He called himself “the Guest of Canghai.”
The King of Qi treated his chilly guest with the utmost courtesy, ushering him into the inner palace to speak. But the black-robed man seemed to treat the King of Qi exceedingly discourteously-- no, with astonishing contempt.
Once he’d sat down, his first words were: “Very good, it seems my master didn’t misjudge you. In less than three years, you’ve already achieved considerable progress.”
Ji Jiang, attending them from the corner of the room, gaped. How dared this person talk like that to His Highness?
But the King of Qi didn’t seem to object. “All granted by your exalted master, of course. I’ll have to express my gratitude in deeds. Did you bring the diagram?”
Ji Jiang grew more and more astonished as she listened.
The black-robed man said: “Here it is.” He took out a rolled-up picture of some sort and laid it on the table, followed by a smaller scroll. “The plan has changed somewhat. First help me find these items.”
The King of Qi took the scroll and unrolled it. “What do you need these things for? They aren’t used in construction.”
The black-robed man said: “There’s been a mishap. My master has lost a certain important item and needs these raw materials to recreate it. The materials are considerable in variety and require high purity of composition, and collecting them could prove bothersome. But you’re the ruler of a nation now, after all. It shouldn’t be too difficult.”
The King of Qi thought for a while, then said: “I’ll need time.”
The black-robed man said: “Will two years suffice?”
The King of Qi nodded. “That’ll work.”
The black-robed man said: “My master won’t make you toil for nothing. When his greater plans succeed, he’ll grant you additional recompense.”
The King of Qi said: “That won’t be necessary. He’s given me enough already.”
The black-robed man said: “Then you can begin work, yes?”
The King of Qi said: “I have an additional request.”
“What request?” asked the black-robed man.
The King of Qi said: “Tell me why!”
“What do you mean?”
The King of Qi pointed at the rolled-up diagram on the desk. “The reason for this construction project.”
“I’ve told you before: mere mortals cannot conjecture as to the workings of the divine!” the Guest of Canghai said darkly. “You only need to do as you’re told.”
“But I must know!” the King of Qi insisted.
The black-robed man’s gaze turned harsh. “So you can renege on your deal?”
The King of Qi said: “No, I only want to know why. It’s for the sake of the project.”
The black-robed man asked “What do you mean?”
The King of Qi said: “I can’t undertake such a massive construction project without some sort of justification for my people.”
The black-robed man said: “With your current power and reputation, you don’t need to justify anything to anyone.”
“Perhaps,” said the King of Qi, “but you forgot something.”
The black-robed man said: “What?”
The King of Qi said: “Even the most powerful king eventually grows old.”
The black-robed man stilled.
“This project will take a long time,” the King of Qi continued. “I can control the present, but I can’t make any guarantees for the future. Tell me why! That way, I can come up with a longer-term plan to ensure the work is continued.”
The black-robed man shook his head. “I apologize. It’s not that I’m unwilling to tell you, but that I myself don’t know. My master never told me.”
The King of Qi said: “Very well, then. Tell your master: I want to see him.”
The black-robed man’s whole body stiffened. “What... what did you say?”
The King of Qi said: “I want to see your master and ask him in person. Maybe he’ll tell me why.”
The black-robed man wore a strange expression, as if he’d seen something incomprehensible. “Are... are you sure? Do you truly wish to see my master?”
“Yes,” said the King of Qi. “Please relay to him: no matter how deep or difficult his motives, I believe I’ll be able to understand it. I would like him to try.”
The black-robed man examined the King of Qi for a long while, then nodded. “I can repeat your request to my master, but I can’t promise anything. I’ll bring you his response next month.” He stood and began to walk away.”
“Wait,” the King of Qi said. “There’s something else I want to ask.”
The black-robed man turned his head. His cold face showed a trace of anger. “If this is about the construction again, I hope you won’t--”
The King of Qi said: “No, it has nothing to do with the construction. I wanted to ask some things about you yourself. Only out of curiosity, mind you. It’s fine if you choose not to answer.”
“About me?” The black-robed man seemed taken aback. “What do you want to know?”
The King of Qi said: “I remember you said that you, too, were only an ordinary person.”
The black-robed man said: “That’s correct.”
The King of Qi asked: “Then how did you come to follow your master?”
The black-robed man’s gaze suddenly grew melancholic. It was a long time before he said: “He was an associate of my great-grandfather’s. I admired him, and so chose to pursue him.” The black-robed man’s few short sentences inexplicably seemed to hold a sense of bygone time, of loss and change.
The King of Qi was taken aback at his tone of voice.
The black-robed man looked at him and sighed softly. He said: “I will leave now. Young man, your talent far exceeds the ordinary, and your future holds endless potential. Be careful. Don’t forget what I said: you cannot renege on a deal with a god. Otherwise, what he allows you to gain, he can also take away.” He turned and left.
Ji Jiang looked at the black-robed man’s retreating back, then at the King of Qi, still seated, deep in thought. She felt as if she’d just woken from a dream.
The King of Qi began sending men to find and purchase strange materials: cinnabar, realgar, plumbago, crystal quartz, lead, mica, monazite... some in vast quantities at a time, others only in minute amounts. He kept them sorted into piles in the western palace wing.
As the King of Qi busied himself with these matters, Kuai Che requested another audience. He again spent hours in a private room discussing something with the King of Qi.
When Kuai Che left afterwards, Ji Jiang, who’d stood guard outside the door, hurried after him. “Sir Kuai, Sir Kuai!”
Kuai Che paused in his steps and turned back. “What is it? Did the king call for me again?”
Ji Jiang said: “No, I wanted to ask you something. Sir Kuai, I know what you and the King of Qi talked about. I only want to ask, did the king agree?”
Kuai Che laughed: “What do you understand, little girl?” He turned to leave.
Ji Jiang said: “Weren’t you just trying to make him declare independence from Han?”
Kuai Che froze. He turned back. “What did you say?”
Ji Jiang’s mouth twitched. “What are you so worried about? I’m not going to tell. I’m of the same opinion as you. I tried to persuade the king too, but I wasn’t sure if he actually decided. Sir, what did the king say earlier? Did he agree?”
Kuai Che looked at Ji Jiang and sighed. “Little girl, no wonder the king said you were different from other girls. But did you really fail to notice what the king’s been so busy with lately?”
Ji Jiang said: “What? All I know is that he keeps asking around about all sorts of strange substances. He’s using the entire west palace wing to store it all. They don’t seem to have any military purposes.”
Kuai Che said: “Military purposes? Hah! Cinnabar, realgar, lead-- aren’t they substances used in alchemy?”
His words struck Ji Jiang numb. When she at last recovered, she shook her head violently. “No! It can’t be! The king isn’t that sort of person. He wouldn’t do something so insane!”
Kuai Che said: ‘I didn’t believe it either, and I’ve known him for longer than you! But look at the way he acts now. He barely pays attention when you speak to him. I don’t know what he’s thinking inside. Ai... he wasn’t like this before! Right, Ji Jiang, you’re always by the king’s side. Do you recall if he’s come into contact with any occultists or the such lately?”
“No,” Ji Jiang said. “Oh, a few days ago, a black-robed man came, all cold and mysterious. He called himself ‘the Guest of Canghai.’ He and the king talked for a long time about things I couldn’t understand. Only, I don’t remember him saying anything about alchemy or anything.”
“Isn’t that enough?” Kuai Che stamped his foot. “Do you think occultists open with their nonsense about alchemy and immortality? These people are crafty. They’ll circle and dodge around the topic, and when you finally fall into their trap, you won’t even realize it! Ai! His Highness is the sort of wise ruler who comes once a generation. How could he...”
The more Ji Jiang heard, the more she feared.
Kuai Che walked away, sighing and shaking his head.
Ji Jiang entered the private chamber, where the King of Qi sat in a daze.
“Your Highness,” Ji Jiang said.
The King of Qi made an absent-minded noise of affirmation. He didn’t turn to look at her.
Worried, Ji Jiang walked over and sat across from the King of Qi, watching him.
She waited a long time before the King of Qi seemed to suddenly notice her presence. “Oh, Ji Jiang. Are you here for something?”
Ji Jiang said: “Your Highness, have you considered Kuai Che’s words?”
“Oh, that?” The King of Qi smiled. “A minor matter, nothing more. I have other things to consider at this time. I’ll get around to it after I’m done with them.” His gaze drifted away from her, and he again fell into a daze.
Ji Jiang looked at the King of Qi. She wanted to say something, but didn’t know what to say. She sat for a while longer, frustrated and upset. In the end, she could only stand up and head for the door.
Absorbed in his thoughts, the King of Qi didn’t even notice that she’d left.
Ji Jiang sat by the garden pond, dully looking at her own reflection: a girl, swarthy and skinny and small, plain of face. Her only redeemable feature was her large, bright eyes, but they held a melancholy unbefitting to her age. Weeping willows and artificial hills stood by the pond’s side, casting lovely reflections upon the waters. Only her reflection was ugly. Ai!
How could a graceful, imposing king like him care about a girl as ugly as her? But she cared about him... King of Qi, King of Qi, just what’s going on in your head? She sighed, planning to leave.
Suddenly, she froze, staring at the reflections in the water.
The artificial hill across from her was reflected in the pond, and on the hill stood two people. One wore a golden headdress like the King of Qi-- but she’d just seen the King of Qi in his private chamber, lost in thought. The other was small and thin. She couldn’t see the figure clearly, but it gave her a terrible premonition.
She inhaled and slowly raised her head.
On the artificial hill opposing her, the King of Qi stood, his arm around the shoulders of a small, thin, girl. The girl was swarthy and skinny and short, plain of face, but her eyes were large and bright.
She felt as if her blood had frozen in her veins-- that girl could be her own mirror reflection!
That “King of Qi” began to speak. The day was clear, and their surroundings were silent. She could hear every word.
“Do you understand?”
I understand, Ji Jiang screamed internally, shaking. I understand!
Sacrificing the plum to preserve the peach tree!
Stealing the sky and replacing the sun!
“I understand,” that other “her” said, nodding.
Heavens, even the voice was the same.
Ji Jiang moaned and collapsed.
Just before she lost consciousness, she dimly noticed a flash of light.
When she woke, the King of Qi sat at her bedside.
“Are you feeling better?” the King of Qi asked anxiously. “Yes? I’ll help you sit up. The physician said you received a strong shock and prescribed some medicine. It’s finished brewing now.”
Ji Jiang nodded and managed to sit up with effort. The King of Qi tucked a pillow behind her back, carried over the bowl of medicine, and fed her with the spoon himself.
Ji Jiang’s teeth wouldn’t stop chattering as she drank, knocking at the spoon and splattering medicine onto the King of Qi’s brand-new silken robes. When she was done, the King of Qi set down the bowl and wiped the corner of Ji Jiang’s mouth with a cloth, then dabbed at his robes. “What happened?” he asked. “You fainted for no apparent reason by the pond. You gave me a big scare.”
Ji Jiang sat there dazedly. Slowly, she said: “I... I saw...”
Suddenly, she burst into tears and threw herself against the King of Qi. “Your Highness, I’m scared... I’m really, truly, scared...” she managed between sobs.
The King of Qi patted her back. “Don’t be afraid. You can tell me everything slowly. I’m the King of Qi. There’s nothing we can’t deal with.”
“No, not this time.” Ji Jiang sobbed. “This time, even you can’t do anything. They... they have a horse identical to Windchaser, and... a person identical to you, and... and a person identical to me. I know what they’re trying to do. They can’t beat you in battle, so... so they have to use treachery. They know everyone barely dares to look at you, that no one would wonder if you’ve been replaced. Only... only I act like you’re just another person, and... and only Windchaser can recognize the person, not the clothes and headdress. Your Highness, I’m scared... what if, someday, they secretly replace us all? No one would notice. No one would realize if we all died... Your Highness, Your Highness, what do we do?”
The King of Qi was silent for a long time. Suddenly, he smiled radiantly. “Ji Jiang, I understand. Don’t cry, it’s fine, it’s all fine, believe me.”
Ji Jiang looked at the King of Qi with tear-blurred eyes. “Your Highness...”
“It’s fine,” the King of Qi said. “Go to sleep. Nothing will happen, don’t worry. And I can promise you that you’ll know what’s going on at some point in the future. Sleep!” He pulled the blanket over Ji Jiang.
But Ji Jiang shrank away from him, her still-damp eyes wary.
The King of Qi was taken aback, but his expression soon changed to a smile. “You suspect that I’ve been replaced? I should be the one suspecting that you’ve been replaced! I’ve only ever told you about the fortune Kuai Che told for me. He said: ‘When I read your face, I saw that you would hold no title higher than marquis, surrounded by perils...’”
“‘When I read your back, I saw matchless greatness.’” Ji Jiang laughed, embarrassed.
The King of Qi gently patted her cheek. “You have a fine memory, little girl. Now be good and sleep. Don’t let your imagination get the better of you.”
Easy to say, but hard to do. Her thoughts whirled wildly in her head for a long time before she finally fell asleep. One nightmare after another followed. She dreamt of thousands, tens of thousands of identical Windchasers crowded into the stables, and her desperate, futile attempts to find the real one; of the King of Qi, who smiled at her gently, then reached up and slowly tore the skin off of his own face in one continuous piece, revealing the frozen, pale countenance of a stranger; of the royal palace reduced to overgrown ruins, and pheasants idly foraging amongst the weeds. She stood among them, alone and fearful...
In May, that cold, thin man in black returned.
Ever since Kuai Che’s warning, Ji Jiang had felt strong antipathy towards this black-robed man. But the King of Qi treated him courteously like before, and Ji Jiang could only force down her dislike and watch.
“My master agrees,” the black-robed man said. “I’ve relayed your words to him, and he seems to have developed an interest in you. He’s more than happy to meet you.”
The King of Qi looked as if he’d expected this outcome. “When? Can I go today?”
The black-robed man said: “Yes, although we won’t be able to arrive there today. We’ll reach the shore at most.”
“The shore?” the King of Qi asked.
The black-robed man said: “My master lives on an island in the sea.”
The King of Qi nodded in realization. “No wonder all your pseudonyms have something to do with the sea. Where along the coast do we need to go to first?”
“Zhifu,” the black-robed man said.
The more Ji Jiang heard, the more suspicious she grew.
As the King of Qi ordered the carriage prepared, Ji Jiang came over and whispered: “Your Highness, don’t go.”
“Why?” he asked.
Ji Jiang said: “The Guest of Canghai seems shady to me.”
“Oh?” The King of Qi turned towards her. “What’s wrong?”
Ji Jiang said: “He’s leading you down a path of darkness.”
“A path of darkness?”
Ji Jiang said: “The First Emperor walked it before you when he tried to find immortals upon the seas.”
“Huh,” the King of Qi said thoughtfully.
“Your Highness, of all the mountains the First Emperor visited during his eastern tours, he went to Zhifu most often. He even left two steles there to praise his own deeds, we people of Qi all know. His voyages, not to mention the expeditions he sent Xu Fu, Lu Sheng, and Hou Sheng on, set off from there more times than any other place. Your Highness, I have a bad feeling about this. Please don’t go.”
The King of Qi patted Ji Jiang’s hair, then her cheek. “Don’t worry,” he laughed. “I’m not the First Emperor.”
The King of Qi left, saying that it would take a number of days before he could return. By coincidence, Kuai Che came looking for him on the second day.
Ji Jiang awkwardly told him that the King of Qi had gone out to sea with the Guest of Canghai. In response, Kuai Che sighed heavenward: “The will of heaven! The will of heaven! His majesty took that step in the end. Ji Jiang, when he returns, tell him that I can’t serve him anymore. Let him do as he pleases!”
Ji Jiang grabbed Kuai Che’s sleeve. “Sir Kuai, Sir Kuai, don’t leave! Try again! You’re so good with words. If even you can’t persuade the King of Qi away from his course, who can?”
Kuai Che shook his head. “Even the wisest ruler can’t be saved once he takes this step.”
Ji Jiang knelt with tears in her eyes. “Sir Kuai, don’t give up on him! Try again!”
Kuai Che looked at Ji Jiang, sighed, and helped her up. “The King of Qi judged you correctly, it seems. It’s a pity he isn’t so clearsighted when it comes to himself. Ai, give me a blank scroll, then. I’ll leave a few words for the King of Qi.”
Sobbing, Ji Jiang brought him a scroll. When Kuai Che finished, he handed it back to her. He shook his head once again, sighed, and left.
A few steps later, he suddenly paused. For a moment, he stood, then turned back.
A glimmer of hope surfaced in Ji Jiang’s heart. “Sir Kuai?”
Kuai Che said: “Ji Jiang. Relay to the king that my words about his face and back weren’t purely empty rhetoric. I really do know a little of feature-reading. His Five Peaksare generous, but his brows are like blades, a sign of great disaster hidden within great fortune. Ai! He’s the worthiest master I’ve found in all my life. It’s a pity...”