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The Garden

Councillor Yuchun Yiyuan burst out of his private chambers and hurried down the corridor, pulling on his second satin shoe – more of a slipper – on the way. His purple silk hat fell off his grey-haired head as he bent to the task and, puffing and grumbling, he had to bend a second time to pick it up. His momentum carried him forward, propelling him down the corridor in a mad little jig as he recovered his balance. He straightened his hat, gave the smirking guards in bronze lamellar armour a withering glare and continued on his way, beard held high. His slippers whispered over the plush red carpet, his velvet mauve robes swished around his bloated body, and light flickered over his face as he passed the tall, wide windows letting onto a view out over the mountainside. Unwelcoming crags were all he would see if he peered out, he knew, dotted with alpine flowers here and there. He entered the dojo as quietly as he could, sliding the shoji screen shut with only the faintest hiss.

He winced, ducking his head, as the rhythmic clanging of steel on steel drew to an abrupt halt and a voice rapped, “Councillor Yiyuan, so nice of you to join us.”

Yuchun bowed and looked up from beneath beetling bushy brows. “A thousand apologies, Shenzhan. I was detained on matters of great import, retrieving vital information from my extensive network of spies.”

He surreptitiously wiped the crumbs off his robes. They had presumably stuck there when he had fallen asleep eating biscuits that afternoon.

“All is forgiven,” Hanyan Fushimu, Shenzhan of Zhaoze Province, drawled nonchalantly, turning back to his sparring partner in the middle of the wide open space. “How can I stay mad at my father’s favourite councillor?”

A barb to remind him of his age, to remind him he was favoured only by the old and not the new? Yuchun wondered. The Shenzhan was stripped to the waist, revealing his lithe young frame. His golden skin was smooth, unblemished by callous or scar. His dark hair was tied up tight in an incongruous warrior’s topknot. His opponent looked much the same, save less regal of feature and more nervous.

“As always, I am eternally grateful to be able to prove of use.” Yuchun bowed again.

“Then, come, councillor. Prove of use. We were just discussing the offensive on Nitan. En garde!”

He lurched at his opponent suddenly, swinging his katana like a child swatting at brush. His bald-headed opponent turned the swipes aside with ease, leaning left and right. He made only tentative replies, arcing his own katana slowly through the air so that it was simplicity itself for the Shenzhan to parry, block or dodge.

Parrying one such blow and counterattacking with venom so that the bald man had to leap back to avoid being disembowelled, the Shenzhan indicated the swarthy man in bronze lamellar armour in the corner with a helmet under his arm, beside whom the Shenzhan’s retainers cowered in turquoise livery. “General Guwen has received report that our men have been making better headway through the swamp thanks to your latest advice. Following the will o’ the wisps, eh? Who knew? I guess the legends of them luring travellers to a watery grave are just that – legends!”

He had been blocking blows with needless flourishes while he spoke, and now he launched a sudden assault, seeking to catch his opponent off guard and slit his throat with a swift slash. The bald man leaned back, eyes wide, the tip of the Shenzhan’s katana less than an inch from his windpipe.

“I almost had you there, Tatada!” Fushimu chortled.

Rubbing his neck, the bald man said in a quiet baritone, “That you did, Shenzhan.”

Yuchun hadn’t even seen the exchange. He had been glowering at General Huai Guwen ever since the Shenzhan gestured in the man’s vague direction. The beardless boy was barely old enough to be off the teat, much less leading an army, he thought … but then the Shenzhan was little older himself.

General Guwen regarded him in return with a haughty look, as if he thought the older man not worth his time or trouble. Yuchun wanted to smack that look off his smug face.

“Bravo, Shenzhan!” brayed the general in a thin, airy voice. “A fine manoeuvre.”

Hacking at Tatada with all the poise of a lumberjack on his first day on the job, Fushimu panted, “I always thought will o’ the wisps were just blobs of swamp gas. I guess there must be more to them than that, though. The mystery of their nature will have to wait, I guess. For now, it is enough that they are of use. Well done, councillor. Remind me …” He swiped viciously at Tatada, who barely dodged. “How did you know following the wisps would help our troops traverse the swamp mists? General Guwen tells me the warriors report that they find solid ground wherever they tread so long as they follow directly in the wisps’ path. How did you know, Old Yiyuan?”

“I was raised near the swamp,” Yuchun lied. “I know many of its secrets.”

“Raised near the swamp … hmm …” Fushimu parried and riposted with a snarl, his blade licking out towards Tatada’s breast.

Tatada parried smoothly, not batting an eyelid.

“So, the offensive goes well?” Yuchun asked quickly.

“It does,” Fushimu replied, beckoning Tatada and then carefully blocking his slow attacks. “Our forces have pushed back the fighters from Nitan – as we knew they would if they could but find their way through the fog. Nitan’s militia is nothing but a group of farmers with pitchforks, good for guerrilla warfare and little else. They had been picking apart our forces while we wallowed in the bog, trying to find our way, but now we can meet them head on. Guwen reports that his men found some solid ground and lured the enemy in for an ambush. They took a heavy toll on the militia. Our forces have reached the town now – or sight of it, at least. I expect Nitan will fall within days, if not hours.” He grunted as he parried and tried to cut out Tatada’s eyes. “The only problem we’re having is what’s left of the militia. They’re holed up in the town, and it seems they were ready for us. Guwen tells me they’re dropping arrows, stones and boulders on us all hours of the day and night, slowing our advance. He says they’ve enough bows, slings and catapults to man the whole town. Not to mention the logistical nightmare of supplying an army in the bog.”

“It is indeed unfortunate, Shenzhan,” agreed Yuchun mildly. “I will think on these latest developments. I am sure there is a way to secure victory yet, even from the jaws of defeat.”

Privately, he felt sorry for the people of Nitan. They had done nothing to provoke the Shenzhan’s antipathy, save refuse to pay him taxes when he insisted they were a part of Zhaoze Province and they insisted they were a part of Shijie Wuyan – as they had been for the last century and more, since the swamp that marked the territories’ borders separated Zhoaze from the town. Privately, he worried that if the Shenzhan did not mend his ways, a civil war could be forged in the crucible of the swamp. But what could he do? Openly criticise the Emperor’s nephew and end up in a dungeon like poor old Hanfu? No, better to live in luxury than waste away in a cell, even if he had to serve a monster to do it.

Fushimu snapped his head around. “Is that sarcasm?”

Yuchun froze on the spot, but was saved from answering when Tatada’s sword, moving as if through molasses, tapped the Shenzhan on the shoulder. Yuchun was sure it did not draw blood, since it was blunted, but to see Fushimu’s reaction, he’d have thought the Shenzhan had been mortally wounded. Fushimu spun on Tatada with a cry of outrage and executed a flurry of fast and furious, if wild and uncoordinated, stabs and slashes, one of which finally connected, pronging Tatada in the chest. As the bald man dropped to his knees with a wheeze, Fushimu spun on the spot with his arms in the air, a victorious smile on his lips. Yuchun applauded dutifully along with the rest of the retainers.


When Yuchun was finally excused from his duties later that day, on account of the Shenzhan wishing to go hunting for mountain lions, the councillor gladly followed his feet to his favourite place in all the palace. Called a complex for the sake of the Emperor’s ego, it was, in fact, a palace. Carved into a mountainside above the capital of Zhaoze Province, Chendian city, it loomed high and mighty above the regular folk far below, adding its many spires to the mountain’s own silhouettes when the sun set behind it. It was like a city unto itself, and Yuchun was both grateful and ashamed to call it his home. Like most retainers, he was housed in the servants’ wing.

He soon found his way to the quiet corner of the complex palace where he had long ago stumbled upon what would prove to be his salvation. He entered the base of an old tower, long disused and replaced, and went down a flight of stairs. Then, he crossed the bare stone room and opened a termite-ridden door onto the mountainside. There, nestled in a crook in the crags, was a garden. Overgrown with weeds and grass and buzzing with bees, it was the prettiest, most colourful sight Yuchun had ever seen, like a secret meadow tucked away in the heart of the mountain, meant only for him. Flowers of all colours winked at him in the waning light, and the long grass rustled, feathers waving. He sat down on the stump of an ancient tree, looked out over the city of Chendian and sighed. Peace stole over him then, as it always did when he visited the garden, seeming to seep deep into his aching muscles, soothing them like warm water. His pangs of guilt seemed to drift away on the breeze.

You return, son of man.

The words sounded in his head, sibilant, feminine. He could feel them slithering in there. It was not an unpleasant sensation. He took out his ceramic pipe, stuffed the bowl with the pungent herb, baui, and lit it with a snap of his fingers. Fire flared in the bowl, only to wink out, leaving only the smallest smoke signal to let the city know he needed help. He puffed and inhaled deeply, holding the smoke in his lungs until it burned, before letting it all out in one long whoosh. He coughed.

“My feet always bring me back here,” Yuchun said in his soft tenor. “I sometimes wish I could have brought Pijian here. She would have loved this place. She never would have come here, though. She hated the Shenzhan and his evil ways. That’s why she left me, you know. Because she couldn’t stand to be with a man who worked for Fushimu.” He sighed again. “I don’t know if I can stand me either some days.”

What ails you, son of man?

“Huh. Heartsickness. Homesickness. Loneliness.” Yuchun rubbed a hand over his face. “I have everything material I could ever want – food, a bed and food – and yet I hate my life. What am I doing serving a man like Fushimu? What was I thinking? And how can I possibly escape now without incurring his wrath? It’s well known he hates for his servants to leave him without permission. He crucified one only last month. And that’s all I am to him – a servant! The Chi Academy has no use for me anymore. They sold me to him like a prize horse ready to be used for glue. They’ve abandoned me here with no hope of reprieve. What was I supposed to do, though? Refuse the appointment? Become a pariah with no livelihood and no respect? Ah, at least I’d have had Pijian. I wonder sometimes … I wonder whether I did the right thing. But if I hadn’t done what I did, Pijian and I might have ended up in the gutter, penniless and starving. Why is it that there’s never a right decision in this world? Why is it that no matter what I do, I’m left wondering ‘what if’? I’ve been asking ‘what if’ for over sixty years, and I’m beginning to see that there is no ‘what if’. There’s only shit at every turn. Piles of shit. Everywhere you go. Shit here, there and everywhere. Ah, maybe it’s all in the mind, like they say. Face the world with a frown and your day will go down, put on a smile and it’ll brighten a while. Maybe I forged my own prison. Ah, that’s the most depressing thought of all. And we’re back to ‘what if’ …”

Did the ruler of man dislike my counsel?

“No, no, he didn’t dislike your counsel,” said Yuchun. “He liked it very much, in fact. Thanks to you, to us, the Gods alone know how many of the Nitan militia were killed in the last day or two. The Shenzhan’s forces found a path through the fog and routed their enemy. The victory bugles are sounded. So, I suppose I should thank you for your advice. As always. How did you know about the will o’ the wisps, by the way? Fushimu asked me how I knew, and I had to think fast. I told him I grew up near the swamp. Hopefully, he’s too stupid to know I grew up in the city.”

I did grow up in the swamp.

“Of course you did,” Yuchun muttered. “Are you going to tell me what you are yet?”

A creature the like of which few on Maradoum have ever seen reared up out of the long grass then, the sunset glinting on its strangely bumpy skin, mottled a green and brown colour. Her stumpy legs were hidden in the grass, as was her long swishing tail. Her wedge-shaped head nosed the air before him, beady eyes assessing him. Not for the first time, he thought she looked somewhat like an oversized salamander. She was a little larger than a dog. He could not explain how he knew she was female, nor how he could hear her in his head. Whatever the reason or explanation, he was glad of her company. And her counsel. Without it, he suspected Fushimu would’ve chained him up in the dungeon like poor old Hanfu months ago.

One day, perhaps. For now, tell me what the ruler of man said.

“He said the troops are having trouble getting near the town,” said Yuchun dutifully.

“He said they’re being bombarded by arrows, stones from slings and boulders from catapults. Apparently, the people of Nitan are most ingenious.”

It took him a while then to explain to her the concept of bows and arrows, slings and catapults. Stones and boulders she understood.

Hmm, perhaps I ought not share this secret. It will help you overcome that which you men call catapults, however, and so I will trust you, councillor, with one of the greatest secrets of my kind. The greatest secret of the swamp.

Yuchun leaned closer.

Oil. It seeps out of the earth at the bottom of the swamp. It is what turns the water black and brackish. Use this oil, child of man. Use it to burn down your enemies and win your ruler’s trust.

Yuchun gaped at her. “Oil? Of course! Thank you, strange creature. Thank you!”

You are welcome, chid of man.

The beast hunkered down and vanished back into the long grass with only the faintest rustle. Try as he might, Yuchun could no longer see nor hear it. He sat there awhile longer, puffing on his pipe and watching the sky set on fire as the sun set. When the eye of the world finally closed, he pushed himself up on aching knees and doddered back to his private chambers. Opulent as a sultan’s, his chambers were bedizened with silken hangings, plush cushions, thick carpets, lacquered tables, desks and chairs and a four-poster bed. He sank into the downy mattress with a sigh and hugged the shawl he kept there to his breast. It still smelled faintly of jasmine.

“Goodnight, Pijian,” he whispered, a single tear wending its way down his face.


When a servant came to summon him to the Shenzhan’s presence the following evening, Yuchun was ready. Tugging on his hat and slippers, he sashayed through the palace to the ostentatious dining hall, where portraits of past Shenzhans gazed snootily down on the diners beneath a golden chandelier and coffered ceiling. Marble mouldings climbed halfway up the walls, and the cornices were decorated with golden leaf. A chill wind whistled in through the high windows. A glossy cherrywood table standing on tumescent legs dominated the room, heaped high with delicacies and surrounded by chairs with high backs carved into reliefs of leaves. In the chairs sat Shenzhan Hanyan Fushimu, General Huai Guwen and several of the Shenzhan’s aristocratic friends. Resplendent in silken robes the colour of plum blossom, Fushimu was picking at some plum duck and playing mah-jong with one of his acquaintances, a simpering fool clad in yellow-and-blue robes by the name of Baichi Pengyu. The retainers stood arrayed around the hall, some with platters and goblets at the ready.

Shifting a piece on the board, Fuchimu grinned nastily at Pengyu. “Let’s see you get out of this one, you rat! Ah, Councillor Yiyuan, thank you for joining us. We’ve just received the latest reports from the eastern front. General Guwen reports that our men have had little success against Nitan’s militia. The enemy are dug in deep with all manner of catapults and slings to harry our forces. Meanwhile, our men are stuck in the bog, trying to follow will o’ the wisps to dry ground and being picked off one by one! Guwen says our forces are becoming disarrayed. He says we should pull back, reorganise and try again. What say you?”

Yuchun bowed to hide his smirk, knowing the Shenzhan would prefer his advice by far. “If it weren’t for my respect for the noble General Guwen, I’d call it cowardice, Shenzhan.”

Fushimu barked with laughter, while Guwen turned the colour of a beetroot under his golden complexion.

“Now, listen here, you scurvy –” Guwen began, but the Shenzhan raised a hand, cutting him off.

“Go on,” said Fushimu, eyes glittering.

Yuchun took a deep breath and prayed the creature in the garden had not lied to him. It had never lied to him thus far, he reassured himself. “My spies tell me the water of the swamp is black and brackish thanks to oil seeping out of the earth at the bottom of the swamp. The water should be oily enough to light. If we can collect some of it in clay pots with narrow spouts, we can stuff lit rags in and toss the pots at the catapults, thus burning them down.”

Fushimu and Guwen gaped at him.

Once he had explained it a few more times, the Shenzhan breathed in understanding, “Use the oil in the water to burn down the catapults! You’re a genius, Old Yiyuan!”

Yuchun bowed. “I do my best to serve.”

He was forced by politeness to stay and watch until the end of the game. He was confident Pengyu let the Shenzhan win. He did not blame the man. Better to lose at a game of mah-jong than to lose one’s life.



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