Save yourself this grief.”
Li Si turned his head back to gaze at the empty corridor from which the First Emperor had left. For a while, he was silent in melancholy. Then he stamped his foot, said with fury: “It’s all because of that demon! The Military Minister was right. Demons doom a state-- thus it has always been.”
Puzzlement flashed across Zhong Xiu’s eyes. “Who knows? I’ve run the archives for over thirty years, and I’ve never heard of anything like it. Perhaps he truly was a divine spirit...”
“A demon! He could only have been a demon!” Li Si said through gritted teeth. “What divine spirit corrupts a ruler like this? What divine spirit sows chaos in the land like this?”
While the First Emperor eagerly awaited immortality, ill omen after ill omen manifested, as if to spite him. Mars had intruded into the Belt of Orion, the astrologists reported-- a warning!
A meteor landed in the east, and on it was written: “The First Emperor shall die and the land shall divide.”
A demonic creature appeared on the Huaying-Pingshu road, only to disappear without a trace. “This year, the Dragon Forefather shall die,” it had said. Taboo words to the First Emperor, all of them. His temper grew worse, and his close ministers grew more fearful.
The mass executions he ordered afterwards did nothing to improve his mood. In the end, the First Emperor decided to embark on another tour of his empire, to cleanse the ill omens wherever he found them, and clear the ire from his heart.
Accompanying the First Emperor were Chancellor of the Left Li Si and the young prince Huhai. No one expected that these two guests in the entourage would rewrite the fate of an empire.
The First Emperor traveled to Yunmeng, performing sacrifices to Yu Shun at the Jiuyi Mountains. Then he followed the flow of the Yangtze river, in high spirits as he admired the passing scenery. Across the banks, past Danyang, to the Qiantang River, then across Zhejiang, and up Kuaiji Mountain, where he sacrificed to the Great Yu. Like before, he left plaques and steles to sing of his own deeds as he made his way towards the sea. Past Wu County, another river crossing at Jiangcheng County. From there he traced the coastline north towards Langya.
The alchemists led by Xu Fu had claimed that there existed a magical mountain in the sea, populated by immortals who also held the secret of bestowing immortality. They’d failed to obtain the secret after much expenditure, yes, but that was the fault of the giant sharks that attacked them every time they ventured into open water. The First Emperor, who’d been so disillusioned by the promises of the alchemists, still found it in him to believe this laughable explanation. On this expedition, he had ordered men to bring massive versions of various fishing gear, and a heavy crossbow for himself, in anticipation of the giant sharks.
They saw no large fish on the voyage from Langya to Rongcheng Mountain. On the voyage to Zhifu Mountain, they saw some bigger fish, and shot one, but they couldn’t tell if it was the same kind that Xu Shi had warned them of.
The accompanying ministers and officials saw the First Emperor less and less on the return trip. After Shaqiu, not even his aides met with him. Only Chancellor Li Si, his servant Zhao Gao, and a few trusted others ever entered the emperor’s carriage.
A fast horse and messenger galloped towards Shangjun.
The edict, written on light silk, floated to the ground from Fusu’s hands.
Trembling, Fu Su reached for the sword that had accompanied the edict and slowly drew it. The messenger stood to the side, watching coldly.
Meng Tian rushed through the door and seized Fusu’s hand. “Crown Prince, what are you doing?”
Fusu pointed to the edict on the floor. “See for yourself.”
Meng Tian picked up the edict, read it. His head snapped up. “Crown Prince, you can’t kill yourself! This edict can only be a fake!”
Fusu stared emptily into the distance. “It’s my father’s handwriting, my father’s seal, my father’s sword. What part of it is fake?”
Meng Tian grabbed Fusu’s shoulders forcibly, shouted: “The seal and the sword could have been stolen! Either Li Si and Zhao Gao could have imitated His Majesty’s handwriting! Crown Prince, think about it. His Majesty gave me three hundred thousand good troops to garrison here and named you as supervisor. He granted us such great authority, and now he suddenly wants us to kill ourselves? Don’t you find this suspicious?”
The messenger impatiently feigned a cough.
Fusu slowly shifted his gaze to Meng Tian. His smile was full of grief. “No, this truly is my father’s intent, I know.”
Fu Su obeyed his father’s edict and committed suicide. Meng Tian refused, but agreed to surrender his command, and was taken prisoner.
They revealed the news after the carriages returned to Xianyang. Only then did everyone learn: the First Emperor had passed away on the return journey.
Chancellor Li Si announced the First Emperor’s dying edict: his eighteenth son, Huhai, would succeed him as emperor.
More than passing strange, that the First Emperor would order his eldest son to commit suicide, and give the throne to a much younger son, when he’d never shown the slightest intention of such a plan before. Why had he suddenly made such an unusual decision in the last days of his life?
Some began to suspect: the First Emperor’s dying edict had been tampered with.
Some began to speculate: Li Si and Zhao Gao, who’d been closest to the First Emperor, were hiding something.
But regardless of the suspicions and speculations, Huhai was still the Crown Prince. And so he ascended the throne and became the Qin Dynasty’s Second Emperor.
The new emperor soon revealed his cruelty and incompetency. Immediately, he ordered that all of the former emperor’s childless concubines be buried with him in his tomb. Under Zhao Gao’s persuasion, he executed the great ministers who’d served his father, and a few dozen of the other princes and princesses, so that none living had the authority to challenge his right of rule. To prop up his prestige, he imitated the First Emperor and toured the land in great expeditions, carving steles of self-praise wherever he went-- though he had no achievements to praise.
From that April onwards, he ordered the continued construction of Epang Palace, as well as the relocation of fifty thousand troops to Xianyang. Though he called them a garrison, they were in reality meant to accompany the emperor on his hunts. The city ran low on food with the sudden population increase; therefore, he ordered other counties to ship supplies to Xianyang-- enough for the soldiers and laborers, as well as enough to sustain the transport crews on their long journeys.
Such a massive project, coupled with such wastage, drove the common people into greater and greater poverty. Outrage seethed amongst the peasants, but the Second Emperor did nothing to ease their discontent; he only tightened the laws, enacted harsher punishments.
A dangerous thing to do, but no one dared to point this out.
Grim laws and mass purges had taught the ministers of the court to tread fearfully. To protect their own lives and livelihood, they’d learned to speak only flattery and share only heartening news. For this reason, no one had even dared to tell the new emperor: in the province that had once been the state of Chu, someone had begun a rebellion!
The first to revolt was a band of garrison soldiers led by Chen Sheng. He declared himself King of Chu afterwards, with the reign name of “Unfurling Chu”. The peasants, who’d long suffered under the oppressive rule of Qin, rose in droves in answer to Chen Sheng, killing the Qin officials in county after county.
Chen Sheng ordered his subordinate Wu Guang to attack Xinyang to the west; Wu Chen, Zhang Er, and Chen Yu to retake the territory formerly under Zhao rule; Deng Zong to conquer Jiujiang; Zhou Shi to retake Wei territory. More and more troops joined his revolt: Qin Jia of Ling County, Zhu Jishi of Fuli, Liu Bang of Pei County, Xiang Liang and Xiang Yu of central Wu...
East of Xiao Mountain, Qin authority soon crumbled away. West of Xiao Mountain, its control was no longer absolute: under Chen Sheng’s order, Zhou Wen marched west to attack Qin, and soon reached the main doorway to Xianyang-- Hangu Pass.
Everyone believed now: the Qin empire would fall.
And yet, events took a rapid turn for the worse.
At Xiting, barely a hundred li from Xianyang, the Qin Treasurer Zhang Han led an army to smash Zhou Wen. The rebels, so close to victory, were forced to retreat back through Hangu Pass.
And no one came to help this lone force, deep in enemy territory. The reason was simple: everyone knew that Qin was about to fall, so everyone had begun to consider how to reap the biggest gains afterwards.
As things currently stood, if Zhou Wen had succeeded in conquering Qin, Chen Sheng’s position would have soared. But ever since Chen Sheng named himself king, he’d become more and more arrogant, more and more volatile. When some of his old laborer friends visited and dared to treat him like an equal, he’d executed them. If a person like him gained control of the land, who’d be able to live in peace afterwards?
So the others only watched as Zhou Wen was defeated and then defeated again, until he finally committed suicide. Every rebel force was too busy carving out territory or infighting to help.
As those willing to fight for Chen Sheng dwindled, those willing to betray him grew in number.
In December, pursued by Qin forces, Chen Sheng retreated to Ruyin. He would die there. One night, as he slept off the evening’s drinking, one of his carriage drivers hacked off his head and presented it to the Qin army.
People have short attention spans in times of chaos; no one bothered to mourn this rebel, who’d been brave enough to lead the first struggle against Qin. Soon enough, a new King of Chu ascended the throne. Unlike Chen Sheng, this king was actually of the Chu royal bloodline. Xiang Liang and his nephew Xiang Yu had found him, the grandson of King Huai of Chu, hiding amongst the commoners. To call upon the nostalgia and patriotism of the people of Chu, they gave him the same title as his grandfather; he, too, would be called King Huai.
The battle was still being fought, but not in the same way as before.
They were no longer rebels united against a tyrannical Qin. The six states toppled one by one at Qin Shihuang’s hands stood independent again, as if the clock had turned back twenty years.