It was night. The lights in camp shone bright as everyone, from the commanders to the footsoldiers, celebrated their victory.
In the main tent, the King of Qi had arranged a bountiful banquet. He toasted his subordinates one by one, praising their hard work.
Ji Jiang stood at his side, arms sore from pouring so many cups of wine, but her heart was light.
Suddenly, rushed hoofbeats sounded in the distance. The guests were taken aback-- who dared to ride at a gallop within the King of Qi’s camp? The hoofbeats ceased outside of the main tent.
The King of Han and his men swarmed in.
The guests had yet to recover from the wine and the shock when the King of Qi knelt and paid his respects. “Your servant greets Your Highness. I didn’t know of your visit and therefore failed to send a welcoming party. I hope Your Highness will forgive me.”
The King of Han didn’t bother to reply. He went straight up to the King of Qi’s seat at the banquet, sat, and picked up the Grand Marshal’s tiger tally. He turned it round and round in his hands, gazing at the King of Qi. Cheerfully, he said: “Western Chu is no more, and peace returns to the world. King of Qi, you won’t be needing this anymore, will you?”
Ji Jiang’s fingers tightened convulsively around the handle of her wine jug, fearing that she wouldn’t be able to resist dumping its contents down the King of Han’s face.
The King of Qi untied the purple cord at his hip, set it in front of the King of Han, bowed, retreated a few steps, turned to face his stunned subordinates. “From today onward, you will all obey the command of our Great King. Do you hear?”
It took a long time before his subordinates replied with a ragged chorus of: “We hear.” “Aye.” “Yes”
One officer, drunkenly sprawled across his dining desk, slurred: “Great... Great King? Aren’t... aren’t you the Great King?”
The King of Han wore the same wide smile as before, but in the depth of his eyes flashed an icy glint reminiscent of a bird of prey.
The King of Qi said: “Not me, but the King of Han!” Raising his voice, he asked once more: “Do you hear?”
“We hear.” His subordinates managed some semblance of unison this time.
The wine jug fell to the floor with a crash. Its contents spilled, rich and fragrant and gurgling.
The north wind blew cold against her, cold enough to pierce her to the bone.
Ji Jiang hugged herself. She sat amidst the dead grass on a small dirt hill, shivering. Her body was cold, very cold, but her heart burned white-hot. It made her want to cry, to curse, to shout. In the end, she only bit her lips tightly shut.
A fur cloak fell around her shoulders. She looked up, saw the King of Qi, and promptly shrugged off the cloak.
The King of Qi once again pulled the cloak around her. “You’ll catch cold.”
Ji Jiang looked up at the King of Qi. Her lips trembled, and her tears finally fell. “Your Highness, you were a doormat!”
The King of Qi was silent for a while. Then: “Yes, I was a doormat.”
Ji Jiang said: “You said you’d only let him go three times.”
The King of Qi said: “Yes, I said I’d only let him go three times.”
Ji Jiang said: “This is the fourth time.”
The King of Qi said: “Yes, this is the fourth time.”
“For how long will you put up with this?” Ji Jiang sobbed. “Tell me, Your Highness!”
The King of Qi sighed and gently stroked Ji Jiang’s hair. “You’ll understand someday. You’ll understand someday for sure.”
In January, the King of Han sent out an edict. It went: “The land of Chu has been pacified. Since the death of the Emperor Yi, its people have wanted for a ruler to reassure them. The King of Qi knows the traditions of Chu. His title is henceforth changed to the King of Chu, and he shall rule the Huaibei region ; his new capital shall be the city of Xiapi. Under the Chancellor of Wei and Marquis of Jiancheng Peng Yue, the people of Wei have labored diligently. He has frequently used smaller forces to defeat great multitudes and has won many victories against Chu forces. He shall rule over the former territory of Wei. He is named King of Liang; his capital shall be the city of Dingtao.”
A sharp-eyed individual could see that, although the edict named two kings, Peng Yue was only the garnish to the main course. Peng Yue had long fought in the Liang area; his kingship had been agreed upon since the beginning. But reassigning the King of Qi to Chu was obviously meant to demean him.
‘Knowing the traditions of Chu’ was a far-fetched excuse. Why should someone have to be the king of wherever he came from? This edict was clearly targeted at the King of Qi.
Ji Jiang took a copy of the edict to the King of Qi-- no, he was the King of Chu now.
The King of Chu was sitting at his desk, writing something.
Ji Jiang threw the edict onto his desk. “Your Highness! Look at this! This is what’s become of his promise to add all the territory east of Chen till the sea to your holdings!”
The King of Chu kept on writing without looking up. “I saw that earlier. Nothing wrong with that.”
Ji Jiang said: “Nothing wrong with that? He clearly said that he would add to your holdings, but now he’s switching them. How is that acceptable?”
The King of Chu set down his brush. “Ah, well, switching is fine with me. I haven’t been back home for a long time. I’d like to go and look around, take care of some business while I’m at it.”
Ji Jiang nearly shook with rage. “Qi has grown wealthy and strong under your rule. Every year, the salt and fishing industries bring in countless thousands. And he stole it all from you with this edict. In return, he tosses you impoverished, war-ravaged Huaibei. And you don’t care?”
The King of Chu stood, taking his completed scroll with him. He walked to Ji Jiang’s side and patted her shoulder. “Chu isn’t as bad as you make it out to be. Come with me and take a look. You’ll find plenty of interesting things there-- it’s just as good as Qi!” He prepared to leave.
Angry and upset, Ji Jiang said: “Your Highness...”
The King of Chu turned his head. “What?”
Ji Jiang had a bellyful of things she wanted to say, but couldn’t. After long thought, she pointed at the scroll in the King of Chu’s hand. “What were you writing earlier?”
The King of Chu looked down. “Oh, this. They wanted me to draft the endorsement.”
Ji Jiang said: “An endorsement? For what?”
The King of Chu said: “For the King of Han to declare himself emperor.”
Ji Jiang looked at the King of Chu, unable to say anything.
The King of Chu laughed. “There’s no way around it. I have the highest standing amongst the lords and kings. I have to play the lead role.”
Ji Jiang, still silent, looked at him.
The King of Chu seemed a little uncomfortable, but laughed again. “To be honest, I’m rather annoyed myself with all these formalities and essays. He’ll decline a few times to begin with, of course, so I’ll have to lead the other ministers in more rounds of petitions!”
Ji Jiang held his gaze. She said, enunciating every word: “Your Highness, I truly wish that the one being petitioned was you.”
A hint of disappointment flashed across the King of Chu’s eyes, but he quickly lowered his face. He said calmly: “Enough, Ji Jiang. The height of my power has passed. The situation is set.”
Ji Jiang sat down stiffly, watching the King of Chu’s retreating back. She said quietly to herself: “Your Highness, is it you? Is it really you?”
In February, under the unanimous endorsement of his ministers, the King of Han accepted the title of emperor on the banks of the Si River.
In March, by the banks of the Sishui where it flowed past Huaiyin, the King of Chu quietly stood, fishing.
A little while later, someone brought two people over. One was an old woman, seventy or so; the other was forty or fifty and looked like a local functionary of some sort. The two of them saw the gold-crowned man in dragon robes, knew him to be the new King of Chu, and hurriedly knelt to pay their respects.
The King of Chu walked over to help the old woman up. “Madam, you don’t need to observe these formalities. I can’t accept them from you.”
The old woman, astonished, stood unsteadily in front of the King of Chu. She said fearfully: “Your Highness, what...”
The King of Chu waved his hand, and his attendants brought forth a heavy chest and set it in front of the old woman. They opened it; all that could be seen was shining gold. The entire chest was stacked full of gold!
The King of Chu said: “Madam, these thousand pounds of gold are yours. I’ll have my men carry it to your home later.”
The old woman said: “Your Highness, this... what is this...”
The King of Chu said: “Madam, don’t call me ‘Your Highness.’ Look carefully, who am I?”
The old woman squinted her faded eyes. “You’re...”
The King of Chu raised the fishing rod in his hand.
The old woman realized: “Ah! You were that young man trying to fish here. Your name is Han... Han...”
The King of Chu said: “Han Xin. Madam, you were washing laundry here when you saw me trying to fish and starving. You gave me your own food for ten days. Grateful, I said to you: ‘I’ll repay you well in the future.’ You got angry at me. ‘I saw a strapping young man too pathetic to feed himself,’ you said, ‘and took pity! Do you think I did it because I expected any repayment?’ Madam, I can feed myself now. Please accept this token of my thanks.”
Surprised and delighted, the old woman said: “Little Han has made his way in the world now! Good, good...”
After the old woman left, Han Xin turned to the kneeling official.
The official kowtowed, trembling. “Forgive me for my crime, Your Highness, forgive me. I was blind to your greatness and slighted you, Your Highness--”
The King of Chu said: “Town Marshal Yao, you’ve committed no crime requiring forgiveness. You, too, aided me, only you quit halfway. When you concluded that I would stay the way I was for the rest of my life, that helping me wouldn’t come with any sort of repayment, you didn’t bother to continue being generous. Very well--” he waved his hand-- “take home what you deserve!”
An attendant brought a round platter in front of Town Marshal Yao. A hundred coins, strung neatly together, lay upon it. Town Marshal Yao stared blankly.
The King of Chu said: “The meals I begged off your family back then couldn’t have been worth more than this. Take it, and with this, a lesson: those who act generously without any expectation of recompense will often receive the uncommon repayment that those who act generously with ulterior motives will never receive.” Regretful and embarrassed, Town Marshal Yao picked up the coins and left, almost as if he were fleeing.
The King of Chu picked up his rod, preparing to return to his fishing, when he saw several of his soldiers approaching with a prisoner. Tightly bound, the prisoner stumbled forward under the prodding of his captors. At the sight of the King of Chu, he dropped into a kneel and desperately began to kowtow. “Spare me, Your Highness! Spare me, Your Highness!”
Taken aback, the King of Chu said: “Who is this man? Who told you to seize him?”
One soldier grabbed the prisoner’s hair and pulled his face into view. “Your Highness, this bastard was the one who humiliated you back then. We soldiers weren’t going to let him get away with it, so we listened around and found him. We wanted to knife him on the spot, but thought Your Highness might not find that satisfying enough, so we brought him here for Your Highness to deal with yourself.”
The King of Chu looked at the trembling, terrified prisoner. He nodded and smiled a little. “Yin Hu, I recall you were quite cocky. What happened?”
Yin Hu shook like a chaff sifter, his face dead white.
The King of Chu bent down and said lightly into Yin Hu’s ear: “When you told me to crawl through your legs, I suppose you hadn’t thought that today would happen?”
Yin Hu was already terrified out of his wits. “I... I only ask... Your Highness to give... give me a quick death,” he stuttered.
The King of Chu straightened and waved his hand. “Untie him!”
His soldiers hesitated, but obeyed, freeing Yin Hu from his ropes.
The King of Chu gestured at him. “Stand up.”
Shakily, Yin Hu stood.
The King of Chu looked Yin Hu up and down. “You’re in fine shape! There are plenty of better things that you can do besides causing disturbances in the town square! How about this, my capital of Xiapi needs another lieutenant for its city patrols. You can fill that spot and help them catch thieves. Put all your excessive energies into something useful!”
Yin Hu and the soldiers could only stare.
The King of Chu turned back around, flicked his line into the river, and resumed fishing.
Without speaking, Yin Yu fell to his knees. His head met the ground like pestle against mortar.
The King of Chu waved a hand over his shoulder, indicating that he should leave.
The soldiers looked awkwardly at one another. Finally, one person said hesitantly: “Your Highness, why...”
The King of Chu gazed at the fishing bobber resting on the water. “Back then, when he degraded me, I could have easily killed him on the spot,” he said lightly. “But there would have been no point to it. So I endured until today. Only, today, I don’t feel like killing him-- did I fight all my life, win the power and prestige I hold today, just for the sake of taking revenge on a petty bully? Just the thought of it makes me laugh. Not to mention--” the King of Chu paused here, gazing into the distance-- “he helped me become the person I am today. Humiliation is a source of strength, too. You didn’t need to seize him, really, but it’s fine that you did. I’ve taken care of all the debts I should’ve taken care of, good and bad, tied up my loose ends.”
By the time he returned to the palace at Xiapi, Ji Jiang was anxious from waiting.
“Your Highness,” she said as she helped unfasten the King of Chu’s cloak, dusty with travel. “The emperor sent envoys, and they take after their master in utter arrogance! Their eyes grow out of their forehead, their noses point skyward, they gesture orders with their chins as if they were the rulers here! I nearly exploded with rage watching them. Who knows what grubby corner they were hiding in while you swept clean the land under heaven!”
The King of Chu said: “Oh, I’ll go see them. Where are they?”
Ji Jiang said: “In the side chamber.”
The King of Chu and Ji Jiang walked to the side chamber, where a group of men waited inside, laughing and bantering. One man sat openly in the King of Chu’s throne, his feet propped up on the desk. When they saw the King of Chu enter, the group fell silent. The one on the throne seemed to be their leader; he swept his cold gaze over the King of Chu, not bothering to take his feet off the desk. “You’re a proud one, King of Chu! You left us waiting here while you ran off to who knows where!”
Unable to contain her anger, Ji Jiang opened her mouth to speak, but the King of Chu took her hand and squeezed it. “I apologize for the wait. It was my failing.”
The envoy snorted contemptuously. “By His Majesty’s edict, I’ll ask you two things.”
The King of Chu said: “His loyal minister respectfully awaits his inquiry. I will answer all I can.”
The envoy said: “The first thing: Are you harboring the fugitive officer Zhongli Mei of Western Chu?”
The King of Chu answered crisply: “No.”
“The second thing:” The envoy’s expression suddenly became deathly serious. He stepped off the throne and walked to the King of Chu. In a low tone, he said: “Is the ‘Tripod’s Heart’ here?” He watched the King of Chu’s face with burning eyes.
The King of Chu calmly answered: “I don’t know what you mean, esteemed envoy.”
The envoy watched him for a long time, then said resentfully: “You know perfectly well what I mean. His Majesty will send others here, King of Chu. It’s best if you’re clear on this!”
Threat voiced, the envoy waved the others behind him and left.
Ji Jiang said angrily: “You’re still a king, Your Highness. How dare they act so arrogantly? They’re dogs borrowing their master’s authority, nothing more!”
The King of Chu shook his head. “We’ll see envoys even more arrogant than them in the future.”
A month later, the envoys even more arrogant than them came.
The King of Chu and Ji Jiang were strolling by the Sishui. On either bank, the willows had budded green; the broad, placid surface of the river rippled and shimmered under the late afternoon sun. Ji Jiang’s heart was too heavy to enjoy the scenery, but the King of Chu idly pointed with a willow twig: “Ji Jiang, look, the Sishui originates from your Qi’s Meng Mountain and winds more than a thousand li through our Chu, passing by my, Xiang Yu’s, and our current emperor’s hometowns. It’s almost as if it had somehow bound our fates together from the beginning...”
In the distance, hoofbeats sounded. Ji Jiang turned toward the sound and saw an approaching group of riders. When they drew near, they reined in their horses. Their leader wore brocade robes and a feathered, silken headdress. One could tell from a look that he was from the emperor’s personal guard.
He dismounted and strutted forth, a dragon-headed bronze tally in his hand. “By His Majesty’s command, I come with two orders for the King of Chu!”
The King of Chu said: “Please tell, esteemed envoy.”
The leader said: “First: apprehend the fugitive Zhongli Mei with all due speed! Anyone who dares harbor him will be severely punished as the law decrees!”
Ji Jiang couldn’t take it any longer. “Who has the right to sentence our king to punishment?” she shouted. “Ask the emperor, who conquered his empire for him? Severely punished? Hah! Even if our king really did harbor Zhongli Mei, he destroyed Xiang Yu for the emperor! You think that wouldn’t cancel out--”
The King of Chu stopped Ji Jiang. To the envoy, he said: “I will obey His Majesty’s command. What else?”
The man took a step closer and stretched out a hand. In a low voice, he said: “His Majesty orders you to hand over the ‘Tripod’s Heart.’”
The King of Chu shook his head, gazing toward the Sishui. “I don’t have whatever that is.”
The man took another step, menacing closer. “You can either keep your kingship or your ‘Tripod’s Heart.’ Choose!”
“My kingship?” the King of Chu laughed. He unfastened his golden royal headdress and offered it to the man. “Take it. Wealth and titles are nothing to me.”
“Bah!” The envoy angrily waved his hand. “His Majesty’s patience has its limits. Wait for the Commandant of Justice’s subpoena, then!” He mounted his horse, jerked it around, and rode back along the road from which he arrived.
Ji Jiang asked: “What’s the ‘Tripod’s Heart,’ that they’d threaten to take away your kingship for it?”
The King of Chu sighed softly. “I’d wanted to keep it for the future generations. Perhaps the people then would possess sufficient knowledge to unlock its secrets. But it seems that I can’t wait until then. I’ve enjoyed honor and glory for too long; I can’t endure those torments and sufferings anymore--” he raised his voice-- “Esteemed envoy!”
The rider at the front reined in his horse, turning his head.
The King of Chu said: “I offered the ‘Tripod’s Heart’ to you, but you didn’t want it.” He turned the golden headdress in his hands, extended a finger to twist, then press. With a click, a small, thin wafer of shining material appeared at his fingertip. “Is this it?”
The man’s eyes brightened, his face delighted. “Ah! Yes, that’s--”
The King of Chu lightly flicked his finger. The shining little wafer flew, tumbling through the air, and fell into the gently rippling Sishui.
“You--” The envoy was stunned and furious, but didn’t have the time to fly into a rage. He frantically ordered the rest of the riders: “Hurry! Hurry! Why are you standing there? Get into the water, now! All of you, go down and look for it! Look for it!”
The King of Chu watched them scramble into action. He leisurely put his headdress back on. “Esteemed envoy, please relay these words to His Majesty: if His Majesty is a virtuous ruler, he doesn’t need the Nine Tripods; if he is a corrupt ruler, the Nine Tripods won’t save him. The most powerful divine object can’t preserve a tyrannical government forever. If he wants a long and prosperous rule, he should try treating the common people well!”
The envoy ignored the King of Chu. “Have you found it yet?” he roared as he ran up and down the riverbank. “Have you found it yet? Hurry! Hurry and search!”
Suddenly, a man broke the surface of the water, holding that small, bright wafer in one hand and wiping the water from his face with another. “Here! I found it!”
On the bank, the envoy was beside himself with joy. “Give it to me! Hurry and give it to me!”
When the wafer reached his hands, the envoy meticulously wiped it dry. He wrapped it up and placed it into a silk-padded case, then tucked it carefully away. He glared at the King of Chu one last time and rode off with his cohorts.
Ji Jiang said: “No wonder you designed that headdress yourself. You wanted to use it to hide that! Ai, Your Highness, if you’d hidden it so well, why did you take it out and let them grab it?”
The King of Chu gazed into the distance. “All they got was a piece of useless trash-- the water destroyed it.”
Ji Jiang said: “What was that, anyway? It was so small, but when you threw it into the river, they jumped in chasing after it. Why does it hold such import for them?”
“That was the dreamt-about treasure of countless rulers of history.” The King of Chu sighed, returning his gaze from the distance. He looked at Ji Jiang. “Let’s sit over there, Ji Jiang. I’ll tell you a very, very long story.”
I should have told you this story from the start, but it spans too long a time and too many tangled threads. Only recently did I fully understand its sequence of cause and effects.
First, promise me that no matter how astounding, or even suspicious, you find the elements of my story, you won’t interrupt me yet. Else, you’ll hear the story in fragments and have an even harder time understanding it.
The story begins a very long time ago. Exactly how long ago, I don’t know. Perhaps it was two thousand years ago, perhaps three or four. Either way, humanity at that time didn’t write histories or keep records. A nameless being from beyond the sky, a being vastly different from us, descended upon our world. An earthshaking “longlong” rumble accompanied its descent. Therefore, our ancestors called it long-- “dragon--” and some said it was the son of the god of thunder-- Ji Jiang, I told you, no matter how incredible you find this tale, wait until I finish to ask questions-- even now, I don’t know the real reason behind its visitation. All I know is that it came from a world utterly different from ours. For that reason, it made a fatal mistake as soon as it had arrived: it mistook our seas for dry land.
It had thought that such a flat surface would serve well as a place to land. And so it steered its vehicle-- some of our kind call it a ‘spaceship’-- into the Gulf of Bohai.
As I said, it came from a world utterly different from ours, a world that knew nothing of oceans. The devices they created were indestructible to all but our mundane seas.
Thus the spaceship was destroyed, corroded by the seawater.
This otherworldly being was horrified. Without its spaceship, it could never return to its original world. So it began to investigate our world.
The results of its investigation drove it into deeper fear. This world lacked the materials with which it could build a spaceship! Moreover, this was a world still in a state of barbarity. There was no writing, no mathematics, no metalwork, no engineering-- in short, unable to help it in any way.
Just as it began to despair, it noticed our moon, and noticed our moon’s power.
Landing its spaceship into the sea had cost it all its belongings, but not its intelligence. In its world, they’d already discovered one of the great secrets to the workings of the universe: between celestial bodies, there exists a force of attraction, stronger with closer objects and weaker with further objects, stronger with larger objects and weaker with smaller objects, that maintains the movements of the sun, moon, and stars. You lived by the sea, so you’re familiar with tides, I’d think? This force is what causes their rise and fall. In addition, this force can create slight distortions in space and time. If one could somehow focus and magnify these distortions, many incredible things could become possible. For example, the flow of time could bend, or even reverse-- don’t ask, I told you, raise your questions after I finish.
A daring plan surfaced in its mind: if it could somehow fill in the patch of sea where its spaceship landed, then ‘twist’ time so that the spot of land existed at the time of its landing, it wouldn’t have crashed into the sea to begin with, and the disaster would never have happened.
The task of filling in the sea would require enormous amounts of work, but no rare materials or advanced technology. It needed only manpower.
Enthused at the thought of its brilliant plan, it immediately got to work.
It began to construct devices that could warp the flow of time. This was far easier than building a spaceship. All the materials it required could be found in our world: cinnabar, realgar, plumbago, mica, crystal quartz, monazite...
Meanwhile, it began to use its intelligence to push along the development and population growth of our ancestors. It taught them fishing, hunting, farming, writing, mathematics... it helped them establish central governments and rituals and customs for the maintenance of long-term stability, so that the population would steadily increase. To cultivate the people’s minds as quickly as possible, it even gave the pinnacle of its world’s wisdom-- the Eight Trigrams-- to humanity. If it had known what kind of inspiration its gift would one day give to a certain young man, perhaps it wouldn’t have done that.
Our ancestors, adoring and grateful, revered it as “Fuxi.” Fu, synonymous with pu, meaning “great” and “majestic;” xi comes from the name of the sun god, Xihe. Our ancestors bestowed upon it the most venerating name they could think of.
But what should we call it? Neither Long nor Fuxi is its real name, and I don’t know what its original name was. Perhaps names didn’t even exist in its world. For the sake of convenience, I’ll merge the names and call it Longxi.
Longxi’s two concurrent projects cost it a very long time. But this wasn’t a problem; the rhythm of its lifespan is different from ours, and his longevity was great enough to see them to completion.
Its growing problem was its increasingly inconvenient bodily appearance. Its face resembled a human’s, but its body was completely different from that of humanity. With the growth in people’s intelligence, they’d begun to notice the strangeness of its body, begun to look at it with questioning eyes. It taught them to craft clothing to hide the body, but it couldn’t completely eliminate their suspicions.
What did its body look like? I’m not sure either. Based on what little I saw and the bits and pieces in the historical record, I conjecture that its body resembles a snake, only much thicker, and with heavier scales.
How laughable, that a being so intelligent wears the body of the lowliest, ugliest lifeform on our world.
It had no choice but to retreat behind the stage while a messenger took care of its business amongst humankind. It gave this messenger eternal life in return for his faithful service. This messenger was Qian Keng, called Peng Zu by future generations.
Longxi relocated all its work to a small island in the Gulf of Bohai, where it continued to build its powerful devices, continued to watch all that took place on the mainland. He manipulated our history without stop to make this land develop in the direction it wanted.
It forged the Nine Tripods for Yu of Xia to stabilize the rule of the central government. The Nine Tripods could be used to monitor the Nine Provinces, allowing a ruler to easily quell any fomenting rebellion and thus avoid the decrease in population that came with wars. It wanted to increase our numbers as quickly as possible, so we could sooner begin its massive construction project.
The three dynasties of Xia, Shang, and Zhou passed. We grew from a small kingdom in the Central Plains to an enormous, populous nation. Our tools grew in sophistication, from wood and stone to iron and steel. Our mathematics could now calculate surface area, volume, efficiency, solve equations and triangles... the conditions for the construction project were met. Concurrently, Longxi had succeeded in creating a device that could control time.
Now all it needed was a foreman.
It began to look for suitable candidates.
What constituted suitable? Such an enormous undertaking would shake any nation to its foundations; no sitting ruler would do something so foolish and dangerous. Therefore, it needed to find someone young, with sufficient talent for governance and fierce ambition, but no way of making his way in the world. With the promise of power as bait but the construction project as a condition, he would put all his energies to work for its sake.
It found the first candidate. He was still a child at the time, but already showed a talent for rulership and a hunger for power greater than any of his peers. But this boy held too low a status in the royal family to ever reach the throne. Longxi easily won over the boy and smoothed his path to power, step by step.
Decades of work and planning passed. The boy, as if in a fairytale, finally realized his dream of ruling an empire, becoming a ruler unprecedented in history.
But Longxi failed to take the power of avarice into account. A man who is never satisfied is like a snake trying to swallow an elephant. Once the child obtained power, he demanded immortality. Perhaps, if he’d obtained immortality, he would have demanded something else.
Longxi reached the end of patience. He ordered his messenger to exact punishment: steal the most vital component in the Nine Tripods, the Tripod’s Heart; and leave a magic mirror that revealed one’s five viscera and six bowels.
The child was delighted at the gift of the magic mirror and enraged at the loss of the Tripod’s Heart. But he didn’t know that the magic mirror he so treasured was meant as a trap. The mirror destroyed his mind, and eventually destroyed his empire.
After abandoning this greedy child, Longxi began to search for a second candidate.
It was very careful this time to find a young man both intelligent and upright. His country had fallen, his family had fallen, and his heart burned with vengeance. He, too, needed help. But when its messenger Qian Keng came into contact with this young man, he received a shock. The young man’s appearance was too distinctive-- a gentle beauty, like a maiden’s. In an era where strength and war determined all, his face was a fatal weakness! How could a leader with a face like a woman command the absolute obedience of his people till the completion of the undertaking, an undertaking of such magnitude and difficulty?
Longxi was once again forced to abandon his candidate and begin a third search. But before his messenger left, he gave the young man a powerful weapon and instructed him on how to use it against the greedy child. It was another punishment. If it succeeded, it would end the child’s rule there and then. If it failed, it would still strike a psychological blow upon the child, quickening his mental collapse.
The third candidate lived in Huaiyin. He was even smarter, even more outstanding than the first two, but his condition was even worse. Tormented by poverty and hunger and cold, he thirsted for power more than anyone else, craved success more fiercely than anyone else. Really, he couldn’t have been a better candidate had he been designed for it. Changing the young man’s fate was easier than changing the fate of the first two as well. All that the young man needed was a passageway for a war, and that passage had already existed at one point in history. Longxi could use his time-controlling device in the month of August, when the moon’s pull was strongest, to make the passage reappear. With that alone, the young man could unify all the land under heaven using his own abilities without requiring further intervention from Longxi.
But Longxi had many doubts about the young man. He was too outstanding. His intelligence was too great to be safe, too great for Longxi to control. Before it started using him, Longxi was already receiving “warning shocks” along the river of time. Once it used him, it seemed, it could result in powerful “ripples of distortion,” costing Longxi his predictive powers... oh, that’s too arcane. I should clarify.
From the viewpoint of our world, Longxi is an outsider. Every one of his interventions changes our set history, and every change in history causes the river of time to experience “ripples of distortion”. Where these ripples of distortion reach into the future, the future blurs and becomes impossible to read. Think of a rock being tossed into a pond. Until the ripples settle, you can’t see a good reflection off the surface of the pond. These blurry periods vary in length, but they always end eventually, which is why Longxi can always control the greater picture of our history.
Only, the ripples from changing this young man’s history seemed to reach along the entire length of the “river of time.” The ripples were so extensive that they might have no end, time being infinite in the future direction.
Such a case only results when the fate of someone truly outstanding is altered. The difference between that someone never getting a chance and that someone being allowed to use his abilities to their limits is self-evident, even on the historical scale. A change this large is more than enough to cast ripples through all the future.
Should he use this young man? Longxi was quite uncertain.
Too great a talent is a danger, but also a temptation. Making use of someone like him would be an immeasurable advantage to the construction project.
In the end, Longxi decided to use him.
The young man was prideful and contemptuous and loathed the idea of submitting to anyone. But this wasn’t a problem; reality would bend his head in time. When reality had driven the young man to the edge of despair, Longxi’s messenger appeared. He put the divine instrument to a far more minor use, “twisting” the time at a creek so that the young man, with his own eyes, saw a raging river miraculously disappear. Thus the young man was persuaded to the depths of his heart. He accepted the precious Tripod’s Heart from the messenger and agreed to the deal.
And so Longxi used its device to to open a passageway that had existed more than five hundred years ago, and opened, too, the door to the young man’s fate.
But there was an accident.
The ripples of distortion began the moment the passageway reappeared! They shook the entire river of time, so great in magnitude that they even flung the device that had birthed them five hundred years into the past!
This shouldn’t have been much of a problem. The device was lost, but could be rebuilt. With its palace facilities complete, it wouldn’t take long to build another. The young man’s meteoric rise to power promised much help when it came to obtaining the necessary resources.
But it had never anticipated such an incredible coincidence: the device lost five hundred years ago, handed down through the generations, had ended up in that young man’s hands!
The young man used his wits to carefully experiment, moving from inert objects to living horses, one step at a time. He gradually grasped the usage of this device, made the first step in his search for the full truth.
Afterwards, the young man told the messenger he wanted to see his mysterious master. The justifications he came up with proved sufficient, and Longxi agreed.
In the island palace, Longxi displayed all its dazzling devices and instruments freely in front of the young man. It thought that the people of this primitive world didn’t have the intelligence yet to understand them, that they would only cultivate the fear and reverence of humans towards it.
Longxi was wrong. He’d underestimated the young man.
The young man feigned astonishment and reverence, but he meticulously memorized everything he saw. He started by asking Longxi some questions relating to the construction, which Longxi very happily answered. It had been too long since he’d met such a conversant. The young man could reason through and understand everything he said, and was so full of curiosity that he chased every path of conversation down to its roots. Toward the end, Longxi even told him the real reason behind the construction project: the spaceship fallen to sea, the maneuverability of space and time, replacing sea with land...
It didn’t expect the young man to understand. But it had been in this primitive world for too long, and its loneliness was deep and great. And here was an audience that didn’t consider it a god or a demon, an audience willingly and patiently listening to its narrative.
Longxi spoke gladly. But when it realized that the young man understood all it had said, it grew wary again.
It sensed danger!
Han Xin’s new capital of Xiapi is the one of Romance of the Three Kingdoms fame, with the whole Xuzhou thing. I admit I never realized it used to be part of Chu until I started getting into this era; all the locations from back then are pretty squished together compared with modern-day China.
There are technically two Sishuis, because Pinyin has limits, so I’m calling one of them the Si River instead to differentiate them.Also, I just recently caught that, in the introduction to Volume 15 of the Records of the Grand Historian, Sima Qian literally says that Qin’s successful unification of China was “as though heaven had aided it.” (Burton Watson translation.) Hmm…
 There's a city in Anhui by the name of Huaibei, but in this context, Huaibei refers to the portion of Chu that lay north of the Huai river.