In July, Zhang Liang came once again as the King of Han’s envoy to Qi.
“The King of Han fought a battle at Guling against Xiang Yu,” Zhang Liang said. “It went poorly. We’ve retreated to the safety of the city walls for the moment. The King of Han wishes to ask you, is the kingdom of Qi sufficiently pacified by now? Can you now help him eliminate Xiang Yu?”
The King of Qi calculated each side’s strength, then said: “The Chu army is mighty. To fully destroy it, we need an absolute advantage in numbers.”
Zhang Liang said: “The King of Han plans to join with you and Peng Yue and attack Xiang Yu together. He’ll give you the position of Grand Marshal and command of all three armies. Will that be enough?”
The King of Qi said: “Yes. Even if it were still insufficient, I can make up for the difference with formations. It should prove enough to defeat Xiang Yu.”
“Good!” Zhang Liang said. “If you raise your troops and destroy Western Chu, the King of Han has decreed: ‘All the territory of Chu east of Chen till the ocean I shall add to the holdings of the King of Qi, with all due tallies and seals, until the end of all time.” Zhang Liang handed the Grand Marshal’s tiger tally to the King of Qi.
The King of Qi bowed and accepted it, then said: “Zifang, don’t hurry off this time. The stage is set, and I’m confident that we can destroy Western Chu in the near future. Come, let’s drink and talk till the late hours of the night!”
Zhang Liang laughed. “I’ll welcome the talking part, but not the drinking part. Of late, I’ve been practicing the Daoist ways of self-betterment and restraint. I can’t touch wine.”
“You’re joking!” said the King of Qi. “You’re entangled in war and dust and politics. How does Daoism remotely suit you? Come, let’s drink. Ji Jiang, have them bring out a few vats of the good--”
Zhang Liang said: “I’m not joking. I really do follow the practices.”
The King of Qi was taken aback. “You’re really a practicing Daoist?”
“Truly,” said Zhang Liang.
The King of Qi looked Zhang Liang over from head to toe. “Why?”
Zhang Liang said: “You know that my health is poor.”
The King of Qi could only stare. In the end, he shook his head. “I don’t understand you. How about I get you a bit of fruit wine, then? The fruit wine of Qi is sweet and clear, as far from mortal smoke as you can get. It won’t interfere with your practices.”
Nonetheless, at the dinner banquet, Zhang Liang only let Ji Jiang pour a single, shallow cup. Despite all the delicacies on the table, he ate only a few mouthfuls of simple vegetables. He touched nothing containing garlic or ginger.
Unable to sit by and watch any longer, the King of Qi said: “Zifang, Daoist practices or not, you can’t starve yourself like this. You know how the King of Han depends on you. You carry a heavy burden. If you don’t eat enough, your body won’t stand this.
Zhang Liang said: “It’s enough. I haven’t touched wine for years; I break custom tonight for your sake. I’m practicing Chisongzi’s branch of Daoism, after all. In the later stages, one is supposed to abstain from grain.”
Listening from the side, Ji Jiang startled. “Abstain from grain? Then is there anything you can eat?”
The King of Qi, too, was astonished. “Zifang, life is short. What’s the point of putting yourself through such suffering?”
Zhang Liang smiled a little. “Suffering? It depends on how you look at it.” He took a light sip of wine. “In my youth, my family took me to the renowned feature-reader Xu Fu to learn my fortune. ‘This child’s features are too fine,’ she told us. ‘He will possess exceptional gifts, but little good fortune.’ She advised my family that some scrapes and hard knocks during my childhood would do me good, but how could my family allow that? My family, one of the great clans, provider of chancellors to five generations of Hann rulers. How could they let others say that they couldn’t even raise a child properly? In the end, I was clothed in silks and ate from jade plates, and gold was as common to me as dirt. I lived a comfortable childhood, but not a comfortable adulthood: frail, sickly, a life of flight and exile. I’d used up my little good fortune early on, leaving nothing but hardships for the rest of my life. I know to conserve and appreciate nowadays. And I truly feel that my health has improved greatly since I began regulating my food and drink.”
The King of Qi, taken aback, shook his head. “How did you come up with such a ridiculous argument? By your reasoning, every heir and princeling is doomed to a later life of suffering.”
“Not for certain,” Zhang Liang said. “Some people are born with more good fortune than others, and I happen to be born with a smaller share.”
“Nonsense!” the King of Qi laughed. “Look for the reasons behind your hardships. You gave the First Emperor a whack at Bolang Sands, which forced you to go into a life of flight and exile, which strained your health! What does that have to do with fortune?”
Zhang Liang said: “But if I weren’t born to a great family, exalted by the grace of my state, would I have tried to assassinate Qin Shihuang? Would an ordinary Hann commoner have done such a thing?”
“Nonsense,” said the King of Qi. “All nonsense.”
Zhang Liang smiled gently. “Perhaps. Who can know the shadowy workings of the world? The chain of cause and effect I spoke of may only be my own conjecture, and far from the true causes and effects.”
The King of Qi said: “You’re getting more and more arcane. This is the problem with smart people! Once your thoughts take a few turns off the main road, you’re even harder to pull back than stupid people. You have to make a simple matter complicated, and come up with a meticulous explanation for it all too. Never mind, I won’t argue with you over this. Speaking of Bolang Sands, I do have something I want to ask you-- since a long time ago, really, but I was afraid you’d take it the wrong way.”
Surprised, Zhang Liang said: “Ask away.”
The King of Qi said: “Everyone says that you smashed one of Qin Shihuang’s accompanying carriages to bits with a one hundred and twenty catty hammer. But you don’t seem like you’d have the strength to truss up a chicken. How could you carry such a heavy weapon? And even if you could, you’d either have to attack from the high ground or strike at close range. That requires either mountainous terrain with peaks and valleys, or rugged, dense wilderness for concealment. I’ve been to Bolang Sands a few years ago, during a campaign. The terrain was flat enough to ride across-- there were a few low dunes for obstacles, but no real trees, even. At the time, I couldn’t help but wonder how you could have staged your assassination there. How to hide beforehand. How to strike. How to escape if it didn’t succeed. They say I fight crooked, but there, I racked my brain for a way and couldn’t find one. Ai, tell me, what brilliant scheme did you use?”
Zhang Liang turned his wine-cup back and forth in his hand. He sighed, then said: “At last, someone has thought to ask me these questions.”
“No one’s asked you this before?” the King of Qi said, incredulous.
Zhang Liang said: “Do you think everyone has your strategic mind and attention to detail? Country bumpkins and farmwives will spin a tale to explain even the most inexplicable things. I’ve heard one man deep in his cups tell everyone that I’d hired a warrior of superhuman strength, eighty feet tall, with a waist twenty handspans around. Would such a creature even be human?”
Ji Jiang snickered.
“I could use such a warrior to help me take cities,” the King of Qi laughed. “It would save me the trouble of building siege ladders.”
Zhang Liang laughed too. “I can’t blame people for failing to guess the truth, I fear. Looking back, I myself can’t help but wonder if my experiences were nothing more than a dream.”
His smile faded, and for a moment he was silent in thought. Slowly, he said: “I will have to start from the fall of my homeland. I’ve mentioned before, my family members have served as chancellors to five rulers of Hann. My grandfather was chancellor to Marquis Zhao of Hann, then King Xuanhui and King Xiang’ai; my father was chancellor to King Li and King Daohui. Exalted by the grace of our state. I would sacrifice anything for Hann. Even if I could not resurrect my state, I thought, I would avenge it by slaying the tyrant.
“I dismissed our household’s three hundred or so servants, sold family estates worth tens of thousands. When my younger brother died, I gave him no funeral or tomb worthy of him, in my dedication to finding heroes to help me in my assassination attempt. Everyone called me mad, that I would waste so much family property on a fool’s quest. Perhaps they were right. Years before, Crown Prince Dan of Yan had used his influence over a nation to arrange his assassination attempt, and it had ended in failure. How could I, a pampered, sheltered princeling from a fallen state, succeed where he had failed? And I had heard, too, that ever since Jing Ke and Gao Jianli’s failed assassination attempts, Qin Shihuang had grown wary of the people of the other six states, and had tightened his guard even further. Even if I debased myself and sold myself as a palace servant, I would have no hope of approaching him.
“I knew perfectly well that killing Qin Shihuang was a task of monumental difficulty, but I made that choice nonetheless. I was young: I’d held no office in Hann, sheltered no important visitors under my roof, lacked the personal prestige to raise an army. All I could do for Hann was kill a man.
“I searched all the land under heaven, far and wide in the four directions. I walked many roads and suffered many hardships, and nearly died a few times. I didn’t resent the hardships. All I resented was, why couldn’t I find someone who could help me realize my dreams?
“Finally, one day, heaven took pity on me and allowed me to meet a certain man in Huaiyang. He called himself the Gentleman of Canghai--”
The King of Qi startled. “What did you say he was called?”
“The Gentleman of Canghai,” repeated Zhang Liang. “Why?”
“The Gentleman of Canghai...” the King of Qi murmured. “The Gentleman of the East Sea... the Guest of Canghai... surely it can’t be coincidence? No, no...” Suddenly, he asked: “What did he look like?”
Zhang Liang said: “His face wasn’t remarkable, just... cold and distant. And he wore black--”
“Ah,” the King of Qi cried. He stood and said: “Wait here,” then rushed into his inner rooms. A moment later, he returned with a rolled-up silk illustration in his hand. He spread it out on his desk. “Does he look familiar?”
“Yes, it’s him!” Zhang Liang said faintly. “It’s him! I recognize that cold, detached air of his... but why would you have a picture of him?”
The King of Qi rolled up the silk and gave him a small smile. “This one has been a busy man. Going into more detail would take a while. Interestingly, all whom he contacts seem to be people out of the ordinary. Clearly, you belong to that group, if he found you. But I digress. Continue! I’m finding your story more and more interesting.”
Zhang Liang said: “We met in a very odd manner. That day, I was sitting alone in an inn with the knowledge that my money was running out, worrying about the quest that still lay in front of me. Suddenly, a black-robed man pushed open the door and entered. I can swear that I’d never seen him before, but inexplicably, upon seeing me, he called out my name without hesitation. He could help me complete my ‘great quest,’ he told me.
“At that moment, it struck me that he was the hero I was looking for! So I asked him nothing and knelt in front of him. I told him, if he could help me succeed, I would pay any price, follow any instructions, without hesitation or regret.
“When he helped me up, he saw my face. He paused, then stepped back, examining me up and down. He looked disappointed. ‘No, it won’t work,’ he said. ‘You have a woman’s face. I fear that people won’t learn to respect you when the time comes... ai, a pity...’ He took a few more steps back, then sat, still looking at me. He sighed.
“His words confused me. I wanted to ask questions, but didn’t dare. He sat there, seemingly lost in his thoughts. Now and then, he would mutter to himself: ‘We must seek that one, then... but... ai!” Now and then, he raised his head and looked back at me. “Hmm... if we arrange it thus, it could work... we could at least take the opportunity to provoke him...
“The more I listened, the more confused I became. But he suddenly stood and said to me: ‘Tomorrow morning, I will look for you here. Don’t leave before then.’ With these parting words, he walked away.
“The next day, he arrived at the specified time with a tall, heavy package. When he opened it, I saw a long object made out of some blackish material, pointed at one end. Its shape was strange-- not quite a hammer, nor a sword. I didn’t understand what it was. He told me, very seriously, that it was an ancient device of supernatural power, capable of striking enemies from a thousand li away. I must use it wisely. He gave me detailed instructions on how to use it. I memorized them, but I couldn’t dispel the questions in my heart.
“He next gave me a map. Two months later, he told me, Qin Shihuang would begin his next tour of his empire, and the map showed the route he would take. I could use it to decide where I would attempt my assassination. As I listened, my doubts grew. Qin Shihuang was infamous for his paranoia. He didn’t even allow his attendants to reveal his movements in his Xianyang palace and park, on pain of death. How could this black-robed man possibly have obtained an itinerary of his tour two months in advance?
“I was full of questions, but once he finished his instructions, he strolled away. I hurried after him and asked his name; ‘the Gentleman of Canghai,’ he said, without even turning his head. Obviously a pseudonym, I knew, but I had no opportunities to inquire further. I never saw him again after that.
“I followed the map, visiting locations along the route, and finally decided upon Bolang Sands. If that Gentleman of Canghai had been truthful, it would be the best place for an assassination.
“I wanted terrain flat enough to ride across. I wanted terrain with no hazards or obstacles. Others may need places of concealment for their assassination attempts, but I didn’t. I hid myself ten li away from the main road. Who could find me? Once I struck, who could catch me? If I hadn’t so badly wanted to see the destruction of my nemesis with my own eyes, I could have waited even further away.
“An eternity later, Qin Shihuang’s entourage arrived, vast and seemingly endless, even from my distant vantage point. I forced myself to remain calm, raised that divine instrument, and aimed it as the Gentleman of Canghai had taught me. To my astonishment, the device allowed me to see my target with perfect clarity from ten li away! I quickly found the gilded carriage reserved for the emperor-- drawn by six horses, its yellow silk awning adorned with feathers, the ox-tail banner at its left. Yes... but I didn’t have time to rejoice before I saw a second gilded carriage, and not just a second! A third followed, then a fourth... my heart sank as I watched.
“In that long procession were nineteen gilded carriages!
“Of those nineteen, I knew, only one was real. But how did I know which?
“I couldn’t let this opportunity slip past! I couldn’t let this tyrant see another day! All my hatred for him, that had gathered every day since my homeland died, rushed to my head. I couldn’t control myself any longer-- I aimed that divine instrument at the most ornate of the gilded carriages. Ai, if I’d kept a clear head, I should have realized: Qin Shihuang was a grim and cutting man by nature. Would he have decorated his own carriage so ostentatiously?” Zhang Liang sighed, the regret on his face too deep for words.
“Whose carriage was it, in the end?” the King of Qi asked.
Zhang Liang said: “I heard afterwards that it was carrying one of Qin Shihuang’s favored concubines.”
The King of Qi said: “How did that... divine instrument destroy the carriage, anyway?”
Zhang Liang closed his eyes. It took him a moment before he could speak again. “I will never forget that scene for as long as I live. I saw it with my own eyes, how that divine instrument soared into the sky as if shot from a strongbow, impossibly fast. It cut across the sky like a bolt of lightning, and behind it trailed a long, white, line. An eyeblink later, it struck the gilded carriage with a terrible roar. A great plume of fire rose from that spot, then dissipated into the air.
“I was so astonished that I forgot I was in the midst of an assassination attempt. I walked towards the destruction, dazed, wanting to find out what had happened. Distantly, I could see the still-burning wreckage of the carriage littered across the ground. Attendants and palace women stood around it, paralyzed with shock.
“The well-trained guards leapt into action with admirable alacrity. Their first action wasn’t to examine the destroyed carriage, but to rush toward a different gilded carriage and surround it in dense, protective circles. A group broke off and began searching in the four directions.
“Only then did I return to reality. Only then did I realize that I had made a terrible mistake-- I’d chosen the wrong target.
“Heavens, I’d found a truly extraordinary man to help me, and he’d given me a weapon of such extraordinary power. And I’d wasted it! I regret it beyond words.
“When my friends learned of my grand exploit, they praised my courage and ability. Only I knew that I possessed neither. I was the most useless man in the world! I’d gotten everything wrong. I was foolish and incompetent, and I can never forgive myself for that mistake... it is the deepest regret in my heart, all the more painful because people regularly praise me for it. I wanted to retreat to somewhere quiet and secluded, allow time to wash away all the world’s memories of me. My inclination towards Daoism and distancing myself from the earthly world stems from this, really. But then the world fell into chaos, and heroes rose throughout the land, and I found myself in the midst of it all, unable to escape if I tried. It seems that practicing any proper Daoism will have to wait until peace returns.”
Having finished speaking, Zhang Liang sighed deeply, his expression that of great melancholy.
The room was silent for a long time. Then the King of Qi suddenly asked: “Zifang, you’d said earlier that the divine instrument flew with a long, white line trailing behind it?”
Zhang Liang, taken aback at the unexpected question, answered after a pause: “Yes, for whatever reason. And that white line hung in the air for a long time, as if solid, before slowly dissipating.”
“A white line...” mused the King of Qi. “Trailing a white trace... trailing, not so different from ‘dragging’... Hmm, that’s right...”
Zhang Liang looked at him strangely. “What are you talking about?”
The King of Qi shook his head. “Nothing. Come, a toast!”
Once Zhang Liang left, the King of Qi once again fell deep into thought. Unlike before, his expression seemed to contain an additional dimension of worry, which Ji Jiang had never seen before. Before, even when he’d met with problems that anyone else would have called monumental, the King of Qi solved them with seemingly careless ease. He’d never shown worry. Ji Jiang, deeply concerned, asked: “Your Highness, what are you worried about? The final battle with Xiang Yu? Apparently, Chen Ping’s distancing scheme got him to kick out Fan Zeng. He died of rage on the road. Xiang Yu has no real supporters now. Your Highness, you don’t need to be like this...”
The King of Qi shook his head. “It’s not because of Xiang Yu.”
Ji Jiang asked: “Then why?”
The King of Qi simply sighed. “I don’t know either. I feel like something’s... wrong. But I can’t explain why.”
As he spoke, the King of Qi stood up and began to pace, hands clasped behind his back. Brows furrowed, he murmured: “Does it stem from the might of his weaponry? But he shows no signs of hostility... not to mention he has to rely on us mortals... what is there to worry about? What point would worrying even serve? Who could stand in the way of that incredible divine might if he decided to act against us? Ai! Just where does my unease come from?”
Ji Jiang’s eyes followed the King of Qi back and forth. “Your Highness, what are you muttering about?”
The King of Qi looked up at Ji Jiang. A moment later, he suddenly said: “Ji Jiang, play the ‘game of eight palaces’ with me.”
Taken aback, Ji Jiang said: “The ‘game of eight palaces?’ Your Highness, you want to play that?”
“Yes,” said the King of Qi. “Get out the board and pieces.”
Ji Jiang said: “Your Highness, if you’re so preoccupied with something else, leave that game alone. It taxes the mind to play.”
The King of Qi said: “This is something you haven’t had the chance to understand. The more you use your mind, the better it works. A game may help me come up with some new ideas. Come, get it out.”
Ji Jiang brought out the board and pieces somewhat unwillingly, then sat across from the King of Qi. By now, she’d learned well the strategies of the ‘game of eight palaces,’ and could keep up with the King of Qi for thirty or forty moves. Her interest in the game grew with her skill, but she hadn’t the heart to play at such a time.
The King of Qi pointed at his opening moves. “Ji Jiang, look, the ‘game of eight palaces’ comes from the principles behind the Eight Trigrams, following the ways of change of heaven and earth. Playing it definitely improves the mind.”
A few turns later, Ji Jiang said: “Only you would say that, Your Highness. The Eight Trigrams subdue and surface into a thousand possibilities of change. It would send any onlooker’s head spinning. I have to say, it’s pretty impressive that you use it to hone your mind.”
The King of Qi smiled a little. “Impressive? The ‘game of eight palaces’ is only a minor derivation of the Eight Trigrams. Now, whoever invented the Eight Trigrams is impressive! I don’t know how anyone could have came up with it all-- qian, kun, zhen, xun, kan, li, gen, and dui to represent heaven, earth, thunder, wood, water, fire, mountain, and swamp, and then overlaying pairs of trigrams together for a total of sixty-four hexagrams to encompass everything under heaven! You could study it for a lifetime without learning all its secrets.”
“Your Highness, you can’t compare yourself with the Eight Trigrams’ inventor,” said Ji Jiang. “There’s no person who can match you, but that one wasn’t a person. He was half-human and half-snake, the heavenly god Fuxi. We mortals can’t compare our intelligence to a god’s.
The King of Qi examined the board, fiddling with a game piece in one hand. “Really? Interesting, that such a brilliant, complex thing came from the mind of a half-human, half-snake creature--”
Suddenly, his hand stilled in mid-air. The King of Qi raised his head. “Half-human, half-snake? Is that what you said?”
“Yes, don’t the legends say that Fuxi had the head of a human and the body of a snake?” said Ji Jiang. “The ancients used the same word for snake and dragon, so some, too, say that he had the head of a human and the body of a dragon. Ai, who cares if he was half-snake or half-dragon? It’s awfully unpleasant either way. Why would the ancients come up with such an ugly god? I really don’t know--”
The game piece fell from the King of Qi’s hand. It landed on the board with a “pa,” rolled a little, before settling.
Ji Jiang raised her head, only to see the King of Qi staring into space. Startled, she said: “Your Highness, what happened?”
“The head of a human and the body of a snake... Fuxi... Ah! How did I never think of him?” The King of Qi slowly turned his gaze toward her. “Ji Jiang, tell me everything you know about Fuxi.”
Ji Jiang said: “What’s there to tell? Your Highness, it’s been at least two or three thousand years since Fuxi and his people. That was before humanity learned to keep records. Of the information that’s survived till now, most of it has warped and distorted so much over the years that you might be able to trust one word out of ten.”
The King of Qi said: “Regardless of trustworthiness, tell me everything you know.”
Ji Jiang looked at the King of Qi oddly. She raised her head and considered for a while, then said: “Most believe that Fuxi was the son of the god of thunder, and that he established the concept of rulership among humanity. He was the ‘Tai Sovereign,’ first of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors. The Hundred Schools of Thought mention him fairly often in their writings, but most of it’s made up on the spot to support whatever viewpoint they were arguing. In my opinion, the passage from the Book of Changes is more reliable. It calls him ‘Baoxishi,’ Bao meaning ‘all-encompassing,’ xi referring to the sacrifice of livestock to a god. The passage goes: ‘In ancient times Baoxishi ruled all under heaven. Looking up, he observed the forms of heaven; looking down, he observed the laws of the earth. He observed the language of birds and beasts, and the customs of the land, far and near. And so he created the Eight Trigrams to channel the virtue of the gods, to classify the hearts of all living things...’”
Ji Jiang possessed excellent memory and vast scholarly knowledge, which she relayed in good order. When she was done, she asked: “Your Highness, why have you been so interested in ancient history lately? First Peng Zu, now Fuxi, and Zhuan Xu and dragons and the others too. All these legends aren’t relevant to our times, even disregarding all the absurdities that have been mixed in. Don’t lose yourself in them--”
“But he’s doing us favors,” the King of Qi murmured to himself. “Why does he have to hide it--” Suddenly, he stiffened, then jumped up. “Ah, no!”
Ji Jiang startled. “Your Highness, what... what happened?”
The King of Qi paced the room, faster and faster. “Right! Right! Without a beginning, how can there be an ending? Without a cause, how can there be an effect? If it hadn’t been this way from the start, then... then... Ah!” The King of Qi closed his eyes, hand against his forehead. He said, shakily: “O heavens! I almost did something terrible...”
Starting to panic herself, Ji Jiang said: “Your Highness, calm down, calm down, what’s wrong?”
The King of Qi stood as if frozen, wordless. The only sound in the room was his quick, unsteady breathing. “Attendants!” he growled at last.
A chamberlain entered, bowing. “What is your command, Your Highness?”
“Tell the servants,” said the King of Qi, “to throw out everything in the west palace wing! Toss them into the rivers, the ditches, anywhere, the further the better! Don’t leave any of it behind!”
The chamberlain was taken aback, but answered: “Aye.” He turned and left to give orders.
Ji Jiang asked bewilderedly: “Your Highness, didn’t you go to all that trouble to find them in the first place? Why are you throwing them away now?”
The King of Qi shook his head. “I made a mistake. Those substances would have brought the world ten thousand years of calamity!”
“That’s more like it, Your Highness” Ji Jiang said happily. “Alchemy is the worst. Once a ruler gets caught up in it, he’s cursed. It’s a good thing you realized in time! I’m so relieved for you.”
The King of Qi looked at Ji Jiang’s delight and shook his head. He sighed, said nothing.
The King of Qi unrolled a long scroll onto his desk and began to examine it with utmost concentration.
Ji Jiang walked behind the King of Qi and saw that the scroll showed two pictures. The picture on the left was of a strangely-shaped mountain, its summit smoothly rounded, annotated at the side with many numbers and strange symbols. Ten or so straight lines of varying thickness traversed the form of the mountain, their purpose unclear to Ji Jiang. She thought for a moment, but couldn’t remember any mountain within the borders of Qi that looked anything like it.
However, she recognized the picture on the right in an instant: the Gulf of Bohai. She’d seen various maps of Qi before, and she recalled the shape of the coastline, though this map was far more detailed than the ones she’d seen before. Strangely, the focus of the map didn’t seem to be the land, but the sea. Every island in the gulf, big and small, was meticulously labeled. Even she didn’t know all of them.
The King of Qi’s gaze fell squarely, unblinkingly on the map of the sea. It never wandered once to the diagram of that strange mountain.
In August, that accursed black-robed man came once more. Ji Jiang’s ire rose just looking at him. She sat far away from him, glaring at him slantwise. She’d resolved that she wouldn’t attend him even if the King of Qi called her over-- she’d pretend not to hear! But unexpectedly, the King of Qi didn’t call for her once during the course of the discussion.
“Why haven’t you begun yet?” the black-robed man admonished the moment he sat down. “For how long will you make us wait?”
The King of Qi said calmly: “I still need one more thing.”
“What?” asked the black-robed man.
The King of Qi said: “The Trace-Dragging Sword.”
The black-robed man’s expression darkened. “What did you say?”
“You gave one to Zhang Liang,” said the King of Qi. “Why can’t you give me one?”
The black-robed man stared at the King of Qi. At last, he said: “I’ve told you, mere mortals cannot conjecture as to the workings of the divine. You’re better off not prying into some things!”
The King of Qi said: “I wasn’t trying to pry. It came up of its own accord.”
The black-robed man said: “Then what do you need the Trace-Dragging Sword for?”
“To deal with the King of Han!” the King of Qi said.
The black-robed man said: “The King of Han is no match for you. He doesn’t require the use of a divine weapon, and regardless, he isn’t part of our prior agreement.”
The King of Qi said: “What if it’s necessary to the construction project?”
The black-robed man hesitated. “What do you mean?”
“At the beginning of the next year, I will join forces with the King of Han to attack Xiang Yu,” the King of Qi said. “Once Xiang Yu is destroyed, only the King of Han will remain an obstacle to my control over all the land. The sky cannot have two suns; a nation cannot have two rulers. If I don’t reunite the land, it will be difficult to carry out the construction project. We’ll have to fight a battle to the death sooner or later. The King of Han’s current power is already considerable, and he has capable ministers like Xiao He and Zhang Liang. He won’t be easy to deal with. Yes, I’ll defeat him sooner or later, but that will take at least three years. The main problem is...” the King of Qi paused here, “by that point, the nation’s population may drop to thirteen million or lower. That would not bode well for the construction project.”
The black-robed man said: “Thirteen million people aren’t enough?”
The King of Qi smiled a little. “You’ve never governed a nation. Things aren’t as simple as you think. Can the elderly, the sickly, the women, the children contribute to the labor force? Don’t laborers still need to eat? Don’t my soldiers and ministers still need to be paid? Do you think all ten-plus million people can be sent to work? Not to mention the inevitable desolation that follows many years of war. My people will need time to rest and rebuild.”
The black-robed man seemed taken aback by his words. “Then... what do your calculations indicate?”
The King of Qi said: “After a long war, the women will tend to outnumber the men. I’d be lucky if one fifth of the twelve or thirteen million were able-bodied men. That’s two million four or five hundred thousand. Not nearly enough. According to my calculations, if I want to finish the project during my lifetime, I’ll need at least four million men. That requires keeping the total population above twenty million. Of course, once peace is reestablished, the population will increase with time. But even taking that into consideration, I can’t start with only twelve or thirteen million people.”
“Then what do you plan to do?” asked the black-robed man, less sure of himself now. “Will using the Trace-Dragging sword avoid the war?”
“Yes,” said the King of Qi. “The Trace-Dragging sword can kill the King of Han without a trace. In the confusion that will follow, I’ll use my influence to establish his younger son Ruyi as his successor-- the King of Han has indicated before that he prefers Ruyi to his eldest son, the current crown prince. With my power and position, his other subordinates can only obey. Ruyi is young and malleable. In his name, I can gradually eliminate dissenters, all the while solidifying my authority. The situation should be to my liking in a year or two, when I’ll force him to abdicate in favor of me. Won’t it be far less wasteful to gain control of the land without a war?”
It took the black-robed man a long time to recover from his astonishment. “What a plan! Only you could have thought of it. Very well, I’ll ask my master. Trace-Dragging Swords are powerful and difficult to forge; my master won’t use them lightly.”
The King of Qi said: “If possible, give me a few extras.”
The black-robed man stared at him. “What did you say? Give you a few extras? Do you think you’re shopping at a city market, free to buy as many as you want? Even my master has few such divine instruments left in his possession. One is enough! The Trace-Dragging Sword is immense in destructive power, and the King of Han isn’t made of steel. What do you need more for?”
The King of Qi said: “Did Zhang Liang succeed in killing Qin Shihuang? Even the best-laid plans can go awry. The King of Han is clever by nature, and he has quite a few body doubles. I can’t ensure that I’ll hit him the first time. Didn’t you hear about the siege of Xingyang last year, when Ji Xin dressed up as the King of Han and surrendered in his stead to allow him to escape? Xiang Yu burned Ji Xin alive for his troubles, but plenty of people saw him before then, and can tell you how much he looked like the King of Han! Even we ministers can’t tell the difference at times!”
The black-robed man looked as if he’d been persuaded. Hesitantly, he said: “I don’t know if my master will agree. But... there’s reason to what you’ve said. I’ll do all I can.”
Once the black-robed man left, Ji Jiang walked up, grinning. “Your Highness, have you finally realized that this Guest of Canghai is up to no good?”
The King of Qi was taken aback. “What did you say?”
Ji Jiang said: “I couldn’t hear what you two were muttering about, but I could tell you were lying to him through your teeth the whole time. You were conning him, right?”
The King of Qi’s expression darkened. “Ji Jiang, what did you see?”
Ji Jiang whispered into the King of Qi’s ear: “Your Highness, you have a small tic. When you’re working a scheme, you like to put your forefingers together and push them back and forth. But don’t worry, only I know about it.”
The King of Qi sighed, smiling painedly. “I picked it up from my master and never could get rid of the habit. Someone’s noticed at last.”
Ji Jiang said: “I’m by your side all the time, and it took careful observation at that. You’re too clever, Your Highness. You know you have this tic, so you push your fingers back and forth sometimes when you aren’t scheming, so people won’t be able to find a pattern. I spent a long time watching you before I could figure out when it was real and when you were faking.”
The King of Qi reached out and cupped her chin affectionately. “Little demon, I was wrong to regret that you were born a girl! If you were a man, I fear that no ruler would dare hire you.”
Ji Jiang lifted her chin. “Hmph, you’re still looking down on me! Why do I need someone to hire me? If I were a man, I’d conquer all under heaven on my own early on. Why should I abide by someone else’s bad temperament?”
The King of Qi said: “Oh, that’s true... Hey, right, when did I ever show you bad temperament?”
Ji Jiang said: “That’s not what I said, Your Highness. You’re different from other rulers. You’re full of good ideas on your own, but you can tolerate dissent. Even people as prideful and talented as Li Zuoju respect and serve you. If I were a man, I’d go up against anyone else, but not you. I’d be willing to serve you, as long as you gave me a proper position. I won’t accept anything less than Chancellor.”
The King of Qi laughed. “Hai! A proper position? You’re a modest one. Chancellor is as high as the positions go-- any higher, and you’d have to usurp my throne!”
Ji Jiang said: “I’ll only serve you alone! I don’t respect anyone else nearly enough.”
The King of Qi said: “This conversation’s getting more and more fun. You sound serious. But enough, back to business. Ji Jiang, you musn’t tell anyone what you saw today, and especially not the Guest of Canghai. He can’t know any of this, all right?”
Ji Jiang said unhappily: “Your Highness, I’ve kept all those military and governmental secrets for you just fine, and you don’t trust me on something this minor? That Guest of Canghai is creepy enough to make your hair stand on end. One look, and I could tell he was up to no good. I only regret that you let him near you to begin with! If you’re scheming against him, I’d be delighted! Why would I hinder you?”
The King of Qi nodded. “That’s good, then. But Ji Jiang, you can’t take this matter so lightly. This is nothing minor, truly. If you let anything slip, it will cause sacrifice on an unimaginable scale. I’m not saying this to scare you. Ji Jiang, do you understand?”
Ji Jiang shook her head. “No, I don’t understand. Your Highness, what... what exactly are you doing?”
The King of Qi crouched down, gently placing his arms around Ji Jiang’s. “I am fighting against the most dangerous, powerful, intelligent enemy I have met in my life. I’ve never feared a battle before, but this time, I’m afraid. This time, I don’t know if I can win. I need you, Ji Jiang. Promise me, no matter when, no matter what happens, you’ll trust and help me, all right?”
Ji Jiang looked at the King of Qi, who’d said such strange things so seriously, and felt chill after chill in her heart. Instinctively, she freed her arms from his grip and retreated a step. “Your Highness, I’d thought... I’d thought you’d recovered.”
The King of Qi said: “I am clear on everything I’ve done. Ji Jiang, I know that I’ve done many things lately that seem inexplicable to you. I have neither the ability nor the time to explain. I can only tell you this: I haven’t changed, I am still the same King of Qi as before, and everything I’ve done has had a reason behind it. Please believe me, Ji Jiang.”
Ji Jiang, as before, looked at the King of Qi like a stranger, unmoving, silent.
The King of Qi looked back at her. At last, he sighed and stood. He walked away, head lowered. He looked melancholic.
Ji Jiang watched him leave, unable to identify the emotion in her heart.
Five days later, the black-robed Guest of Changhai came again, bringing with him a long wooden case about the right size for holding a zither. But the Guest of Canghai carried it with difficulty, suggesting contents heavier than any zither.
He and the King of Qi retreated into a private room, and again conversed for a long time.
When they exited the room, the King of Qi escorted him to the gate. “...your esteemed master to wait for my report. Right, do you plan to immediately return to your island?”
The black-robed man said: “Yes, my business is concluded.”
The King of Qi said: “In that case, why not stay for a few days? Isn’t it boring, living on a lonely, barren island day after day? Linzi is full of sights and sounds-- ‘wheel hubs strike, shoulders bump, the lapels join into curtains, the raised sleeves into canopies, the flung sweat into rain.,’ as they say. It’s not easy to find such scenes elsewhere. I can have someone take you around the city in my carriage, how about it? It must have been a long time since you’ve experienced the bustle and noise of a city.”
A hint of regret appeared on the black-robed man’s face, but quickly disappeared. He sighed and said: “No, I’ve seen enough already. Prosperity and decline replace each other endlessly. Any fond attachment to a time of prosperity will only turn into resentment in a future time of decline. It’s better to leave it all alone.”
The King of Qi laughed. “If prosperity and decline are both such common things, why linger on them? In a time of prosperity, take the opportunity to leave some happy memories. When decline comes, simply don’t look. Orchids bloom in spring and chrysanthemums bloom in fall. You’re supposed to enjoy them while they’re in season, and it’s only your own fault if you insist on watching them until they wilt. Life is meant for enjoying. Otherwise, why would so many people want immortality?”
The black-robed man, irresolute, made no reply.
The King of Qi continued: “North of Linzi, there’s an old temple dedicated to Zhuan Xu. I recently had some men renovate it. Some old scholars from the vicinity wrote a dedication of considerable length for the occasion, too, detailing the achievements and virtues of Emperor Zhuan Xu and his descendants down to the Eight Glories. It’s very well-written, full of history and allusion. I hadn’t known about the greatness of Zhuan Xu’s descendants before I read it. Are you interested? The plaques, murals, and statues are all the best that Qi’s craftsmen have to offer. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.” The King of Qi seemed to speak offhandedly, but his eyes were focused on the black-robed man’s expression.
The black-robed man, moved, nodded. “I thank you for your kindness,” he said, somewhat emotional. “I’ll go.”
The palace gates swung open, and the King of Qi’s carriage and entourage passed through in single file.
The King of Qi rarely ordered the streets cleared when he embarked on inspection tours to avoid disturbing the populace. Therefore, as the procession eased into the bustle of Linzi, the merchants and passerby didn’t try to hide away. Instead, they enthusiastically and curiously watched the main carriage and the thin yellow silk curtain that stubbornly covered its windows, hoping to catch a glimpse of their great king. But the curtain was motionless.
In the palace, the King of Qi prepared to leave. He carefully wrapped up a long, wooden case, then secured it to Windchaser’s back.
Ji Jiang walked over and stroked Windchaser’s neck.
Preoccupied with his handiwork, the King of Qi said nothing. When he finished tying on the case, he shook it to test his knots.
“Your Highness,” Ji Jiang said. “You... you’re going to fight that battle you’re not sure of winning, right?”
“Yes,” said the King of Qi. He turned his head, looking at Ji Jiang. “Can you accompany me?”
They looked at each other for a moment. Then Ji Jiang said: “Yes.”
The King of Qi smiled a little. “You believe me?”
Ji Jiang lowered her head, looking at her feet. “I don’t have a choice, Your Highness. I have to believe you. You don’t know how important you are to me. If I can’t even believe in you, I... I...”
Something complicated flashed across the King of Qi’s eyes. He reached out and smoothed her hair, then tipped her face up. Gently, he said: “Ji Jiang, you’re just as important to me.” He waved his hand, and a guard came, leading a horse for Ji Jiang.
Ji Jiang accepted the reins. “Your Highness, where are we going?”
The King of Qi mounted Windchaser and said: “Zhifu.”
So this novel did mention Ji Xin’s death. Liu Bang’s theater of war was not pretty.
 Chen was a minor state during the Spring and Autumn Period that was later annexed by Chu, located in eastern modern-day Henan Province.
 The Hundred Schools of Thought, like the name suggests, were the numerous competing schools of thought that sprang up during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States eras.
 The Eight Glories (高阳八恺) were eight talented and virtuous descendants of Zhuan Xu who lived during the time of Yao.