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To live, live one's passions; to survive, abandon one's passions (Historical SI- Three Kingdoms Era)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Castage, Oct 18, 2020.

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  1. Threadmarks: Yellow Turban Rebellion 1
    Castage

    Castage Getting sticky.

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    I already posted it on a few other forums and, since I am finishing the newest chapter after a long break, I decided to post it here, as well.
    Based on history, 'Romance of the Three Kingdoms' novel, 'The Ravages of Time' manhua and a pinch of 'Dynasty Warriors' game.
    And sadly, I own none of above.

    * * *​

    In retrospect, it was one of the stupider things I've done in my... well, in both of my lives.

    „Ha!” I urged the horse as I galloped to the running crowd.

    “Reform the ranks! Reform the ranks!” I screamed as loud as I could while stopping my horse in front of them. The soldiers slowed, then stopped.

    Good. It worked. But still, they were ready to start running any minute.

    I jumped from my horse and hit, making it gallop away. And with it, my escape chance was gone.

    In truth, now that I think about it, it was really stupid.

    I turned and started walking to the soldiers who were routing just a moment ago – the pursuit was already visible.

    “Soldiers of Han! Reform the line!”

    My voice carried and, surprisingly, the men listened.

    Maybe it was my erratic behaviour, maybe it were my rich clothes, maybe they were just tired running or maybe they just needed someone to rally behind... because I'm sure I have no charisma or voice to command that kind of discipline.

    First, only a few turned and stud in line – but soon, the rest followed their example, reforming ranks. Still... they were shaky - broken after latest defeat... ready to break in contact with the coming horde.

    This wouldn't do.

    “Soldiers of Han!” I raised my voice. “The men that are coming are nothing more than beasts! They have forfeited the law. They rob, pillage, burn, rape and kill as if it was something normal – something worth boasting about! Given the chance, they will pillage your homes, defile your wives and daughters, torture and kill your sons and brothers! Soldiers of Han! You fight to defend your homes! To defend your families!”

    I finished and looked around, at – the soldiers that looked defeated just a moment ago, now had a fire in them. There was anger. There was determination. Good. We had a chance.

    As the rebels were about fifty meters from our line, I raised the sword and screamed as loud as I could.

    “KILL!”

    Hundred of voices answered my call with their own as we charged the enemy ranks.

    The rebels actually stopped, surprised by our attack. The first man that I killed, didn't even raise a sword to protect himself.

    Unfortunately, the shock of the Yellow Scarves didn't last long.

    I should have escaped when I had a chance. Instead, I had to play the hero, and run and save the village that was in the way of yellow scarves... Sure, I rallied the soldiers, but I'm not one myself. I'm not strong enough to be one. I didn't last two minutes in battle, before being defeated and stunned.
    Fortunately, I had more luck than brains... this time.


    I sat trying not to wince as one of medics tended to my wounds. Few scratches, a lump on my head and pierced left arm... the last one, I will probably feel in years to come.

    I bowed, holding my hands in front of me, in salute.

    “Once again, I thank you for your timely rescue, general.”

    The older man smiled. General Huangfu Song, leader of the central vanguard, was one of these few men, that you couldn't help but respect. Generous and humble – a rare breed of genuinely good man.

    “You still didn't tell me your name, youngling.”

    I dropped my salute, wincing at the pain in my arm.

    “Sa-” I coughed to cover my slip. “Yuan Xi.”

    “Benchu's son?”

    “Yes. The second.”

    “Hmm...” he hummed as he clasped his hands behind his back. “What you did, was very brave.”

    “I would say it was foolish.” I said, making the general smile.

    “Stupidity and courage - this two tend pair often.” He looked at me sharply. “But I would say, that you were also lucky.”

    “You say so Lord Huangfu, only because I am still alive.”

    “True.” He looked back at the battlefield. “You rallied the men to stand and fight, you motivated them enough to commence a surprise attack on the rebels.” he turned back to look straight at me, with calculating eyes. “The soldiers you commanded have lost their commander in battle leaving me in need for a new Captain. You seem like a right choice.”

    I swallow and slowly stand up. I bring my hands in salute and bow my head.

    “It would be an honour.”

    Two days ago, I, a man from the XXI century, woke in a body of a... young man who lived almost two millennia earlier, during the end of Han dynasty – Yuan Xi. I watched his life, his memories as if I watched a movie. I have inherited his skills and abilities... his knowledge.

    But, I also know his history... or, is it my future?

    The pros of my future are simple.
    My father would become one of the most powerful warlords in the Han Empire.
    I would marry one of most beautiful women in the Empire.
    I would be appointed as a governor and become a minor warlord.


    But these pros pale in face of cons.
    My father would lose a series of battles against opposing warlord, so badly that he would die of regret.
    My brothers would rip what will be left of my father's domain apart, in a power struggle.
    My wife would be stolen from me and be married to another man, while I am still alive.
    I would be killed and my head would be sent as a gift.


    And all that would happen in less than two decades.

    After processing everything, I decided to run... and somehow, I, now Yuan Xi, son of noble Yuan Shao styled Benchu of prestigious Yuan clan, ended up as a Captain under general Huangfu Song.
     
  2. Threadmarks: Yellow Turban Rebellion 2
    Castage

    Castage Getting sticky.

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    Few months after becoming an officer in the Imperial army, I had another brilliant moment... and I am sarcastic here.

    “They sure are fortified up there.” General Huangfu Song said as the spy reported the state of the city.

    “The assault will be bloody...” Colonel Zhu of the sixth camp said. “Should we try starving them out?”

    “No. It would take to long. If the neighbouring city sends reinforcements, we will be trapped between two forces.” Captain Jing retorted.

    As the staff – the advisors and officers continued to discuss how to conquer the city, I stayed silent, contemplating the situation.

    “I... might have an idea, General,” I said after arranging my thoughts.

    The man looked at me with this piercing looks of his that made me feel like I was a student back at school.

    “Let's hear it.”

    My idea was rather simple. Instead of engaging rebels, who were safely hidden behind the walls, we would lure them out and crush them on the field and then take the weakened city. As for the lure... we would spread the rumours about the government convoy with gold and supplies for the army. To make it more realistic, we would dispatch a heavily guarded convoy – but with soldiers hidden inside the carts, instead of the gold and supplies. A bait would lure the rebels into a place of ambush, and the main unit would then engage the yellow scarves in the field.

    My plan was approved... I have made only a... small... miscalculation.

    “Faster!” I screamed, “They are gaining on us to fast!”

    The general was so pleased with my idea, that he gave me the... honour... of leading the bait unit.

    I cursed. Our supply carts were not made to be fast – while the yellow scarves were gaining on fast. Way to fast. We will not make it to the ambush site.

    “Curses! Give a signal!”

    At my order, the carts formed a ring. The escort soldiers quickly hid behind the carts – but I decided to keep the soldiers hiding inside the carts in reserve. If the ring would be broken through and we were pushed back – the reserve would attack the back of bandits. A rather risky manoeuvre, but, if performed correctly, it would buy us some time and give some breathing space... that, and if there are too many escorts, the rebels might decide to retreat, seeing through the trap.

    “This is really a job for assault troops.” I murmured as I looked at the charging rebels.

    “Well then!” I said loudly, so my soldiers could hear. “It looks that the enemies were kind enough to accept our invitation – and quite many of them, at that.” More than twenty times our numbers, dammit! “Now, we just have to wait for the main unit to arrive... and knowing how the fifth camp likes to drag their asses, it might take a while.” I blame their leader Mo Yun. The coward does everything he can to stay away from the battlefield.

    Many of my soldiers smiled and few even laughed out loudly. They already participated in a few battles and were no greenhorns. Still, this battle was different from what they were used to.

    “Now, we just have to make sure not to kill every enemy before us. It would greatly sadden the good General when he arrives with reinforces if he found there is nothing to rescue us from!” This time more men laughed. Good. The morale is high. We won't break... easily.

    “Crossbows!” I barked as the rebels approached. I waited until they were about fifty meters from us. “Fire!”

    I smiled viciously as the first wave of raiders collapsed under the fire. I was about to give the order to fire the second volley when the raiders split and started surrounding our defensive ring.
    So they will be attacking from all sides at once, tieing up most of my soldiers. I cursed – it was too much to hope that enemy commander was an incompetent fool, wasn't it?

    The enemy commander was no fool – he was a one calculating bastard. He knew exactly the strength of his soldiers. We beat off four assaults of, what could be summed up as armed peasants. The fifth assault was different – the first four served only to wear us off. The rebels that attacked us were though, had better equipment, were experienced and their morale was high. They broken through our defences and forced us to abandon carts. Only the sudden attack of my reserve saved us from what was about to become a slaughter.

    Even then, the enemy commander didn't give a space to breathe, sending a constant stream of troops, into the breach made by his, I suspect, elites.
    I lost track of time in constant combat, but at some moment, the general Huangfu Song arrived with the rescue. Before the rebels noticed the general's arrival, the Han vanguard already cut through half of their formation. The battle was decided and more than half of yellow scarves were cut down – none managed to return to the city.


    The city, without its defenders, surrendered quickly.

    A few days later, after quelling the unrest in the city, the general gave new orders.

    “I must protest General! My men are in no state to take part in the next offensive. Half of my unit was killed in the last mission while acting as a bait. The three-fourths of those left is to wounded to perform their duties.” I was lucky – I got hit a few times, but my armour was good enough to blunt the hits. Still, the bruises hurt.

    “You are right. That's why I'm promoting you to colonel.”

    “...pardon?” how does that make any sense?

    “I will lead the main unit on the offensive, while you will stay here, guarding the city with your unit. Reinforcements will be arriving from the capital, escorting new inspector of the commandery. With the man that will arrive, you will be forming a new unit – eighth camp. Depending on the situation in the area, you will either work alongside the inspector in quelling the commandery or, if the situation is stable enough, you will rejoin my army.” The general finished, then smiled. “You've done well in the last battle. It would be a waste letting you stay a simple captain.”

    I swallow thickly and nod.

    “It's.. an honour. I honestly don't know what to say.”

    Few days after the departure of Huangfu Song's army, I found myself strolling around the city.

    The stay in the city proved to be, thankfully, uneventful even if somehow awkward. The populace was... well, not hostile, but certainly not friendly. The corrupt inspector in charge practically ruined the city. Finally, the population had enough and – with the assistance of local garrison, captured and quite bloodily executed the inspector. The city, then practically volunteered to Yellow Scarves rebellion.

    It made me think. So far, I went with the flow. Serving in the army, fighting battles. But Han would fall. I was in no position to change it. Sure, our General-in-Chief, one of most powerful people in the empire, started as a butcher. But I didn't have a beautiful sister to offer to Emperor as a concubine in exchange for the position.

    If I wanted to survive, I had few options.

    First, I could escape south. The lands of Shi Xie and Liu Yan will be untouched for a few decades to come. But later...

    Second, join a major faction. But anyone I would join would treat me as a hostage to use against my father.

    Third, follow history and change it at the crucial moment – battle of Guandu. Cao Cao will lead a unit at Wuchao. In history, he won only by accidentally wounding the general in charge of the defence. It could be easily changed. With Cao Cao dead, Yuans would dominate the Central Plains. Would they?

    What would Yuan Shao... father, do? Would he kill the emperor? Use him like a puppet? Stay in the north and declare independent kingdom?

    Even if Yuans dominated the court, it's highly possible that the succession crisis would take place. My brothers would clash and they would eventually force me to choose between one of them. And if won the one whom I supported would get suspicious – if I betrayed a brother once, I could do it again, couldn't I? Then there is the mother of Yuan Shang – Lady Liu, who killed all the other concubines of Yuan Shao and supported her son's claim... and with her a question. Should I rescue the woman who gave the birth to Yuan Xi?



    I stopped.

    If I wanted to survive in this age I would have to create my own power base – independently or within another faction. I would need fame, money and reputation to attract skilled officers.

    A cult of a unit.

    A modern man in me shuddered in disgust.

    Will I stay true to my principles? To my morality? I already have taken more lives than I could count – but these people were bandits. Killers, murderers and rapists...

    Or will I forfeit them in the name of survival?



    I close my eyes. There is only one path for me if I wanted to live – a path of warlord... a path of a tyrant. This realization, made something die in me.

    I opened my eyes, feeling a tears running down my cheeks. I wipe my eyes and look around. I have travelled to some kind of slums. My eyes stop on the only other person in the area – a child standing in front of a burned building.

    I walk up to the child.

    “Where are your parents, child?” I ask.

    “Dead.” The child with dead eyes answered in an empty voice.

    “You have no one?”

    “No.”

    I tighten my fist.

    This is the age I am living in now.

    “So you have no one. You have nothing. You have no purpose. You can only wait for the death.” In this age, there were very few who would take in an orphan. The child without the support of family was almost sure to die from hunger.

    Can I do it?

    “...I could take you in.” I say and point my index and middle finger at the child's forehead, almost touching it. The child's eyes widen.

    Kill my heart.

    “You have a choice. You can stay here and starve to death and join your family...” I hesitate a moment before continuing. My path is set. “Or you could swear yourself to me, become my follower. I would take care of you, feed you, house you... give you purpose. But in return, I would require you total and unconditional loyalty and devotion. I would require you to dedicate your body, soul and mind to me...” I pause and lower my hand. “I need you, child.”

    The little one didn't move for a moment, then made a step in my direction, then another. I kneeled and caught the child. I closed my eyes and kept the kid in a hug as the child quietly sobbed into my arm.

    Never before, I was so disgusted with myself as I was at that moment.

    For it was at that moment, that I, Yuan Xi, entered the path of tyrants... and it was at this moment that I acquired my first... follower – an orphan I've met in slums.
     
  3. Threadmarks: Yellow Turban Rebellion 3
    Castage

    Castage Getting sticky.

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    Three months later, the camp was organized enough for us to rejoin the main unit. Since the area was pacified, the inspector had no problems with letting us go.

    The child I picked up, was named Dü - and wasn't it an ominous name. She was from Lang household, a family of traders. Her entire clan was exterminated by Yellow scarves – she survived only because she was hidden by her servants – who were also killed later.

    After I took her in as an - what could be summed up - adopted daughter, Dü turned out to be an intelligent child, eager to prove herself to me. Or maybe she was just afraid that if she didn't show herself being useful, I would throw her away...

    Strangely enough, she somehow became a... mascot, for lack of better word, of the eighth camp. Soldiers took a liking to the little one.
    Two weeks after we left to rejoin the general's forces, I had a fateful encounter.


    “Ah!” Dü screamed as she fell on the ground. She quickly got up, cast me a quick glance and bit her teeth in frustration. She grabbed the stick and charged at the soldier again.

    “Colonel!” I turned to face the messenger, who stopped in front of me and saluted. “There is a party at the gates! They bare the Frontier's army flag!”

    I nodded and started walking to the gate, to greet the party.

    “It's rather cute, how little lady is trying to impress you colonel.” one of my officers spoke as he walked with me “But is it alright for her to be taught martial arts?”

    I nodded.

    “In this age, the ability to fight might save her life one day.” That didn't mean I wanted her to be a mere soldier – I had more than enough of those. I guess it's time for me to start teaching her and expand her mental abilities...
    As soon as I arrived at the gates I noticed a commotion. There was a large party of soldiers escorting some wagons. One of the men run up to me and saluted, bowing his head humbly.

    “My lord! Forgive me for commotion but I need your help! My wife is giving birth, but it doesn't look good!” The man – an officer – was quite distressed.

    I greeted him with a salute of my own.

    “You are in luck then, my friend. During our last stop, I hired a medician.” Cause I preferred having one, should I ever get wounded during the battle. The appreciation of the troops of having one was an additional plus.

    I nodded to one of my aides who salutes and breaks into a run. He returned a few minutes later with the man. The doctor immediately got to work.

    “Thank you! I'm very much in your debt!” The frontier officer says gratefully. “Ah, forgive my rudeness. I'm Zhuo-”

    “Report!” Messenger's scream interrupts the officer, as he runs up to us. “A messenger bearing the flag of general Huangfu is on the horizon!”

    I curse as the soldiers around tense. For the good general to send a message when we were but a few days from rejoining him – it couldn't be good.

    “Gather the men! We might have to march quickly to General's Huangfu's aid!” I ordered loudly.

    What could have happened? Every report we received said that the rebels were in retreat.

    The moment the messenger arrived, the camp was a hub of activity. But as soon as he announced his message, everyone froze.

    Zhang Jue, the leader of Yellow Scarves was killed by General Huangfu Song!”

    The silence that came, was broken by a single wail – a child's wail. The Zhuo ran to the wagon, just as the medician walked up to me.

    “It's a good thing I was here. Without help, both child and mother would have died.” The man said.

    I nodded.

    “A child born at the end of the era...” I hear a murmur from one of the officers.

    I turned to my soldiers and raised my voice.

    “Zhang Jue was killed! Today we celebrate! Tomorrow we march to aid the general in rounding up the remnants of Yellow Scarves!”

    That night, we partied. The eighth camp under my command and frontier troops celebrated the death of rebel. I found myself in a heated discussion with Zhuo, the leader of frontier soldiers - a fresh parent of baby-girl...

    “It's disheartening for us, you know.” he said as he sipped his wine. “For two decades I and my men defended the Empire from barbarians. We have put down more rebellions than I can remember. Only for it all to go to hell due to the greed of nobles and corruption of the government.” He hung his head dejected.

    I could understand his sentiment, really. The unreasonable ways of the government, the corruption, high taxes and harsh law enforcement were driving the people straight into Yellow Scarves hands. The Han dynasty all but imploded.

    “I understand but what can you do?” I answered.

    “Nothing. We simply don't have the power to do anything.” The man answered bitterly.

    “...and if you had power?” I asked curiously.

    “I would give that damn rats a taste of what they gave to others – I would give them the terror, they have so eagerly gave to common people.” He all but barked. “Then I would destroy the entire rotten government... and rebuild it from nothing if I had to.”

    His views, while somewhat extreme, were something I could agree with. The government needed to change and purged from the corrupt. The problem was that it was so corrupt, that nothing could possibly save it... sans, maybe Cao Cao.

    “Hmm...” I smiled. “Let's not talk more about sad topics. Here young father. Drink more.” No need to deliberate on something we couldn't change.

    “Hm! It's not my first child you know!” He accepted the drink anyway. “But if not for you, I would have lost both, my wife and my daughter.” He took a swing emptying his cup and urged me to drink from mine's “You are practically a family! We should swear an oath of brotherhood!”

    “Stop it. I just did what anybody else would have done!” I protested.

    After a few more drinks, I finally gave in to his requests and agreed. Right then, in front of all of the soldiers, we became sworn brothers. The next morning, with a rather big hangover, I bid farewell to my new sworn-brother.

    “Haha! I still cannot thank you enough for your hospitality!” the man laughed as he got on the horse. “Well, it's time for us to depart. Until we see each other again!”

    His wife, holding a small bundle, in her arms smiled and waved me from her sit on the cart.

    “See you around, brother!” I waved as he ordered his party to depart.

    I might've been completely drunk when I choose to become his sworn brother, but he seemed like a genuinely good person. And there was a plus side to this - should I ever have a falling with my family, I can always go to him, to seek shelter.

    Yes, I had a good feeling about him.

    “Well, now that master Zhuo is gone, it's time for us to depart.” I said turning to my aides and officers. “We can't let general Huangfu do all the work.”

    “Hopefully we will meet master Dong in future.” One of my aides commented as my staff went to carry out their orders.

    Dong? Ah, so that was his surname. Zhuo of Dong clan...

    Dong Zhuo...



    Suddenly my throat became dry. It couldn't be that Dong Zhuo... could be? The most hated man in all of China, the tyrant against whom my father will organize a coalition of warlords? He seemed like a rather nice guy – a charismatic one too. His views were not that tyrannical.... okay, they were, but he had them for all the good reasons...



    Wait, I just became his sworn brother.

    If my father calls me to attack Dong Zhuo, and Zhuo calls on our oath...

    My life suddenly became overly complicated.

    * * *​

    ...at the year of death of Zhang Jue, Yuan Xi, an officer of Huangfu Song at the time, became known for his moderation in alcohol. Once during the banquet, Yuan Shao inquired his son why he didn't drink. Xi answered 'I do stupid things while drunk.' Shao praised his son's moderation.

    A fragment of the biography of Yuan Xi from 'Hundred Years of Turmoil' – historical work about the 'end of Han dynasty' and an era that followed.
     
  4. Threadmarks: Yellow Turban Rebellion 4
    Castage

    Castage Getting sticky.

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    “Finished.” Dü said uncertainly, looking at me.

    I looked at her work and started checking it.

    “Now, tell me what you know about the Yellow Scarves.” I asked as I continued to check the equations – it seemed that she managed to master simple math.

    “They are filthy rebels!” Dü immediately exclaimed with fire in her eyes – her hatred of the Yellow Scarves was rather strong. She seemed to want to say more but stopped herself. Good. She seemed to understand the lesson in moderation in expressing one's opinions. Haven's know that to many men died because they just couldn't keep their mouth shut.

    “Yes.” I smiled at her, making her smile a little as well. “But why have they rebelled?”

    Dü frowned as she seemed to think intensively.

    “I... I don't know.” She lowered her head in embarrassment.

    “Good.”

    She looked surprised at me, not expecting a prize.

    “I don't expect you to know everything, but I won't accept you being ignorant. Realizing and acknowledging, that you don't know something, is a first step in on the road to understanding the subject.”

    Dü slowly nodded in genuine understanding, making me smile.

    “Now, that you know that you are ignorant, how would you gain the knowledge about the subject in question?”

    Dü frowned again, thinking how to answer.

    * * *​

    After the news of the death of Zhang Jue, we rejoined the main unit. Under General Huangfu Song, we continued our campaign against Yellow Scarves.

    After the death of Zhang Jue, his brother, Zhang Liang took command of remnants his unit. Fighting against them was difficult – the soldiers were not only numerous, but they were also strong as well. The initial battles ended up in draws and two armies ended up facing each other in a stand-off, the General decided to change tactics then. He had us built defensive fortifications. Seeing this the rebels lowered their guard, thinking that we would defend.

    That night, the General ordered a night raid.

    Zhang Liang perished along with thirty thousands of his soldiers in that attack. The routed survivors tried to cross the river, but the majority of them drowned... about fifty thousand people drowned.

    Fifty thousand of what occurred to me, women, children and elderly – the soldiers' families. They were so terrified that they choose to try their chances in crossing the swift river rather than be captured. But in the report, writing that it was fifty thousand rebels, sounded better. Those who surrender were either executed or... well, seized and kept as the property of the government.

    After that victory, the general received a promotion to 'Left General of Chariots and Cavalry'.

    In the following months, we attacked the army of another brother of Zhang Jue - Zhang Bao. After a few months of intense battles, we finally managed to crush his hundred thousandths strong army.

    After that victory, we spent few more months rounding up the Yellow Scarves remnants. In summer of 185, we were recalled to the Empire's capital of Luoyang. After we returned, I was summoned to Imperial Palace.

    * * *​

    After so many months, it felt strange to walk without armour on my back and without a sword at my side. Something to get used to, I guess. It was nice to be far from the battlefield, for a change. The capital seemed to be so p-

    Xi.” One word made me freeze. Slowly I turned to the man who spoke. He was standing right there, just as I remembered him, with a teen standing right next to him.

    Father.” I greeted him with a respectful salute, then turned to Shang. “Brother.”

    “I was rather surprised... and worried, to find you missing one day. When I heard that you joined the imperial army, it came to me as a shock. Care to, explain yourself.” This was not a question – it was a command.

    He wasn't happy.

    “Father, you serve as an aide for general-in-chief, greatly increasing the prestige of Yuan clan. How could I stand back and do nothing? Now, the Yuan clan is known to have taken an active part in the suppression of the rebellion. Some members serving as advisors to general in Cheif, others taking a part in the direct suppression of rebellion's leader.” I omitted the little detail, that I did not take part in any actions against Zhang Jue. Still, I belonged to the army that did.

    He merely raised an eyebrow at my argument.

    “I hear that you took in a commoner as an adopted daughter. Have you no shame dragging the good name of Yuan clan, by taking in a filthy beggar into our family!” Shang scoffed at me.

    “On the contrary, little brother.” I admit it was satisfying to remind Shang that he was third in succession line. “Is an act of taking in a freshly orphaned child under my wings, after her parents were killed by Yellow Scarves, not an act of benevolence? Does that not show to common people, that Yuans care for them? Will they not support the Yuan clan even harder, in hopes of being rewarded similarly?” I paused as Shang scoffed at the mention of common people. “Has High Ancestor of Han had not cared for commoners as well?” That was not so subtle jab at actions of his ancestor - also pointing at the fact that his mother was from the imperial clan.

    That was enough to make Shang red with rage. Typical teenager, he saw the jab, but completely missed the point about his mother's station. Before he could retort, my father smiled.

    “Heh.” He pointed to fingers at me “Well argument. I hope that you will continue to support the Yuan clan, Xi.” He started walking away. “Come, Shang, there are I will introduce you to General-in-chief.”

    Shang smirked at me with superiority and followed his father.

    I was an officer in the imperial army, and have not met yet the General-in-Chief, yet father decided to introduce the third son to him?

    I grit my teeth. So that's it.

    So, after all, I've done, I'm still no more than a pillar of Yuan clan, while father considers Shang, a third son, as someone with more value than me... a possible even successor.

    It left a bitter taste in my mouth.

    * * *​

    I waited patiently, kneeling. I didn't know, why I was called to the palace – or by whom, for that matter. It made me rather nervous.

    The capital might seem peaceful, but it was boiling underneath. The destruction of rebellion seemed to bring some reprieve to people, but that moment of breath was temporary. The officials and eunuchs, seeing the destruction of those who opposed the rebellion – which started due to their corruption – where only ensured of their impunity. So instead of lowering the taxes and limiting the corruption, the officials burden of the population increased even more.
    My musings halted, as I heard someone come in. I nearly had a heart attack when I saw who entered.

    “Your Highness!” I bowed deeply before the Empress He.

    The woman calmly sat in front of me.

    “So you are the young Yuan prodigy. One who rallied defeated troops and vanquished the pursuing rebels, then came about with a plan to lure the rebel scum from their fortifications, using himself as a decoy... Raise your head, I want to see the face of young scion of Yuan clan.” I raised my head to look at her – and I froze. It was no wonder that the Emperor choose her to be his wife - she was one of most beautiful women I've ever laid my eyes upon. “So, will you say something, young man? Or will you continue gawking?” she asked with a mirth in her voice.

    I swallowed thickly, lost in what I was about to do, what to say? I was really not used to interacting with such beautiful women... or Empresses.

    “P-prodigy?” I asked stupidly shuttering, a first thing that came to my mind.

    “Or the Yuan fool, as some say.” She answered. “The story goes that the young fool lost his entire unit in an ambush he set himself. An example of young brash glory seeker who couldn't even plan a trap properly. Which is a truth I wonder...”

    I started to sweat. She was one of the most powerful people in the Empire. If she wanted to-

    “Why have you called for me, your Highness?” I asked nervously.

    “Hmm... what do you think?” She asked as she started playing with her necklace.

    I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply -that calmed me down a little. Then it struck me.

    “...why are we alone?” I looked at her surprised. There was a reason why eunuchs were in the palace, yet none of them was here. There wasn't even a maidservant. We both could lose our heads if the emperor walked in here, right now...

    Why was she meeting me alone? It wasn't a simple curiosity. The Empress... she had a reason for calling me here.

    What did she want from me?

    Seeing the realization in my eyes she smiled.

    “I heard that you left because you decided to strike on your own...” She got up and walked up to me. “Jin has Shao,” When she kneeled right in front of me, her cleavage found itself right in front of my eyes. “so I decided to claim Xi.”

    A power struggle in He clan? Or is-

    All my thoughts stopped when She put her hand on my cheek. I looked at her – gods, she was beautiful.

    And then... I felt her lips on mines.

    At that point, I didn't care whether I was for her a merely a boy-toy, a pawn in a political game or a conquest.

    Because... I became completely infatuated with her.

    * * *​

    After the death of three brothers, leaders of the Yellow Scarves Rebellion, Emperor Ling issued a proclamation of celebration by changing his era name to Zhongping - 'pacification achieved'.

    A fragment from the chapter 'Yellow Scarves Rebellion' from 'Hundred Years of Turmoil' – historical work about the 'end of Han dynasty' and an era that followed.
     
  5. NakedFury

    NakedFury Not too sore, are you?

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    Pretty sure Colonel was never a chinese rank.

    May want to check chinese official ranks for the times.
     
  6. Threadmarks: Zhongping 1
    Castage

    Castage Getting sticky.

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    What a mess I found myself in. After coming to the capital I found myself bound by loyalty to four people. All of whom will clash at one point or another.

    Emperor Ling, my sovereign.
    Yuan Shao my father and head of my clan.
    Dong Zhuo, my sworn brother.
    Empress He, my lover.


    Emperor Ling will want to make his second son an heir – one from his concubines, The Beauty Wang while removing from succession his first son – a child of Empress He. That will put him in conflict with He clan, of which the General-in-Chief He Jin and Empress He hold a considered amount of power.

    According to the history Emperor dies before he can make the young prince an heir, but He Jin is killed soon after. After their deaths, Dong Zhuo will arrive into the capital and take over. And then, my sworn brother will kill Empress He and her son, thus ending the He clan.

    My father, Yuan Shao would organize an anti-Dong Zhuo coalition. He would fail, but soon after Dong Zhuo would be assassinated. After that, his entire clan would be slaughtered.

    How to get out of this mess?

    After considering it for a long time, I came to the conclusion that there was only one way to prevent a conflict in loyalties. I had to make sure that the transition after the death of the Emperor, would be a smooth one. One way would be killing the child of concubine Wang, but the Imperial clan was vast and numerous. So instead, it was necessary to make sure there would be no unrest in the capital, to do that, I would need to secure powerbase for He clan.

    * * *​

    I lied under the sheets, enjoying the warmth of my companion's body.

    He Shi.

    I admit it with full consciousness, the more I spent time with her, the more I enjoy her company. It's not only sex – although, I must say it's great – it's her mind, her intelligence.

    A commoner whose beauty caught the eye of the emperor who elevated to the position of Consort. After she gave birth to one of two Emperor's sons, she was made an Empress, the most powerful woman in the empire. Mother of older of two of emperor's children and heir to the throne.

    She wasn't just a pretty face, she was quite intelligent as well, I could – and did – admire her.

    She has not only garnered the favour of Emperor and hold him long enough to give him a son. She also managed to control the Imperial harem, making sure that every other consort stayed in line. Only one did not – Lady Wang.
    So He Shi made an example of her.

    By making a move straight from Machiavelli's teachings, she annihilated Lady Wang. With this one, cruel act, none of the other consorts dared to step out of line. An act of cruelty, she needed to commit only once, to prove she is capable of committing it.

    Then she established her clan's position in the court. She secured important positions for both of her half-brothers, effectively making He clan second most powerful clan in the Middle Kingdom.

    In an era when women were considered inferior, she climbed the top, and - almost - became a power behind the throne... almost.

    Talking to her is like talking to a female version of Machiavelli. Her ideas about power, her concepts about the state of Empire... her love for her family – her son.

    The more I got to know the woman, the more I fell for her... and I think, that she also was starting to feel something for me... Maybe it was because I thread her like an equal partner, instead of an inferior woman, or a simple wench to sate my carnal desires...

    Only the eunuch faction had more influence than He clan. They would be a problem.

    Yet, she decided against going directly against them, for several reasons.

    First, they had the Emperor's favour. It was doubtful, that they would be punished in any way.
    Second, by waiting, she allowed the eunuchs to dig their graves. The people already hated them, but they didn't seem to care. It was only a matter of time before they reached – another – boiling point.

    My thoughts came to a stop when she stirred. I caught her lips with mines.

    “Morning.” she smiled – that smile could melt my heart.

    “Good morning.” I greeted her. “I might have an idea about how to help secure your position...”

    “Let's hear it.” She said completely awake.

    * * *​

    To complete my plan, I needed skilled staff. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to search for men of talent outside of the capital, so I had to do with those I could find in the city.

    That's why I was now talking with a man known for his calm and collected in difficult situations. I know it, cause I had an honour of fighting with the man against the Yellow Scarves.

    The skilled officer – who would become unparalleled when it came to food supply for military units - finally agreed to join my retinue. For, being an officer under the second son of the prestigious Yuan clan, was far better than some unknown lieutenant in the Imperial army.

    Thus, I gained the services of Han Hao.

    * * *​

    As I walked through the camps, my attention was brought to the gathering of soldiers. One of them was showing off his skills with the bow. One of the soldiers thrown a hat – the archer grabbed three arrows between his fingers and fired them, one after the other, each time hitting the hat from the distance of fifty meters.

    As the crowd applauded, I approached the archer.

    “That's good.” I said gaining his attention. “But the hat is rather big and flies slowly. Can you make with a more difficult target, I wonder?” I asked as I grabbed the apple and showed it to him.

    Not waiting long enough for him to answer, I threw it.

    I must say, the man had reflexes – he didn't hesitate and fired three arrows – all of them hitting the mark. I smiled and saluted him. "I guess I owe you a drink, mister."

    By the end of the night, the archer - Cao Xing agreed to join my retinue.

    * * *​

    The man greeted me, bowing deeply. When I explained that I came to recruit him, he almost had a heart attack.

    “Master Yuan! I'm but a simple clerk! Why would you want me as an advisor!?”

    “Because, you were highly recommended... and one thing that I hate, is wasting the talent. So, Xun Yu, will you assist me?” I asked bowing to him deeply.

    * * *​

    As I was going back to my residence in the capital, I started considering how to secure my lover's safety – a backup, should my plan fail.

    After some deliberation, I settled on recruiting some peasant girls and training them as maids/bodyguards for Empress. If nothing else, they would buy He Shi few precious seconds to make her escape.
     
  7. Threadmarks: Zhongping 2
    Castage

    Castage Getting sticky.

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    It took us, me and He Shi, a few days to refine the plan. The day after, I met the general-in-chief, half-brother of Empress, Lord He Jin, to present him with my idea.

    Eventually, he agreed to it.

    He Jin was quite an interesting man. While not the brightest fellow, he had an undeniable charisma. There was something about him, that made you like this simple fellow... made you want to follow him.

    After meeting him, I understood why He Jin had so many loyal followers... and I came to understand why my father, uncle and many others stayed with General-in-chief, despite his many mistakes and stupid decisions, why they gave him good advise despite the fact that they could use his death to further their agenda... and why they were so enraged when he died. It wasn't just the fact that the eunuchs went too far - He Jin's followers were just loyal to him.
    And despite myself, I came to like the man. The He clan seemed to become more and more interesting with each member I've met. I started to wonder, what Empress He's son was like? Was he like history described him? Or... was he something else?


    The next day, I and Han Hao had an honour of being a guest of the official - the man who was rather quickly rising through the ranks of the government - Wang Yun.

    * * *
    “...very poor. Hunger and disorder still ravage the country. Fortunately, the death of three Zhangs and the quelling of rebellion brought some measure of peace to the state.” The old man looked at me. “You have gained a reputation for your deeds while putting down the rebels, good sir.”

    “Thank you, Master Wang. You are too kind.” I'm not sure if he meant it as a praise, but I decided to act as if he did. The man was a born politician. I was about to change the topic when I noticed someone.

    Wang Yun noticed the person also.

    “Ah, let me introduce you, good sirs.” He motioned the girl to step closer. “My adopted daughter, Diaochan.”

    “It's an honour to meet honourable gentlemen!” The shy girl bowed respectfully.

    So this was the girl who would become a woman that would hold the position of one of The Four Great Beauties... The famous seductress responsible for fall of my sworn brother.

    Still a child... maybe a young teenager.

    Still innocent...

    What will she be in the future? What will be her motivations for killing Dong Zhuo? Will she be a patriot, using her body for the state? A lost girl, following commands of her father? A teenager madly in love with a warrior? Or a snake, an incarnation of Da Ji?

    ...and more importantly, what should I do with her?

    * * *​

    We left the residence of Wang Yun soon after. The sun has set a long time ago.

    Yuansi.” I turned to my subordinate, trying to distract myself from the dark thoughts about the future. “What are your thoughts of sir Wang Yun? Is he a loyal official or a corrupt one?”

    “Corrupt one.” That actually stopped me in my tracks.

    He answered without a hesitation, and with a voice filled with conviction. The man said to be one of most loyal supporters of Imperial clan corrupt? That was...

    “Why?” I ask him bewildered.

    “Food.” Han Hao answered shortly. “Have you ever been hungry, young Master?” he asked me at my questioning look. “Have you ever gone days without food?”

    “No,” I answered truthfully. Neither I nor Yuan Xi – according to his memories – never felt a true hunger.

    Han Hao stayed silent for few minutes as we walked, his gaze absent.

    “When I was young, the area I lived in, was touched by drought. The food was hard to get - at times, we could spend days without food, trying to survive...” he paused “I can't even describe, how it feels – this emptiness, this endless craving driving you mad... Until one day, in a rare flicker of sanity, you realize that you are looking at your family members as if they were your future meals.” Hao fell silent again.

    I stayed silent, not saying anything – what could I say?

    “Hunger and drought are common problems now. People go even as far as eating human flesh... The food prices are worth their weight in gold, yet Mister's Wang's tables were heavy with food – it was far too much for the people present.” Hao shook his head. “No, mister Wang was flaunting.”

    I... I really didn't consider it that way. Was I too influenced by history's portrayal of Wang Yun? Maybe it was, they say that the history is written by the winners.

    ...

    If nothing else, Hao's look was quite novel.

    * * *​

    “Colonel Yuan Xi! Commander of Eighth Camp under Left General of Chariots and Cavalry, Huangfu Song!”

    I kneeled before the Emperor and bowed my head while holding my hands in a salute.

    'Time to make my play'

    He Jin made sure that none of the Ten Attendants were present, and the officials present were the supporters of He clan.

    “Your Imperial Highness!” I said loudly. “Last year a rebel, Ma Yuanyi has entered the capital and recruited a number of followers to aid his cause of bringing down the Han dynasty!

    'Remind him of the danger he was in'

    Only by the will of Havens, the treachery was found out and the rebels were put down before they could organize a large force in the capital!

    'Remind him that only by accident he didn't have an organised force of rebels knocking to his gates.'

    Worried, how close your imperial majesty, was to the danger, this lowly servant devised a plan to secure your majesty's safety!

    'Throw him a line.'

    I propose a creation of an army, your Highness! Six divisions of that army would be under your sole command your majesty, answering only to you! While two divisions would be under the command of a crown prince!

    'But not your control.'

    An army stationed in the capital whose sole purpose will be defending your Imperial Highness, and Prince Bian, to secure the continuation and stability of the dynasty!” I finished.

    Basically, I proposed a creation of the Army of the Western Garden with a modification that included two divisions under crown's prince control.

    It didn't take long for Emperor Ling to agree to my proposition. The prospect of having a military unit under his direct command and rub it to He Jin was too much of a temptation for him. It looked just too good for him.

    Heh.

    The man was just too oblivious. But it played in my hand – with this one move I managed to make the future of Han more stable.

    One, the legality.

    While accepting the creation of the army, blinded by his eagerness to flaunt and humiliate He Jin, the Emperor also officially admitted that Prince Bian was a crown prince - a matter that was undecided until now. A little detail, but with far-reaching consequences. There was no doubt or second-guessing now, who the crown prince was. Even if the Emperor changed his mind, later on, it will be far more difficult to install his second son as the future Emperor, than it was originally - with prince Bian having his own loyal soldiers.

    Two, the military.

    Should the Eunuchs rebel, they would have to go through soldiers to kidnap the future Emperor - something that they easily did in the original timeline. Now the safety of future Emperor was far more secure.

    Two birds with one stone... well, three. As a reward for the splendid idea, I got to be a commander of one of those units.

    If I play it right, it would put me in command of one of crown prince's units... and that would provide me with the opportunity to be meeting Empress He more frequently.

    * * *​

    ...and Emperor Ling marched his Western Garden soldiers, showing them off to his ministers and officials. They marched like one man, their shields had beatuiful historical scenes engraved and the tips of their spears sparkled... but they were not bloodied.

    A fragment from 'Hundred Years of Turmoil' – historical work about the 'end of Han dynasty' and an era that followed.


    AN
    I am not entirely happy with this chapter.
    Do you have any good ideas for the title of this story, maybe?
     
  8. Threadmarks: Zhongping 3
    Castage

    Castage Getting sticky.

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    AN: I finally figured out what I want to do with this story... now, I just need to figure out the plot
    Also, I changed the title. It might be a little mouthful... but I think it matches to the story.


    * * *​

    “... that's why the recruitment is taking longer than we predicted.” Cao Xing explained.

    “It seems that recruiting soldiers from frontline units can only get us that far.” I stated a rather painful fact. “What about retired veterans who were released from service?”

    “With the suppression of the Yellow Turban Rebellion, there are not many who want to take up the arms again... even in service of emperor's private guard.” Xun Yu said. “We could start recruiting from among the nobility...”

    “Very well, but only those who took part in combat.” I shook my head. “The unit I'm creating has to be blooded. I have a feeling that the capital might become lively again... and we might not have enough time to prepare.”

    “What do you mean, Colonel Yuan?” Cao Xing looked rather startled by my statement.

    “Might you be referring, to the conflict between He family and the Ten Attendants, colonel?” Han Hao asked.

    “Indeed.” I nodded. “With General-in-Chief's success in suppressing the rebellion, the He family gained much fame and support. On the other hands, the eunuchs have the ear of the Emperor. The things are stable now, but I believe that it will take but a small push for the conflict to erupt between them.”

    “...I take it, that you will not take the side of the Ten Attendants?” Xun Yu asked.

    “Hah! Advisor Xun, have you ever heard of something prospering under the care of Ten Attendants?”

    “... I understand. We'll make sure to prepare.” Xun Yu nodded.

    “Next subject, the equipment.” I looked at Xun Yu.

    Xun Yu nodded and motioned to Lang Dü, who gave me an appropriate scroll with the report.

    “There are no problems here. The imperial armouries are well stocked and we already have swords, spears and armours for the entire unit, including some back-ups. There were some problems with crossbows, as many chords needed to be replaced, but the issue is taken care of now.”

    “Good, good.” I smiled and put the scroll down. “Now, for the supplies.”

    Han Hao nodded and started speaking.

    * * *​

    “Master Han Hao was impressed with you. Both with your skill with numbers and your orderliness with reports.” I praised my adopted daughter after we returned to my residence.

    “I've done nothing much.” She smiled softly and bowed her head.

    “Hm... are you saying that Han Hao's praise is easily earned.” I smiled as she started frantically denying my statement. “Relax, I was just joking. But that doesn't change the fact, that I'm proud of you.”

    The girl bowed her head shyly.

    “Now for your lesson, I will tell you a story of a hero and you will analyze it for me. You will tell me of all of the mistakes, the hero has done right and wrong, of the things he could do better and explain why it would be better and what impact it would have on his situation... understand?”

    Lang Dü nodded.

    “Good. The person whose story I will tell you was called Kun and he was from the Exar clan. He created and mastered a very exotic weapon, called double balded sword-staff...

    * * *​

    “-thus, concludes my report on the state of the unit.” I finished, as I knelt in front of Emperor.

    “Very Good!” The Emperor clapped, delighted. I smiled and-

    “Thank your grace. It brings joy to my heart, hearing your praise.” I froze, cause these words weren't mines. “As a father, I couldn't be more proud of what my son managed to achieve in the service of Han dynasty... and be recognized for it.” I looked up, as I felt a hand on my arm.

    My father stepped forward and saluted the Emperor.

    “Yet, I fear that I am offending you, your majesty.” My father stated, kneeling and bowing his head deeply.

    “What? Surely you are jesting Yuan Shao.” The Emperor stated surprised, but father continued with his head, bowed deeply.

    “The Yuan clan served the Han dynasty for four generations as loyal vassals. Yet, when the army responsible for protecting the Emperor is being created, the renowned Yuan clan could only give an inexperienced second son to protect his majesty. It's not appropriate! Allow me, Yuan Shao, the head of the Yuan clan, to personally take care of the duty of keeping your Highness safe!” My father ended his statement loudly while bowing deeper.

    I could see that the Emperor was quite moved by my father's... 'dedication'.

    “Of course, Yuan Shao, you are right. With you by my side, no one will defeat my army!” he ended with a laugh.

    “Thank you, your majesty!” Father bowed with a smile.

    I grinded my teeth with rage.

    “If I could ask your Highness another thing.” Yuan Shao continued. “My son is still inexperienced. Could you appoint him as an Inspector, so he could gain experience and become an... useful servant for the Han.”

    How dared he!

    “I'm sure I can find something.”

    Both of the men turned to look at me. Shaking with rage, I slowly put my hands in a salute and bowed to the Emperor.

    “I thank you for this opportunity!”

    * * *​

    I felt like exploding, as I walked down the stairs, leaving the palace.

    How dared he! He stole away my soldiers than decided to remove me from the capital to some backwater province! Worse, a province far away from the power base of the Yuan clan!

    And of all things, he made me an inspector of fucking Shouchun!

    A land that will find itself in the centre of conflict involving the greatest of warlords - Lü Bu, Cao Cao, Liu Bei, Yuan Shao and Sun Ce! Not to mention that it was a base of that damn fool Yuan Shu!

    “You look upset young Yuan.” I stopped hearing the voice.

    I turned to the man and saluted him politely.

    “Master Cao Cao.” I greeted him.

    “Are you upset with something?” he asked politely.

    I wanted to scream, I wanted to rage... yet, he wasn't the target of my anger. I took a few calming breaths, before answering him.

    “Nothing much Master Cao Cao. It's just- it's just that I walk down the stairs and you climb them up.” I paused, but couldn't really bring myself to talk with the man. “If you excuse me.”

    I saluted him and walked away. I had many plans of how I would talk with the Cao Cao when I would've met him... but now? They were all gone from my mind. In my anger, my mind was focused only on one thing.

    You want to play that way, Yuan Shao, eh? Fine. No more mister nice second son.

    * * *​

    “I heard many good things about you, Colonel.” I said as I sat down next to the Imperial officer.

    “Really?” the man looked at me “What do you want, boy?”

    “Straight to business? I appreciate it.” And I really did. It was refreshing after what happened in the Imperial Palace. “I am Yuan Xi, son of Yuan Shao. I was just appointed as Inspector of Shouchun and I am in need of talented officers to help me bring order to the land. You, good sir, are one of the men I intend to recruit to help me with this endeavour.”

    The man I was trying to recruit was talented... and terrifyingly competent officer – a colonel of the vanguard. At one time, he was but a step from killing Cao Cao and failed only by a stroke of luck... or was it the Will of Haven?

    “Well, that's a pity. I hear that I am among those who are considered to be nominated to be one of the colonels in the Army of Western Garden.”

    “True you are and it's far more prestigious position than what I am offering. I would know, after all, I held the position, before losing it today.”

    “Oh?” Now his attention was on me.

    “It's not a commision that you would want unless you want to be in the middle of a power struggle involving He clan, Emperor, eunuchs, Yuan clan and who knows who else. I count myself lucky, to only lose my position and be exiled from the capital.”

    The man seemed to be hesitating but looked unconvinced.

    “It was my own father, Yuan Shao, who took over my position.” That seemed to surprise him. I got up and saluted the man. “I will be leaving in a few days. I hope you will think over my proposition and become my subordinate. If not, I wish you luck in endeavours to come, Master Chunyu Qiong.”

    * * *​

    “You're still upset.” the Empress stated.

    “Yes.” I admitted, hugging her closer. It was nice to cuddle... it was... soothing.

    “Why do you think that your father took your position and removed you from the capital?” She inquired.

    I could feel the anger rising in me but quickly squashed it. With He Shi at my side, it was much easier to control myself. Why have Yuan Shao made that move? What is the logical reasoning behind it? I had come up with a single, rather simple and obvious answer.

    “He was jealous... and afraid. A son – a second son - being closer to emperor than the head of the clan? Holding a position higher than him? No, that could not stand. So he took my post and made sure I would not interfere with his plans... that I will not overshadow him.”

    “Hmm... have you considered that he removed you from the capital to protect you? So you would not be involved in court conflicts...”

    That... was surprisingly logical... and quite possible motive of Yuan Shao's action. I had to grudgingly admit that, much to my displeasure. But-

    I remembered my interactions with father and brother after returning to the capital.

    “No.” I shook my head. “I'm a spare. Worse, a spare of the spare. Whatever the reason for removing me from the capital was, it certainly was not his concern for my safety.”

    “Hmm...” she didn't continue the subject.

    We stayed silent for a long while, just enjoying each other's presence and the warmth of our bodies.

    “It will be probably the last time we will be like that in years to come... or ever.” I said, with a lump of sadness in my throat. “I have a gift for you-” I ceased talking when I felt her finger on my lips.

    “Let's make this meeting a memorable one.”

    She was right. That night, that encounter - it became one of the most pleasant memories of my life.

    * * *​

    Recognizing his merits in the suppression of Yellow Scarves and creation of the Army of Western Garden, Emperor Ling personally rewarded colonel Yuan Xi with promotion to Inspector of Shouchun.
    It is said that Yuan Xi accepted to promotion with tears of joy in his eyes.


    A fragment of the biography of Yuan Xi from 'Hundred Years of Turmoil' – historical work about the 'end of Han dynasty' and an era that followed.
     
  9. Threadmarks: Interlude: The Maid
    Castage

    Castage Getting sticky.

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    AN: After some time and reshaping it, again and again, I decided to post this. It was difficult to write.
    It started as something different - completely different. It was supposed to be two perspective chapter, of both maid and Empress. But somehow, the maid took more and more. This is the result.


    * * *​
    She gently stroked Ren’s hair, as the little brother slept.

    It was that way as long as Shi Fu could remember. Her father often told them of times when the state was far more peaceful. When taxes were lower, officials were less corrupt, pigs were fatter… better times. But, year after year, the officials took more and more. Demanded more.

    It was hard to appease their demands… but it was bearable.

    Then, the famine came. The fields gave very low harvest – barely enough for her family to survive. Then the tax collector came and took the usual amount of tax and situation of her family became dire.

    Then the rebellion started – the Yellow Scarves with their promises to end corruption. It was so tempting to join them, just like some of their neighbours. But in the end, father decided against it. To feed them, he joined the army, leaving his family under the care o grandfather.

    Father was right, the rebellion was defeated… but he died while quelling it. Her family’s situation didn’t change. They were out of money, food was running out, they sold all of their valuables and were left with nothing to exchange for food. There was no food in the forest… The only alternative left, was human flesh.

    She heard stories of villages were situation was so bad, that the villagers killed people from other villages and ate their flesh.

    That was… disturbing perspective…

    Yet…

    Her eyes fell on her brother. He was the most precious person she had on this world, yet looking at him, she couldn’t help but feel downcast. He was thin and frail… practically skin on bones. He was withering in her eyes. And she was helpless.

    She hugged her brother tightly.
    ...
    She was so hungry.

    * * *​

    Shi Fu put the cup in front of the man and quickly backed away, respectfully.

    She and her entire family were scared – it was not an everyday event when a noble comes with a visit. Especially to the house of starving peasants. It was strange to experience, for a noble to be a guest in their house… almost a terrifying one.

    “What a poor reception.” the noble said after taking a sip from the cup.

    “Forgive me, honoured guest.” Her grandfather lowered his head in shame. “The drought-”

    “I know.” The noble interrupted him. “And I don’t blame you.” the young noble put down a cup. “Rather than that, I would offer you a chance to change your fate.”

    Shi Fu suddenly had a lump in her throat. She dared not look up. Had that man really intended to help them?

    “Your father,” the man started, looking at her. “served under my command. He died, during the trap we set for the Yellow Turban Rebels. He fought bravely, killing many rebels before he fell. His service to the empire is undeniable.”

    Shi Fu felt her heart clench, hearing about her father’s death. The hunger and constant work took all of her time, allowed her to forget about him...

    “Thus, seeing your peril,” the noble continued. “I can’t help but feel sorrow for the state of a family of one of my comrades. Thus I decided to help you.”

    “Honored guest?” Her grandfather was lacking words to formulate his thoughts.

    “I would like to hire your daughter.” Shi Fu suddenly got weak. “The job will be dangerous, as well as the training she would be subjugated to. The chance of dying is quite high… but the rewards are also not that small. Should your daughter agree to take the job, she will probably be able to support your entire family.”

    “I...” her grandfather didn’t know what to say. The noble looked at her.

    “What say you, daughter of Shi clan?”

    The decision was simple – if she agreed, her family would have food, and Ren would survive.

    * * *​

    “I don’t want you to go!”

    The small hands grabbed her robe. Shi Fu couldn’t help but smile – the little food that master Yuan Xi left was enough to bring her brother back to life. He still looked miserable, but he was lively again.
    Hearing him… she wanted to stay, to spend more time with him. To enjoy the days passing with his company, taking care of her little brother, seeing him grow.

    Yet…

    Seeing him also affirmed her decision to take the job of master Yuan… and in a way, it broke her heart.

    “Little Ren.” She smiled. “I have to go.”

    “Why?”

    “Master Yuan gave me a chance to help our family…” She cupped his cheek. “Dear little Ren, with that opportunity, we won’t be hungry any more.”

    Shi Fu hugged her brother tightly. She would not see her Shi Ren starve again.

    * * *​

    “You will be but simple maids, serving your master… and you will be trained as such…”

    * * *​

    There were two dozens of them – all young women whom the noble gathered. All daughters, granddaughters, sisters, cousins and widows of the soldiers who died under command of Yuan Xi. Each one of them in desperate situations. Each one of them grateful for the help of young noble.

    They were housed in his residence, they slept together, ate together, bathed together. Their days passed on lessons of etiquette and training.

    Never before Shi Fu knew, that woman could use so many ways to care for her beauty. Dresses, hairstyles, jewellery – she was taught how to apply them correctly. All of the women enjoyed that new and how exciting side of their jobs.

    Yet, that was but a small part of training – for they were trained to be servants, maids.

    The protocol and etiquette took the third of their time. How to talk, when to talk, how to behave, how to stand in the background and not bring attention to yourself, how to walk, how to serve the food to the table… She never knew that maid had to possess so much knowledge.

    After two weeks of training, the next part of their training has begun – all of them were surprised to learn that they would be taught how to fight. That day they learned that, while they would work as maids, their main job would be that of bodyguards.

    The training was hard - physically exhausting. Days spent on exercises, training with knives, spears and crossbows – but never with swords.

    “You are weaker than men, less experienced then soldiers. Spears and crossbows give you an advantage of range, while knives will be your weapons in a close fight. Swords and shields would only hinder you in face of experienced opponents.” Is what Master Yuan said.

    The days passed on constant training… Until one day Shi Fu had a practice match with a young girl.

    * * *​

    “But you will be more, you will be your master’s bodyguards and if there is a need – assassins.”

    * * *​

    The young girl was the most difficult opponent Shi Fu has faced so far – aside from the instructors. Still, she managed to win and knock the young girl on her back.

    “You improved.” Shi Fu turned at the sound of the voice – and immediately bowed her head and held hands in a salute.
    “Master Yuan!” The young noble stood there, flanked by few soldiers.

    “How does it taste – the defeat?” He asked, and only after a moment to realize that Master Yuan was spiking to the girl.

    “Bitter.” She said dejectedly.

    “It’s good that you taste it here and not in the live combat. It’s true, that you improved – a fact you should be proud of. Skill wise, you were quite superior to your opponent – you lost due to the difference in your physical attributes. You are still but a small weak child.” He paused and sighed. “I am not saying this as some form of scolding. A defeat is an important lesson on itself. Take Liu Bang as an example – he lost numerous battles, but in the end, he learned from his defeats and won the war… do you understand what I’m trying to say?”

    The girl got up and nodded.

    “Yes, father.”

    Father? Did she beat Yuan Xi’s child?

    Before Shi Fu could start panicking she felt the noble’s hand on her arm.

    “Good match. I can see the results of your training. Carry on.” With that, he was gone.

    Young Mistress looked after him then sighed and turned to Shi Fu.

    “Thank you for a spar.” She said with a salute, then turned and started walking out of training yard. “Come Niu Jin. I finished for today.”

    “It was a good match, young Mistress.” The young soldier said as he started walking next to her.

    “Not yet.” She heard the young girl answered.

    Shi Fu could only sigh with relief as they disappeared.

    * * *​

    “Make no mistake, you will not be warriors, you will wear no armour or shield.”

    * * *​


    All of them were kneeling in the main plaza of the mansion… all but one. Shi Fu shivered as she saw her comrade’s head roll on the ground. Woman with whom she spent countless hours training. Woman with whom she ate a breakfast today. A woman who begged for her help – anyone's help - but a minute ago... and she’s done nothing.

    She wanted to puke. Some did. Some openly cried.

    She slowly raised her head and froze, when she noticed the bloody sword but a meter away from her. She couldn’t move. She-

    “Do you understand why I executed Xiong Bi?” The man holding the sword asked. “Think!” He all but yelled. She has never seen Master Yuan so angry. She was terrified. “I took you under my care, I teach you and prepare for the job that I have secured for you.” He started speaking with fire and barely suppressed rage. “If one of you is too lazy to learn, I send them away and cut my support for their family. If one of you steals or bullies the others, I have her tied to the post and whipped. I have done so before, have I not? So I ask you,” his voice became suddenly low – yet all of the still heard him. “Why have I killed Xiong Bi?”

    Shi Fu didn’t know – she didn’t understand. Even if she did, she doubted that she would have the courage to speak to Master Yuan right now.

    “It’s because she betrayed… you.” He pointed his weapon at them. “I don’t care that she met a boy and started seeing him – I can accept that. But when she started telling him about what she was doing here, about what you did, who you were – that put all of you in danger… and that was an act of treason.”

    He sheathed his sword.

    “I have been trying to teach you the fact, that you only have a chance to survive if you work together, but it seems that I was not tough enough in my actions.”

    That day, Master Yuan had removed a number of pallets from their Quarters. Three or four people had to share one pallet sharing one thin blanket. They were also ordered to sleep naked.

    And in cold nights, the only source of heat was the body of the person sleeping next to you.

    * * *​

    “You will not fight – fight, suggest that there is prolonged conflict. If that came to be, you will lose. That’s why you have to kill your opponents at first strike.”

    * * *​

    “I don’t understand father. Why did you make the maids sleeping arrangements the way you did.”

    Shi Fu put the cup in front of Master Yuan and backed off to the corner of her room, just as she was taught.

    “They lacked unity. They lacked loyalty to each other. So I had to force those bonds to form.” Master Yuan took a sip from his cup. “It’s harder to betray a person- or act against someone, with whom you shared not only food and work but also a bed and body heat in cold nights…” His gaze landed on Shi Fu. “or with whom you were intimate with.”

    Shi Fu’s face heated up.

    ‘He knew? How?’ Shi Fu paused. ‘He said that he forced the outcome – was this also his intention?’

    “Intimate?” Young mistress asked, making Master Yuan pause.

    “I will tell you when you are older.” Master Yuan chuckled to himself. “Now, some of the maids became so close that some of them went as far as declared themselves sworn siblings…” He paused “ Come to think about it, didn’t the three brothers also started by sleeping in one bed? I can’t help but wonder...”

    Young Mistress thought about something hard, before speaking again.

    “…does that mean you will also share a bed with your sworn brother, Master Dong Zhuo, father?”

    There was something satisfying in the way Master Yuan paled and choked on his drink.

    * * *​

    “This is your final test.” Master Yuan said while pointing at the group of tied and gagged men. “These people are criminals. Each one of you will kill off of them. Those of you that will fail… I have no need of. Failure here means that I will stop supporting you and will send you away.”

    They stood, not daring to make a move. Hesitating. Doubting. Fearing. Finally one of them moved – the man screamed as her knife plunged into his chest. That one act was like a crack, making the dam break – one after another, the maids stepped forward and took their first kill.

    When the initial shock passed, Shi Fu dropped on the ground exhausted. It wasn’t tiring physically, but mentally she was drained.

    “Well then.” Master Yuan started. “It looks like I will have to send some of you away.”

    Shi Fu, surprised look back surprised to see a group-

    ‘No.’

    Her eyes focused on Qiao Na. The woman was kneeling, white as paper, not able to move.

    She wouldn’t pass. The woman – a friend with whom she shared food, drink, meals, bed and -

    “Since you failed, I cannot keep you here any longer. Gather your belongings-”

    ‘No!’

    She got up and quickly walked up to Qiao Na, grabbed her hand and started dragging her to one of the prisoners. When they stopped in front of the convict, she forced a knife into her friend’s hands. Then she grabbed her hands, making sure that Qiao Na would not let go of the blade, and pushed it forward, stabbing the man.

    Again. And again.

    When she was sure he was dead, she knelt, hugging her weeping friend. After some time, when Qiao Na calmed down, she stood up and looked around. The others followed her example, forcing the rest to kill. All of her fellow- no, all of her sisters, have passed.

    She looked at Master Yuan, who was observing them silently.

    “We all pass.” She declared with a strength she didn’t think she had.

    Master Yuan Xi looked at her then nodded slightly.

    “That... you do.”

    * * *​

    Shi Fu and her sisters were kneeling in the garden. Today, they would meet the person they were trained to serve.

    After some time, they heard the voice of Master Yuan as he approached.

    “…before I depart, let me leave you with a gift,” Master Yuan Xi said as he walked into the garden with another person.

    Shi Fu’s eyes widened at the sight of the person who was accompanying Master Yuan. She immediately lowered her head, touching the ground with her forehead.

    She didn't need to hear the next words to know who she would be serving from this day onwards.

    “...My Empress.”
     
  10. Vanbers

    Vanbers Versed in the lewd.

    Joined:
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    Awwwww yessssss.

    I so very love Three Kingdoms fics. Dynasy Warriors, Romance, History, any of them. I can't get enough.

    Can't wait to see how our boy here rises.

    And I love how he's pre-emptively cucking Cao Cao out of good men.
     
    Hypervane, simpleguy, Laxard and 3 others like this.
  11. Brando

    Brando Getting sticky.

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    The pace is good
    It was shocking tho when the MC just folded to the emp
     
    Castage likes this.
  12. Threadmarks: Zhongping 4
    Castage

    Castage Getting sticky.

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    Honoured friend,

    It's been too long since your last letter. I feared that your message would be lost due to all of the chaos taking place in the empire, but thankfully that was not the case. It's been some time since I received your last message and the situation that I found myself in is quite… interesting.

    The first thing I should start with is that I lost my position in the court - I'm no longer a Colonel of The Western Garden Army. I became a victim of a power play performed by my own clan. I still do not understand why my father decided to take such an action against me… no, that is not correct. I somehow understand why he would want to punish me in some way, or rather to temper me. But the actions he took seem quite extreme. I suspect that the true motive of his action is that he wanted to be close to the centre of power, instead of being a mere adjunct. That he increased the power of the Yuan clan by giving me a power base of my own, was just a second bird with one stone. He played it brilliantly, he took my position by playing a loyal servant, while granting me a position of inspector of Yang province, far on the fringes of the empire.

    You would think that being an inspector of the entire province is a good trade-off for the position of being a mere Colonel? That is actually not the case. As a Colonel of the Army of the Western Garden, I was in a position to influence the court and the imperial royal clan, and thus, imperial politics. My assignment, on the other hand, puts me on the fringes of the empire. Furthermore, it gives me no real executive power, it's basically an advisory position. To make the situation even more difficult, I'm not the only inspector of the province. Apparently, the position of inspector of Yang province was sold to three other people already. I might've been appointed by Emperor Ling himself, but I doubt that the other inspectors would step down because of it. Considering how far the province is from the capital, they are more than likely oppose me and try to kill me, then report my unfortunate demise. Considering that I have absolutely no support among the locals, I have my work cut.

    Fortunately, an acquaintance of mine, helped me to come with a plan to deal with this situation.

    * * *​

    "You are going about it the wrong way."

    I stopped pacing around the room and looked at Empress He. She was sprawled across the couch, resting her head on the arm. Nodding slowly, I calmed down and took a seat. For last hour I made one plan after the other, trying to come up with a solution to deal with this mess – I must admit, in my frustration, my ideas started to become more and more ridiculous. When I made myself comfortable, the Empress started talking.

    "What you are doing, is trying to improve your situation, given the circumstances." I nodded. "What you should be doing, is consider your current position, then consider the position you would like to be in and the steps necessary to be taken for the that to come to pass."

    I raised my eyebrows, making her sigh. Her hand travelled to her ear. She traced her finger from the top of her ear to her earlobe. and slid to her earring. She paused as if considering something. After a moment, her finger moved in a swiftly down, flicking her earring and making it sway and tinkle lightly.

    "An example, then. You know of Lady Wang?"

    I nodded slowly frowning.

    "The deceased mother of Emperor's second son, who you had poisoned... according to rumours." She snorted.

    "That's an overly simplified description of the situation." The Empress leaned back and narrowed her eyes as she took a moment to gather her thoughts. "Why do you think I had Beautiful Lady Wang killed and not her son?"

    That was an interesting question. The most accepted rumour was that it was anger at her giving birth to a second potential heir. But anger… it didn't fit her character, well not entirely. But the case was, it was Lady Wang's son who was a threat to Empress's He's son ascendancy to the throne. Then why she went after mother and not the child itself?

    "Because you didn't have it in your heart to kill a child? Your motherly instincts stopped you?" Even as I finished the sentence, it sounded rather stretched to my ears. The smile that I got from my host, told me enough about how naive she considered my answer to be.

    "It could be possible. But I never held it, never meet it, so I would have no such qualms."

    I stopped and tried to think, actually think of an answer instead of mindlessly jumping from one answer to another. I put my hands together and leaned forward. It was… difficult to concentrate. How was He Shi so calm, so collected?

    No, that’s not it.

    Was my anger at the situation so great, that it influenced my thinking to such a degree? I realized that, yes, it was. For last hour I was like a wild animal bouncing around its cage. I was not thinking straight. I started massaging my temples, trying to collect myself and calm down. Mentally I had memories of two lifetimes, I was over five to six decades old and I allowed simple angst to dominate my judgment of the situation.

    "Because she gave birth to a son. A possible contender to the throne." I answered now more sure of my answer.

    "It might be a surprise to you, but a few other concubines also gave birth to sons. The children died soon after their birth, but I did not make any moves against their mothers while the babes were alive." That was a surprise, but considering the number of Emperor's concubines, it shouldn't be. "No, that is not the reason."

    She paused gathering her thoughts, her face became blank, like a mask, devoid of serenity and calmness that she showed but a moment before. When she started speaking again, her voice was harsh… no, not harsh. It was hard to describe, but there was something… uncompromising in it.

    "Many concubines gave birth to sons of the Emperor, yet none of the children did survive long enough to be considered an heir to the throne. When I gave birth to my son and the boy survived, I gained the Emperor's favour. Soon I was made an Empress. A second Empress of Emperor Ling. Emperor's first wife, Empress Song, was a woman of weak personality who soon fell to the plots of concubines and eunuchs. To avoid the same fate, I needed to ensure that no other concubine would pose a treat to me and my child. When Lady Wang became pregnant, she became a clear threat to my position."

    "But didn't lady Wang tried to get rid of the child during her pregnancy?" I do remember rumours and what I read about her. She was said to be terrified of Empress He and tried to get rid of the pregnancy.

    "Oh, she made quite a show of it. I did not mind her giving birth to a son, there were other concubines who birthed boys, who died soon after. Either by sickness or poison of their own mothers. But no, Lady Wang had no intention of killing her child... and the moment she said she dreamed of sun, implying the extraordinariness of her child, her intentions about putting her son on the throne became clear."

    That… True, if she was truly afraid she wouldn't make such an indication… that or…

    "Or she was to empty-headed to realize the danger of the comment she made." I mused.

    "Stupidity is a danger on itself. Even if she did not have any ambitious intentions, people around her made their own assumptions due to her comment. And they might put her on the throne, just so they could eliminate my clan."

    "That still doesn't explain why you went after mother and not child."

    "Killing a concubine is not as much looked upon as killing a member of imperial clan and made any moves against He clan far harder to the emperor. It achieved several goals.” She raised her hand and extended her index finger.
    “First, even if I killed the babe, that would leave the mother who, even if she did not want revenge, could give birth to another son. Without his mother, Liu Xian was harmless in a grand scheme of things, and I could kill him anytime I wanted.”
    She straightened her middle finger.
    “Secondly, he became a focal point for my opponents, the knowledge of who was against me in court, that was a reward on itself.”
    She held her little finger with her thumb while straightening her ring finger.
    “Thirdly, it put the other concubines in their place - it made them realize that should they go against me, they would pay the price.”
    She extended her little finger.
    “Fourthly, it showed the strength of my clan and further established it as a dominant force in court. After all, even if Emperor was mad at me, he has done nothing out of fear of He clan." She finished with quite a satisfied voice. There was quite a pride in her accomplishment, and I could understand that.

    “Four birds with one stone.” I whispered with awe. I haven’t considered that with one move she achieved so much. So that are the politics of the Han court and it’s prime. I licked my lips, looking at my companion with a renewed appreciation of her.

    “So, what would you consider an acceptable situation as an inspector of Yang province?” the Empress asked.

    “The acceptable situation... would be with me being uncontested inspector of Yang province. An ideal would be also having the support of local clans.” I need a loyal power-base from which I could recruit armies, gather supplies and taxes. Support of local clans as necessary if I didn’t want to finish like Sun Ce. If I wanted to survive, I needed to start building up before everyone else, yet at the same time, I needed to do avoid being labelled a traitor by the imperial court. But to do that… the Shanyue! Yes… I could do that!

    A smile slowly spread on my face. I had a long term strategy. Now, dealing with a couple of contenders for Yang province seemed so much simpler…

    “So you have two goals: First, get rid of other inspectors… or make them your subordinates. Second, you need to acquire the support of locals. Now, consider how to achieve these targets.”

    I nodded slowly, my mind racing with possibilities. I could work with it. Finally, I smiled nodding.

    My eyes widened.

    Of course! If couldn’t promote my cause, I just needed to make their claim invalid. To birds with one stone, indeed.

    Empress He… my Empress had achieved four targets with one move. I wondered how men like Zhuge Liang and Sima Yi compared to her… I could almost laugh at that. True, they all achieved similar positions, able to influence the court. But the two were men and scholars from distinguished clans, while He Shi was a woman from a family of butchers.

    “I thank you for your advice, my dear.” I got up and walked up to her. There was no comparison in my mind.

    “Such a disrespect in addressing your Empress.” she said scowling playfully, she stood up. “You know that I could kill you for such disrespect.”

    “And wouldn't that be a pleasant death.” She shook her head.

    “Only you…” she smiled lightly. “Every man would want to die at the hand of the powerful enemy is service of their lord. There is no honour in dying at the hands of a woman.”

    I caressed her cheek and put my thumb on her lower lip.

    “Well, I prefer dying at the hands of a beautiful woman, rather than a man. Even better if this was a woman I loved.” I said and my lips meet hers.

    * * *​

    After some initial planning, I think I will be able to not only secure future power base and loyalty of Yang province but also boost my reputation in the Empire – three birds with one stone. Of course, the first steps will be the most difficult, and if I am to gain all of my targets, I have to take quite a gamble. But that’s how life goes, I think. To gain what you want, sometimes it’s necessary to take a risk.

    Due to my… promotion, I had to leave the majority of my troops in the capital, to protect the crown prince, the heir to the Han Empire and next wilder of the Mandate of Haven, Liu Bian.

    Fortunately, a few of my most trusted companions and advisors decided to travel with me. They also managed to secure a small band of bodyguards…

    * * *​

    “There were few soldiers who decided to continue serving under your command, Inspector.” Han Hao said as he handed me a bowl which I accepted with thanks. The scent of soup attacked my nostrils making my mouth water.

    Han Hao was a great cook. All soldiers had to know how to cook their meals, but Han Hao was truly gifted in the art – he also genuinely enjoyed preparing the meals. The flavours that his dishes had were incredible. If he lived in modern times he would probably be a professional chef.

    I took a sip of soup, allowing the taste of flavours wash over my mouth. I never knew that a pork soup with vegetables could be that good.

    After giving bowls to Xun Yu and Cao Xing, he sat down with us. We enjoyed our meal, but unfortunately, we also had a business to conclude. But before that…

    I put my bowl down on the table, then bowed deeply.

    “Words cannot express how grateful I am, that you decided to stay with me.” And I was. I was genuinely was grateful to these men for their continuous support. For they had no reason to stay with me in my exile. “I know that you could stay and find more worthy masters, the fact that you decided to travel with me to the fringes of empire, means much to me.”

    “Stop it, young master.” Han Hao said. “We decided to throw our lots with you, what kind of retainers we would be if we left you on first sight of trouble.”

    “Mhm,” Xun Yu nodded. “I agree with Master Han Hao. leaving your master in the time of turbulence would be dishonourable.”

    “Worry not Inspector. You have selected me from the troops and made me part of your retinue, not caring for my lowly birth.” Cao Xing smiled. “I am not going to fail the trust that you put in me.”

    “Still, I thank you.” I sat straight. “So, how does our situation look like?”

    “There were quite a few soldiers who decided to follow you.” Cao Xing started. “Majority of them are members of eight camp, which you commanded while under general Huangfu Song…” He paused. “That gives you about forty soldiers serving as your bodyguards.”

    Forty soldiers… that is not much. But for the inspector, it’s more than enough band of bodyguards.

    “It’s a pity that master Chunyu Qiong hasn’t decided to join us.” Xun Yu remarked.

    I had to wince at that comment. That particular meeting almost ended in a fight, when Chunyu Qiong not only refused my offer but also all but insulted me. Cao Xing and few present bodyguards were ready to kill the man were he stood. Even Han Hao had his hand on the sword’s handle. Xun Yu could make that kind of comment because he was not present at the time.

    “Yes, I hope that Chunyu Qiong survives the court life.” I ignored the sound that Cao Xing made.

    “We also managed to secure supplies for travel.” Han Hao said while stroking his beard.

    “Good. I don’t fancy hunting rats for dinner, on my way to the Yang province.” Cao Xing commented.

    “If you don’t like them, don’t eat.” Han Hao said, making all of us pause. Cao Xing gaped at him, while Xun Yu paled... I stopped chewing the meat.

    This was, pork soup, wasn’t it?

    Han Hao’s lip quirked a little, making Cao Xing burst laughing, while Xun Yu sight with relief – I on the other hand finally managed to swallow a piece of meat that was stuck in my mouth.

    “We also managed to secure the equipment that you requested from the imperial armoury.” Xun Yu said frowning. He was not entirely happy with basically stealing the equipment. But, it wasn’t stealing, not really. I just bribed the person responsible for the armoury to misplace about two hundred pieces of self-repeating crossbows.

    * * *​

    Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to gather all the people I wanted to. Master Chunyu Qiong decided to accept his commission as colonel of Army of Western Garden. Which is a pity, because I think that he will waste his talents on such a position. He is a brave and experienced vanguard officer, skilled in logistics – such competent people are a hard find.

    I also decided to take my adopted daughter Lang Dü with me. But before we left, she has informed of a certain problem, that forced me to expand my retinue...

    * * *​

    I narrowed my eyes at the woman who entered the room. Despite her age, she was quite a good looking, looking rather healthy and had a certain allure, that was quite hard to describe… She was also quite confident in the presence of, for all she knew a young powerful noble who all but barged into the building and demanded the most seasoned and old whore the brothel could supply. She wasn't that old.

    “Truly?” I raised my eyebrow, keeping my tone dismissive. “You are the most experienced and oldest among the prostitutes this… the place can supply.”

    “I assure you, my lord.” She lowered her head but continued confidently. “You will not find a more skilled woman in giving pleasure in Luoyang.” She answered making me pause. Maybe she was the one I was looking for.

    “Strip.” I command shortly.

    The woman obediently unties her, a rather fancy robe, and allows it to slide on the floor. That simple action made by her was still quite entrancing. But I was not here for the pleasures of her flesh.

    I slowly looked her body over, as I walked around her, looking for any imperfections.

    “You seem quite healthy.” I commented and grabbed her chin. “Open your mouth.” I checked her throat and teeth and they seemed to be okay – at least for my limited medical knowledge. “Do you know how to prevent pregnancies?” I asked as I stepped back.

    The woman nodded and gave me a satisfying answer.

    “Intercourse at woman’s monthly time can result in pregnancy, so at that time you should avoid being with a man. Also, there are certain animal guts that can be used for protection.”

    That… well, I knew that ancient Egyptians used that kind of protection about a one and a half millennium ago, still, finding out that the version of condom existed in this era was still kind of surprise.

    “Are you skilled in satisfying men?”

    “I am the be-”

    “Spare me the answer you usually give and answer truthfully.” I interrupted her.

    “...My clients do tend to return to me, and ask for my company again.” She answered truthfully. Her voice lacked the sultry undertone. She was begging to understand that my visit was not to have some fun with her. Smart woman.

    I nodded.

    “And your experience with women.” She opened her mouth. “Answer truthfully.” I commanded, my tone leaving no place for discussion.

    “Same.” She gave a curt answer.

    I nodded slowly.

    “Put on your clothes.” I ordered her and sat down. After a moment the, now clothed woman sat in front of me.

    “I wish to hire you.”

    “My lord, I-”

    “Hear me out.” I stopped her before she could object. “My daughter...” now, how to say it. “...had her first monthly period. I want to hire you as her attendant so that you could teach her how she should take care of her body.” Because there is no way I will be teaching her that. To think that the decision to give away all of the female attendants to Empress has come back to haunt me so fast. “You are experienced, have years of work in a profession that leaves one's body destroyed, yet your body is healthy.”

    The woman blinked a few time surprised but didn't say anything, so I continued.

    “I would also like you to teach my adopted daughter everything about seduction, pleasures of flesh and art of manipulation… as well as to recognize and resist seduction attempts on her.” because having Lang Dü fall in love with some playboy and betraying me, was not something I wanted to happen. “Tell me, how many years can you continue your work here? You are still beautiful, but how long you will stay that way? I am offering you a place and a job, for the rest of your days. What do you say?”

    She stayed still for some time, considering my offer. Finally, she put her hands together in a salute.

    “Hou Tai offers her loyalty.”

    I put my hands together, my salute answering hers.

    “Yuan Xi accepts.”

    * * *​


    I had to hire a new attendant and teacher since my daughter started having… womanly problems.

    Laugh it up, my friend. Not all of us have so much experience as you in bringing up children – especially a number of daughters. While we are talking about them, how are they? I do hope they stay in good health.

    The story, that you told me, was... fascinating. I did get an impression that it touched you deeply, as you were very passionate about it, and I agree, it’s an incredible story. But I disagree with your conclusions.

    True, the effect of the ruler going after his feelings and what he perceived as the best choice for his ream, had… almost catastrophic consequences. But I think you are blind to a few things.

    First, there is the woman whom he married. While in the end, she died, saying that the marriage was a mistake is untrue. Saying so is basically spitting on all what the ruler gave her - and even if the time sacrificed to her, was short, it allowed her… a life. To regret that is to spit on all the moments she, and ruler had together.

    To live, live one's passions. To survive, abandon one's passions.

    The ruler decided to both, live and do his duty to his realm. I feel… and think, that it’s the right choice. For, if you don’t live, what’s the point?

    The other point that you are missing, is that the war, was inevitable. The division was inevitable. The loyalty that the ruler could gain by the marriage, fragile. Sooner or later, the clan he would marry into would come into conflict with him. Because that is the nature of man. It happened before, it will happen again. Sometimes, you have to cut off the rotting flesh with a burinng knife.

    His choice had tragic consequences, but it’s a choice that he sought to escape the cycle, to break the pattern. He failed, but it’s not something to be condemned. It’s something to be admired. For failure, is a part of life. Liu Bang, the founder of the Han dynasty, has suffered countless failures and defeats before he managed to unify the Empire. But he didn’t allow the failure, no matter how painful, to defeat him.

    In my opinion, in your story, the failure of the ruler was not in the decisions he made. It was in that, that he allowed a failure to defeat him.

    That, is my interpretation, of your story, My friend.

    But, while I might… admire, what the first Emperor achieved, I despise how he achieved it. He was given his domain, the Han kingdom, by his friend, the great Hegemon-King Xiang Yu, the overlord of the Empire… and soon after, he betrayed and attacked him.

    The Empire he established, stayed in peace for four hundred years – I will give him that. But the court he established, the way the empire is ruled – it’s all falling apart, drowning in corruption. The eunuchs, nobles, priests and bureaucrats all enjoy the bounty of the starving peasants, singing about the glory long past… while millions die from hunger. Already a great rebellion took place – millions died, but the Imperial throne prevailed.

    A kingdom, established on betrayal. An empire, ruled by corruption. It works, the Empire continues to keep peace in its borders... but tell me my friend, is the price worth the peace?

    Liu Bang believed in unified Empire, Xiang Yu aimed for the federation of kingdoms.

    How would you organize an ideal realm, taking into an account of the nature of men?

    ...

    Forgive my rumblings. The current events are taking a toll on my mind and health.

    I will be finishing this letter. I hope to hear from you soon.

    I wish you luck in the wars to come,
    Emperor Gemellus Aurelius, Emperor of the Roman Empire.


    signed,
    Yuan Xi styled Xianyi, inspector of Yang Province.


    * * *​

    I put down the brush after I finished my letter. The next one I planned on writing when I arrived at Shouchun. I took up the cup a drank the contents sighting with pleasure. I looked up as the doors opened and a familiar man entered. I carefully put down the cup, making sure, not to spill the precious liquid. I got up and walked up to greet the man.

    He smiled at my sight – we grabbed our forearms and shook.

    “Brother Dong Zhuo!” I smiled “I'm glad that you made it!”

    * * *​

    P.S. Once again, I thank you for the coffee beans. The brew made with it became my favourite.

    * * *​

    From "Letters of Emperor Gemellus Aurelius to Yuan Xianyi".

    AN:
    Specials thanks to SeventhSon77 and NathanHale for their support.
     
  13. Threadmarks: Zhongping 5
    Castage

    Castage Getting sticky.

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    The place I choose to meet my sworn-brother was a small tavern near the pass, south-west of Luoyang. I had to actually take a rather roundabout road to Yang province to make the meeting possible. That was because there was a rebellion in Liang province and Dong Zhuo, as one of the generals assigned to put it down, couldn't leave his troops for long.

    The innkeeper left us some food and drinks, then left us alone - as I specifically requested. I also made sure to post the guards so we wouldn't be disturbed.

    Dong Zhuo insisted on two of his trusted companions taking part in the meeting - Li Ru and Hua Xiong. I didn't have anybody that I would trust with the subject I intended to touch, but I decided that I needed someone who could evaluate my plans. In the end, I decided on Han Hao, as Xun Yu was loyal to the imperial clan and I was still unsure about Cao Xing, yet.

    “How are your wife and your daughter?” I asked, curious about the child who never existed in official history.

    The man's lips spread in a smile at the mention of two members of his family.

    “My wife is in good health – she sends her regards. She's actually with another child!”

    I smile hearing that and raise my cup in a salute.

    “Then the congratulations are in order. Just make sure that a physician is at hand - just in case.”

    “I know. Lessons learned... and thank you.” He finished softly. Whether he was talking about my inquiry or the help I rendered him, I was unsure. And truthfully, I didn't care.

    “As for my daughter, the little Dong Xi is healthy and growing fast – has a pair of strong lungs too!”

    I actually blanked for a moment – did he name his daughter after me? That... felt good. Slowly a small smile spread on my face.

    “Dong Xi... that's a splendid name.” Dong Zhuo smiled and nodded, clearly pleased with my reaction. I shook my head “I hope it wasn't too much a problem leaving your troops to meet me.”

    “It was not a problem. I left my son in law, Niu Fu in command. He is a pretty talented officer – this is a chance for him to grow.” Dong Zhuo said as he drank from his cup.

    “And how are the affairs in Liang province?” I inquired, wondering just how much the history might be derailing at this point.

    “The inspector of Liang province Zuo Chang, was recalled to the capital. The new inspector is supposed to be a relative of Empress Song, Song Nie.” My guest answered with disgust. I paused at the clan name. A relative – and a living one – of the first Empress? Curious.

    “I wouldn't hold much hope for his competence.”

    “I don't.” Dong Zhuo said bluntly, then sighed. “The Rebellion in Liang province doesn't show any signs of ending soon. After the death of the Zhang brothers, we were in the position to finish the rebellion, but the government raised taxes. That pushed many peasants into rebelling. Now I don't see when that conflict will end… do you know, what are the taxes for?”

    “The Emperor is building a new Palace, along with few other projects.” I answered, and seeing this as a good opening to start the main purpose of this meeting, I continued “He raised taxes and ordered wood and patterned rocks to be transported to the capital. The eunuchs who were responsible for the materials saw this as an opportunity. They scolded the labourers for the poor quality of materials and paid them way below the market value. Then they tried to resell the materials to eunuchs responsible for building projects, but they refused to buy it. Last time I saw it, the wood was still unused and already started rotting.”

    Dong Zhuo only shook his head.

    “Such a waste. The government's ways provoked the Yellow Scarves Rebellion, which was only recently put down. Instead of learning from that, the government raised taxes again, causing raise of other rebellions…”

    “It's because the government managed to win, it continues its policies. They became sure of their position and that nothing could endanger their rule. They started feeling untouchable and are acting accordingly.” I answered. It seemed, that our companions were satisfied with just listening to us talk and opted not to make any comments... yet.

    “So, we are in for another great rebellion, sooner or later…” Dong Zhuo said tiredly as he leaned back.

    “No, my brother.” I stated decisively. “And that's why I wanted to talk to you.”

    “What do you mean?”

    I took a sip from my cup enjoying the black liquid's taste, while I gathered my thoughts. First, I needed to explain the situation, so before I started my spiel.

    “There are currently two main factions on the imperial court. The first, you know well - the eunuchs. The most powerful of them, the de facto leaders of their group, are called the Ten Attendants. The faction gathered the support of the majority of eunuchs and corrupt officials - that is a majority of central government officials. They have about two thousand armed supporters in the capital only. They also have the support of Empress Dowager Dong.” At his nodding, I continued “The second being the He clan, with Empress He and her brother General-in-Chief He Jin as the main leaders. They have the support of many generals who serve under He Jin, as well as some of the noble clans - including Yuan clan.”

    “So, Master Yuan Xi, your clan supports the He clan?” Li Ru asked, no, stated.

    “Yes.” I nodded. “While the factions are not in open conflict yet, they do gather around the two Princes - the heirs of Emperor Ling. As soon as Emperor dies, they will clash with each other. And considering the way the Emperor lives, he has maybe a few years of life left.”

    Hua Xiong looked little confused.

    “Isn't Liu Bian the crown prince?” he asked.

    “That is true. And while the Emperor all but acknowledged him as his heir, he doesn't believe him to be pompous- ah, sorry, solemn enough.” Considering Liu Bian was sent to be brought up by a Taoist, it shouldn't come as a surprise. Maybe I should seek out this Shi Zimiao later... “If presented with the opportunity to make Liu Xie a crown prince, he will consider it.”

    “Consider?” Dong Zhuo raised his brows.

    “He is a very undecided man. He will think about it, he might talk about it, but it's doubtful he will do anything about it.” Certainly not now, when Liu Bian has his own loyal soldiers in the capital. Action against him might just end in a bloodbath.

    “So when the Emperor dies, a civil war will start.”

    “A fighting in the capital, certainly. An empire-wide war, no.” I shook my head “The ten Attendants simply don't have support and reputation to pull that kind of conflict, off. Even with the support of Empress Dowager Dong, prince Liu Xie is the younger of siblings, a pretender at best.” I pause to take a sip of coffee. “He Jin, on the other hand, has just put down a major rebellion, is well liked and respected by his subordinates - not to mention the support of Empress He and prince Bian are the official, if accidentally acknowledged, the position of heir.”

    “The only way for ten Attendants to continue their regime is to put prince Xie on the throne right after Emperor's death, is what you are saying.” Li Ru concluded.

    “Got it in one.” I say pointing my fingers at him. Li Ru's sharp.

    “You wish to recruit our support to the He faction.” He continued.

    I clap my hands in admiration. No wonder Li Ru was Dong Zhuo's advisor.

    “Sharp!” I exclaimed. “Your support for He clan would be appreciated. The eunuchs are one of the main causes of the empire's calamities…” I sight, not liking the subject I was about to talk about. No, rather than the subject, the implications of it. “But, no, what I want to talk to you about is the situation in case the eunuchs succeeded.” For if they succeeded, then my and Empress' He preparation were for nothing.

    “Oh? You think they could succeed?” Han Hao was actually surprised by my statement.

    “To win they only need to kill He Jin and capture both of the Princess, then declare Liu Xie the emperor while imprisoning Liu Bian and Empress He. With the support of Empress Dowager Dong and officials, they could continue their rule, unhindered.”

    “If that would happen the remnants of the He faction and soldiers that were under their command would quickly attack the eunuchs and try to avenge He Jin...” Li Ru concluded as he was stroking his chin. I nodded, agreeing with what he said.

    “The capital will be in chaos due to fighting.” I paused “That is when I believe you will have the best chance to take over.”

    That made all of the men look at me sharply. Dong Zhuo was surprised, just like Han Hao. Hua Xiong was looking at me with his eyes wide open, while Li Ru... continued looking contemplatively and stroking his beard.

    “Take over?” Dong Zhuo asked.

    “If, and that is a big if, the eunuchs win the conflict - the battle between two factions, it will leave the capital in chaos. At that time you can arrive with your forces to bring order, and-”

    “And to finish the eunuch's faction ones and for all.” Li Ru finished then looked at me sharply. “So that's why you wanted to meet. You are making sure that even if the He clan failed, the eunuchs' faction would be destroyed.” His eyes narrowed “Master Yuan Xi, what you are talking about, might as well be treason.”

    I paused and looked at Li Ru, then at Dong Zhuo – have I misjudged my companions? Has the still leaving wife of Dong Zhuo, have such an impact on him?

    “While I personally would have no qualms with what you are proposing,” Li Ru continued. “I am surprised that you would try to influence the court politics. Haven't you said when you first met master Dong Zhuo, that you actually escaped the capital to get away from the politics?” I actually don't remember that – I really must've been drunk if I admitted to that. “You were recalled to capital, and now when you are finally leaving, you want to continue plotting? Has capital changed you that much? Have the taste of power, corrupted you so?”

    How to answer that question? Why was I trying to save that decaying corpse of the government? Was it for my love of the Empress? Yes, certainly that was one of the reasons – but not the only one. Was it the loyalty to the Han? Certainly not. I had no feelings or sentiments to that dynasty. Was is power and influence? No, I had no use for such a fragile power. Was it my clan – Hah! Not in seven hells. The only person I consider a family from the Yuan clan is Yuan Xi's mother.

    “Brother Xianyi, why do you want to involve yourself in court politics? You just escaped it - you could live the rest of your life in peace on the province. Why do you continue to involve yourself?” Dong Zhuo prompted me to answer.

    I certainly couldn't tell them about my relationship with Empress. But there was another reason, the answer I could give - the one I tried to forget.

    I closed my eyes.

    “At one time, we fought a battle against Yellow Scarves.” I started slowly, allowing images of the battle to resurface. “When we defeated them, the families of the rebels choose to try their chances through the river, rather than to be captured... hundreds of thousands, of women, children and elderly drowned, escaping in panic from the government's army.” I paused as the scene, I hoped to forget, resurfaced in my mind.

    “I remember that.” I heard Han Hao whisper. “The river was so full of bodies, that you could walk on them to the other side, not wetting your feet.”

    “We spent a month, burring the bodies that were washed to the shore.” I continued. “Do you know how does a body of a drowned person looks like after a few days in water?” I looked at Dong Zhuo as the pictures flashed in my mind, fresh as if I was there but a moment ago. “Women, children... babes. I have never, in my entire life, expected to be responsible for... massacring unarmed, children.” I paused as my voice started trembling with forgotten emotions. “Yet, here I was,” I smiled without humour. “Doing just that, cleaning the government's mess, slaughtering women and children – the peasant's who only rebelled, cause they had to pay taxes so high, that they could afford no food.” I looked at the dark liquid in my cup. “I... dislike it.” I said with the amount of hatred that surprised me... no, not really. I squeezed the cup... I should stop speaking, I really should, but once I started speaking, I could not let myself stop. So I continued with a voice filled with anger and hate. “I despise it. I hate the reason and the people that forced me to commit such an... horrid act.” I looked at Li Ru. “So I will remove them, so I will not be ordered to slaughter defenceless babes again. So yes, Master Li Ru, my reasons are petty. Call them treason, if you want.”

    We sat in silence for a long moment. Han Hao slowly stroked his beard, deep in his thoughts, Hua Xiong looked at me with wide eyes, clearly shocked by what one could consider admission to treason. Li Ru kept a blank face, but Dong Zhuo...

    “Killing rebels and executing entire clans is natural, yet you pity those who are weak. You are a good man, brother Xianyi.” he slowly said, while looking into my eyes, as if he could read my soul.

    Dong Zhuo was a man with incredible charisma, who, in the original timeline, managed to defeat – or at least keep at bay, a coalition of warlords holding off far larger army then he himself possessed. At this very moment, I could clearly see why his subordinates and soldiers were so loyal to him.

    I shook my head.

    “Do not misunderstand.” I interrupted him. “If I was ordered to do that again, I would hate it, but I would do it. For if I have not followed the imperial order, I would very much found myself labelled a rebel.”

    Dong Zhuo stayed silent than nodded slowly.

    “Yuan Xi, you are a villain.” His words were calm, but the strength behind them was incredible. “That said, so am I, for - I would feel the same and would do the same, like you.” Dong Zhuo said slowly, but strongly, with conviction. “Because if I disobeyed, I and those I consider my family would be executed. So if I had to choose between myself and those few I call a family, and thousands of innocents, I would always choose those that I know. I'm a greedy man like that.” He sighed. “Heroes kill ten to save hundreds, kill hundreds to save thousand. Villains kill hundreds to save ten, kill thousand to save hundreds. To save those few dear to me, I would kill thousands. I could never sacrifice a friend or a lover to save thousands of faceless innocents. I am a villain, I have no delusions about that.” When his eyes meet mines again, there was an acceptance in them, understanding and bond. “We are the villains of our times, brother Xianyi.”

    We sat in silence for a longer time. I could clearly feel a kinship to this man. His world view, his actions so far... I thought that becoming his sworn brother was only because of alcohol, but maybe in my drunken state, I saw something more in him... This man, was truly, my brother.

    Dong Zhuo closed his eyes then nodded slowly.

    “What do you want us to do?” he asked, drawing me from my musings. With that one statement, he both accepted my views and agreed to help me.

    It was decided then, we were in this together. Either my and Empress He's plans to keep the He clan in power, worked and we would save the Empire... or I would have Dong Zhuo destroy and reshape the government.

    “I want you to be ready for the possibility of chaos in capital and death of General-in-Chief He Jin… as well to be prepared to take over the regency for prince Bian, with support of Empress He. At the same time keep the prince Xie around, and see who approaches him - this will show you who has ambitions to become regent for the prince Xie.” I took a sip from my cup. “While chaos reigns, it will be a good moment for you to clear political stage - have the important, rich and influential officials assassinated and put the blame on eunuchs for the deed. This will allow you to easier take control of the court while cleaning it at the same time.” I paused in afterthought. “Start training officials, skilled in bureaucracy, so you can have loyal people ready to help you at hand.”

    “If we have officials ready to replace the administration, it will look like we planned to kill the government officials from the start.” Li Ru said. I had a very strange feeling that he manipulated me somehow... but considering the outcome, I could let it slide.

    “Not, if they were originally trained to look after the areas destroyed by rebels in Liang province. You can also try to recruit remnants of the Disasters of the Partisan Prohibitions - that should give you some positive reputation...
    Once the capital is safe, you can start removing laws created by eunuchs and reaffirming your hold on individual areas of the empire. The thing you should be wary of will be the local generals and powerful officials with great armies at their command - some of them will stay loyal, some will seek independence and some will try to overthrow you, claiming you to be a tyrant. You will have to keep them busy and appeased - and that will not be an easy task.
    First, order them to keep putting down Yellow Scarves and bandits, as well as rebuild areas under their jurisdictions. If you are seen as someone trying to restore the domain, the warlords will have more trouble creating a coalition against you and not look like rebels themselves...
    Now, let us discuss important people…”
    * * *​
    Since being banished from capital, Yuan Xi sought to gain more power. He started his machinations before he even arrived at Yang province. He secretly has met with Dong Zhuo, one of the generals of the Liang subjugation armies, south of Luoyang, in the tavern, where he manipulated the general to-
    'The villains of Hundred Years of Turmoil - crimes, lies, deceptions and treacheries of Yuan Xi'


    Worried about the development of the situation in Liang province, and incompetence of inspectors send to take the command of Han subjugation forces, general Dong Zhuo decided to take a more active stance in the Empire's politics. Before making any move, he decided to gather more intelligence. To do that he has met his sworn brother Yuan Xi, a man who to escape court politics asked for a remote position in Yang province – a move that would be later repeated by Liu Yan. They meet in a tavern south of Luoyang. What Dong Zhuo learned, prompted him to prepare for the possibility of Emperor changing the capital, by training a number of officials and preparing the city of-
    'Tyrant or last loyal Han general? Biography of Dong Zhuo.'
     
  14. Threadmarks: Interlude: Chen Wen, the inspector of Yang province
    Castage

    Castage Getting sticky.

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    I am not a good man.

    I was born as the fourth son to Chen clan, a family of merchants. Being the fourth son to one of the concubines (who died when I was nine), not blessed with mind, strength or looks, made it obvious, that I wouldn't be inheriting my father's position as head of the clan. So father barely paid me any attention at all. Instead, when he saw an opportunity, he sent me to university. He put the matter clearly - after I finished my studies, the family would stop supporting me.

    I was not exactly clear as to why he decided on that course of action. I was aware that there was some… competition among my half-siblings for my father's favour and my presence was not… desired. Whether he sent me away due to worry for my safety, or due to the scheming of his wife or one of his concubines, I will never know.

    I left my family without much regret - after my mother's death, the only person I stayed close to, was one of my younger half-sisters.

    At the university, I have experienced freedom, I have never known before. The time with my friends was precious to me, the poetry meetings, the debates... the parties and drinking... the women.

    It was also at this place that I have met a teacher that would become my surrogate father in all but name.

    With newfound freedom, it didn't take me long to find myself in trouble. I have spent too much money and found myself indebted. It quickly became apparent that I was in danger of losing my position as a student. My father refused to help me - more, he made it pointedly clear, that I was on my own. I don't think that he ever thought of me as his son. It... it broke me somehow.

    At this time of trouble, one of my teachers came to my rescue. Master Li Ying did not give me money, no. Instead, he helped me to get a job. He put in a good word for me, which all but guaranteed that I became a government official. He straightened me, motivated me to take my studies and my job seriously.

    He was the first person since my mother's death to treat me seriously. To believe, I was worth something.

    To believe in me.

    And I came to love the man, more than my own father. For he filled the void, that the man left - and I became complete again.

    He was wise, compassionate and just. He embodied most of the Confucian virtues. He was not only a great teacher but also a capable governor. Despite how much work he had doing both jobs at the same time, he performed both of them admirably.

    These were the happiest years of my life...

    Until a disaster struck.



    One day, performing his duties as governor, master Li Ying came across a particular case.

    A fortune-teller from Luoyang by the name Zhang Cheng has predicted that the general pardon would be issued. So he instructed his son to kill a man.

    Master Li Ying arrested both of the men and quickly found them both guilty, as they didn't even hide with their crime.

    But soon, just as Zhang Cheng predicted, a general pardon was issued.

    It didn't take long for Master Li Ying to discover the entire truth, and he was furious. He could not bear to let the murderer go unpunished… so in anger, he disregarded the pardon and executed both, son and father.

    Master, for a long time, belonged to Confucian officials clique - a group of scholars and officials who opposed the eunuch faction.

    For years both of factions pushed each other, neither ever gaining an advantage. Until now.

    The fortune-teller Zhang Cheng was a good friend with eunuchs - who after his death accused Master Li and some of his colleagues of encouraging university students to criticize the government and the emperor.

    That and the fact that Emperor Huan was quite interested in Zhang Cheng's fortune-telling was enough for him to issue arrest orders for Li Ying, his colleagues and academy students… including myself.

    When I was arrested and interrogated, I was terrified. I was afraid of pain, I was nervous around the harsh people interrogating me, I was terrified of the possibility of pain and torture. I was also lost. I knew not what the situation was, why I was arrested? Why did the Emperor took such an action against his loyal servant?

    When I was asked to tell about my studies, I answered, not hesitating at all. I was answering to the Emperor's officials, after all. When they asked about master Li, I also have told them honest answers. I knew that there was a possibility that they would use my words against him… but I was too much of a coward to try and lie to them… even if I did, I would probably fail miserably.

    The time I spent in the cell under arrest, was terrible. The worst was uncertainty. What would happen to me?

    Eventually, I got my answer.

    I was stripped of my civil liberties and exiled.



    And so started the worst period of my life.

    I had no family to turn to, to ask for help or money. I, an educated man, could not hold any office. I could not even join the army.

    I lived the life of a beggar, often hungry for days. Spending my time on the streets, begging, scrapping for food…

    There were times, that I didn't have food for days - at times I was desperate enough to consider eating rats and bodies of dead beggars.

    I never did. But that times, the feelings of that moments - of how close I was to eat the body of the dead, haunted me for the rest of my life.

    From time to time I managed to find a temporary work on farms… sometimes I got to work for the more… questionable members of society.

    But I didn't complain. A coin was a coin, and that meant food.

    Before those times, I have never thought that simple foods could taste so good. That a few grains of rice could taste so heavenly, that you could kill for it... I saw quite a few people die for scraps.

    I… existed in that state for some time, I survived.

    Until, a year later, Emperor Huan died.

    The emperor did not leave any direct heir, so his wife, Empress Huansi, became the regent and empress dowager. She and important officials choose Liu Hong as the new Emperor, who from this point on was known as Emperor Ling.

    Since he was only twelve, the Empress continued being a regent. Unlike her deceased husband, she was a diligent ruler, who saw too many important matters. One of such matters was restoring the rights to those who lost them during the prohibitions. She even made many of them, officials.

    And so, after a year of suffering, I have returned to the capital and was made an official. My time of hardship has come to an end. I would not beg anymore.

    I had a very warm reunion with Master Li Ying, who also was made an official in Luoyang. We shed tears, during our reunion. Only after meeting the man again, I felt as if I returned home.

    With a new ruler and different style of ruling, I have finally regained purpose in my life. My work made the difference, I made the country better.

    I was fulfilled.

    After a few months, a rumour started. Empress's father planned to have corrupt eunuchs exterminated. If he won, the disease running the Empire would be cured… but should the eunuchs won, they would exterminate the Empress's faction - including the Partisans.

    And that terrified me, and again, a great fear gripped my heart. I remembered all too well the months of hunger I had to live through not so long ago. I would not survive that kind of life again.

    I was not willing to risk it. Not again. I have requested the transfer to the Yang province - to the fringes of the Empire. Since that was something similar to the exile, my surrogate father tried to dissuade me from this course of action.

    But I was too afraid, to listen.

    I shared my fears with the man I considered my father and urged him to also leave the capital.

    But that enraged him.

    "You would leave the Empire in its time of need? This is why as loyal subjects we should support the Emperor! Yet you would run! I don't remember you being such a coward!" He snapped, his words cutting deep. "You want to run? Run, then, coward!"

    My father's words left me broken. Yet they were not enough to settle the wild fear and the echoes of hunger, pain and... numbness.

    ...and so, to my shame, I did run.

    I became an official in Shouchun.

    After a few months, I received the dreadful news from the capital. The news I fared, the news that hurt me.

    Empress's father, Dou Wu, the commander of the capital defence forces, planned the extermination of eunuchs, but his plans were found out. The eunuchs took both, the Emperor and Empress into custody and ordered Dou Wu's execution... but he managed to gather his soldiers and resist. So eunuchs tricked an experienced general Zhang Huan, into believing that Dou Wu was committing treason.

    Zhang Huan defeated Dou Wu.

    Dou clan was almost completely exterminated. Empress Huansi was imprisoned and her mother exiled.

    Then the eunuchs turned their eyes to the Partisans. They convenienced the young Emperor Ling, that the Partisans wanted to rebel.

    Hundred of Partisans were arrested and executed.

    Among them, my surrogate father... with whom I parted in discord.

    The news hurt me deeply, so deeply that I wept and not slept for the entire night. The man who gave me so much, the man who was the closest person to me, in the entire world, the man who was my family in all but blood, was gone. And the last memory of him, I have is... is our fight. Is of him, turning his back on me, denouncing me...

    I later found out that one of the eunuchs intended to send orders for my execution… and he would if a single noble didn't point out that I was already in an effective exile. That seemed to satisfy the eunuch.

    I wanted to thank the man for saving my life, but the young noble said that he aided many Partisans to escape eunuchs revenge.

    Truly, I owed young master Yuan Shao a great debt.

    My life went on relatively peacefully. But the shadow of the possibility of eunuchs changing their minds and ordering my execution lay heavily on me.

    I continued my career as an official, but I wanted to secure my position, to be safe, in case the eunuchs changed their minds and went after me. For that I needed allies. My most realistic option was to marry into a respected clan. But for such a clan to even consider a marriage alliance with me, I needed to have something to offer to that clan.

    The best way to do that was to hold a position of power. But to advance to such a position, I needed to buy it.

    So I started gathering money… but it was going to slow. At that pace, I would advance the position in ten years.

    So I decided to do, what everyone else were doing - to take a bribe. Still, my conscience didn't allow me to put more burden on innocent peasants… but there were few of them, who were scum, whom I wasn't guilty about taxing heavier. But once I secured enough coins, I cased doing that.

    It took a few months, but I managed to secure a position high enough to try to convince a local respected Yang clan to allow me to marry one of their kin. Of course, it took some time, courting and manoeuvring, but after some time I married one Yang Xiuying.

    We did not love each other, this was a political marriage, after all, but we came to respect each other.

    The things were finally starting to look up for me.

    And then, I became a father.

    I was elated! My child, my heir!

    Someone, who would be my family, unconditionally. Someone who would fill the void, that was with me, since the death of my surrogate father. The idea, it struck me hard - I would do everything that was in my power... for my child.

    While I was distant with my wife, we were connected by our love for the child.

    But soon I found myself in a bind again. My current pension was not enough to support my family now. So I had to gather cash again and fast too.

    So I started taking bribes again.

    Time went on. I advanced my position and had more children. It took time, but eventually, I achieved a position of inspector of Yang province. One of three, true, but still I had a position high enough to give the eunuchs a pause before going after me.

    I was finally safe.

    The tranquil and peaceful times continued.

    One day, after dealing with my business, I heard two people talking. A merchant and a peasant were complaining about a corrupt official.

    I wondered about who they were talking, so I continued listening. As the men described the official's corruption, I slowly realized, that it was I, they were talking about... and I couldn't rebuke their reasoning, the examples they gave.

    With sinking heart, I realized that I became the very person I despised and feared.

    Yet, with realization… and shame, the change did not come.

    I did not change, cause it was… convenient, to continue the way I did.

    So I did.

    Years passed peacefully until a Yellow Scarves rebellion started. Thankfully, the Yang province was not as plagued by rebels as the northern region. The skilled general Zhu Jun with aid of famous Sun Jian managed to defeat the rebel forces near Yang province and push them north.

    After that, the rebellion didn’t have any meaningful impact on the border province.

    The bandits and the southern Shanyue barbarians were a more visible threat.

    And just as quietly the rebellion started, just as noticeably it ended.

    It was only a few months later that something changed.

    A man arrived from the capital – a new province's inspector. He was young, impressionable and naive – just as I was, all those years ago. Just as I, he was banished from the capital to the fringes of the Empire. A young noble from Yuan clan, Yuan Xi – the second son of the man who helped me all those years ago.

    Despite the man having a claim for the position of the inspector that I held (along with two others) I felt a kinship to him. I also owed his father, so I decided to help him – guide him.

    As we meet, the naive boy politely asked if I relinquished my position to him. He was so polite that I actually laughed. I apologized and refused (after all, I spend to much time, and money to get where I was) – instead, I offered my assistance in settling down. I also explained how things were in the province – of how the inspectors of Yang province had their own sphere’s of influence and didn’t interfere with each other’s areas.

    When I finished he inquired, why I was helping him – I admitted that I owed his father a favour.

    He hesitated – which was good, I would be disappointed if he was a naively trustworthy person, who would believe without question that I owed his father and did not have any ulterior motive – before accepting my help.

    I have introduced him to nobles and people of importance.

    He mingled with nobles, got to know them, their families and their history. He was pretty interested in people's stories and clans histories.

    The young noble took it a step farther – he started making connections with many other people. First, he met with merchants, who had financial problems. He would either borrow them money or buy their shops.

    When he would buy the shop he would rearrange it and hire the clan that owned it before to attend it, or close it and repurpose the building. Often, when he borrowed money, he would take the clan members that caught his attention for one reason or other - be they men or, strangely, be they women, into his retinue.

    I have also gave him a few tips on what to look for when performing inspections and shared quite a few stories. Yuan Xi did seem to enjoy it – stories, experiences, situations...

    After some time in the city, we moved he moved to the country. He took upon himself to help the simple peasants.

    His retinue often helped with repairing the houses of local families, the fences and the fields. His action brought him the appreciation of the simple folk, but providing help to one village was taking him a long time with his humble resources - he managed to stabilize the situation in three villages and it took him two months.

    It greatly frustrated him.
    Even though he was starting to be respected and liked official, it was not enough for him.

    He came to me one day, pouring out his regrets at not being able to organize the wider help to the region. He asked me to organize the meeting of inspectors – he wanted to convince them to help him.

    I wanted to laugh at him, but my chest hurt so much that I couldn’t – this would achieve nothing. He would fail. I wanted to laugh, I wanted to mock his naivety,…

    I opened my mouth to rebuke him – but nothing came out.

    And then, I realized.

    My chest hurt, not because I wanted to laugh – it was from shame. It was squeezing me, choking me, killing me…

    I then realized that Yuan Xi reminded me of my surrogate father. Not in his character or naivety, but in the core principles he upheld… and the ones that I failed to uphold. The shame was unbearable.

    And then, a thought came.

    Maybe… maybe with him, I could become the man I was… the man my surrogate father was proud of, a man whose children, one day, would be proud of.

    Smiling, I agreed to organize a meeting.

    * * *​

    It took some time to organize, but I finally convinced two other inspectors for the meeting. When I arrived at Shouchun, with inspectors Zi Hua and Deng Fu, we were greeted by the Grand Administrator of Commandery. As we rode into the city, we were greeted to the surprise of other inspectors by crowds.

    I had to smile at their surprise.

    Truthfully, I doubted that Yuan Xi would be able to convince the corrupt officials to change their act and have confronted him about it. He answered that he planned to leave them as little manoeuvre as possible. He planned to gather the crowds and first tell them about the planned help from the government, leaving the inspectors and grand administrator with little choice, but to accept, or face an angry crowd.

    In my opinion, it was a very risky move. The men might refuse, or change their mind later while blaming Yuan Xi for the failure. The administrator could also decide to use an army…

    But Yuan Xi would not be dissuaded – stubborn young man.

    I sighed.

    I would have to act as a mediator between the inspectors.

    I shook my head and looked around. The people were smiling and greeting us enthusiastically.

    I frowned.

    The people were never enthusiastic to see the inspectors – I don’t remember when I was greeted enthusiastically. Has Yuan Xi already spread the news about the planned help to the civilian population? He didn’t wait for inspectors to arrive? The boy couldn't be that impatient – could he?

    My thoughts were interrupted as we approached the Yuan’s mansion – the cheeky brat was standing before the building, surrounded by his retinue.

    He stepped forward and put his hands in salute-

    Then staggered back, as an arrow lodged itself right above his heart.

    That crowd feel silent.

    I watched numbly, as the young man slowly fell on his knees, blood pouring from his mouth. Before he fell, his bodyguard grabbed him and surrounded him with their weapons drawn.

    “The corrupt officials assassinated Lord Yuan!” a voice called from the crowd.

    “What?” I managed as I turned to the crowd.

    What I saw was a wall of confused faces slowly changing – there was disbelief, disgust, anger – fury. Much of fury. I looked back at Yuan Xi – he was being carried into the mansion, but his guards stayed. Only now I realized, that their weapons were pointed at our group.

    People started slowly to scream, throwing accusations at us. Someone stepped forward, other person followed. It was when someone threw a stone, we started slowly backing. We had not enough guards to stop that crowd.

    As the stones started flying, we turned and started escaping.

    We rode, wildly through the city, the crowd hot on our heels – hunting us.

    I saw one of the guard's horse trip, and the man fell off. He was almost immediately surrounded by the angry crowd – I saw the sticks raising and falling. The sticks that rose again were red. I turned my head.

    We successfully escaped the city, but we didn’t stop our mad ride. We finally slowed down when the city was far behind us, and a pursuit was long lost.

    I was still in shock as our horses slowly stepped through the forest.

    “How did it come to this.” I couldn’t help but mutter.

    “What a mess.” One of the inspectors said.

    “Good riddance – the young man was nothing but trouble.” the other said.

    “Good riddance!?” The administrator screamed, the disbelief clear in his voice. “We have an entire city trying to kill us, the second son of one of the most powerful of noble clans in the Empire was killed and we are the most likely suspects! When his father hears about this, he will call for our heads! Just on principle, to make sure that none messes with Yuans! I don’t know which one of you organized that assassination, but I will - Cagh!”

    The administrator rasped as the arrow stuck from his throat.

    “UH!” the inspector Zi Hua, who was riding next to him, managed only to grunt as two arrows hit his chest, with enough strength to throw him from the horse.

    I didn’t wait. I screamed at my stead and waved the reins, making the horse run in a gallop.

    I only slowed twenty li further, to give the horses some time to rest. It was then, one of the surviving guards told me, that both inspectors and the administrator were killed in the ambush.

    * * *​

    I paced, around the room. My head snapped as Lei Bo entered the room.

    "What news?" I asked briefly, impatiently.

    The former bandit saluted.

    "The Schouchun was briefly in chaos, but the order was restored by Yuan Xi's adviser, Xun Yu."

    "What about Yuan Xi?" I asked impatiently.

    "Alive, but in a critical state. It is unknown if he will survive."

    I sat on a chair, resigned. Lei Bo stayed silent for a moment, before continuing.

    "The grand administrator's family was killed by an angry population. Inspector Zi Hua's clan submitted to Xun Yu, hoping for his protection." The man hesitated, before continuing. "The clan of inspector Deng Fu declared you the killer, and called for your head."

    My head snapped, as I looked at my subordinate.

    "What?" I asked, disbelief clear in my voice.

    "My lord," he started uncertainly. "The inspectors and the grand administrator were blamed for the assassination of Yuan Xi… but since the administrator and other inspectors are dead, people believe that you made a power play to take over the province."

    I hid my face, covering it with both of my hands.

    What should I do now?

    * * *​

    I woke to the loud noise.

    I slowly sat up, listening to the sounds coming from the outside.

    Screaming!?

    I got up and run to the source of the sounds - not carrying to even put on my clothes.

    As I got outside, I saw a slaughter.

    The gates were open!

    I saw Lei Bo desperately fending of ten men, holding them off in gate, only to scream as one spear jabbed him in the face. As he turned with a painful howl, I saw his right eye bleeding. Gone. He tried to run, but the men who fought him didn't give him a chance. He collapsed on the ground dead, pierced by several spears. Yet the soldiers that killed him did not take chances - they continued stabbing him until they were sure he was dead.

    Enemy soldiers purred into the yard, slaughtering my guards.

    I took a step back, as the intruders finished killing my guards and started advancing on me.

    It was at that moment that Ji Ling crashed into intruders, putting himself between them and me.

    I watched with wonder as he slaughtered the bandits - like a mythical demon.

    It was so easy because the intruders were dispersed. He killed the bandit with single thrust or swing of his ji, before advancing onto the next one. He overwhelmed over ten people that way before they even knew what was going on. The intruders started panicking, slowly backing before the might of the warrior.

    But as Ji Ling brought his blade down on another intruder, it was deflected. Ji Ling fluently spun, switching his attention to the new opponent, as the man he failed to kill, scrambled back.

    What happened next, I could barely see. A flurry of stabs and thrusts were exchanged between Ji Ling and the challenger. I could barely see, so fast the exchange was.

    The ji clashed against the ji.

    The challenger was good, but not enough. He slowly, but surely backed under Ji Ling's assault.

    As it looked as if the victory was in Ji Ling's hands, another intruder joined the fray, helping the old man.

    He lacked the old man's experience and skill, but still, he was good. Both, of the men, worked finely together, but even their combined skill merely delayed Ji Ling. He still managed to push both men back.

    I frowned as I looked closer at the assailant. My eyes widened as a recog-

    "Uf!" I grunted and fell on my knees. My vision darkened and I could feel some warm fluid flowing down my forehead.

    "Enough!" A familiar voice bummed, right next to me.

    Yuan Xianyi – I recognized the man.

    I could, as if through the fog, as Ji Ling briefly turned his head to look at the voice, only to stop completely, when he saw me.

    As my vision darkened, I could see net falling on him…

    * * *​

    The guards lead me through the corridors. My arms and chest were bound tightly – too much for a simple weak scholar like me – and my mouth was gagged.

    I had no delusions that I would face my death soon. I don’t know how I would be able to convince Yuan Xi that I had nothing to do with the assassination attempt on him.

    As we entered the main chamber, they had forced me to my knees – not that I was able to resist in my state.

    There were not many people present.

    Yuan Xi, wearing simple robes, sat in the centre of the room. Next to him stood his adviser Xun Yu and officers – Cao Xing and Han Hao. The men who duelled Ji Ling.

    But my eyes were turned to the woman standing in front of Yuan Xi - Yang Xiuying, my wife.

    Yuan Xi merely looked at me, before turning back to my wife, who, immediately after noticing me, turned her head away.

    “As I was saying, Lady Yang, the punishment for treason and crimes of inspector Chen Wen, is the execution of him and his entire clan.” Yuan Xi paused. “But you assisted us against this criminal by opening the gates for my soldiers - for which I am grateful for.”

    ‘What!?’ My head snapped at the woman.

    “Thus I have no problem from excluding you from the punishment, as well as blaming the Yang clan for inspector Chen’s crimes.” Yuan Xi said.

    “Thank you, inspector Yuan.” Yang Xiuying bowed, sighing with relief.

    “Your children, on the other hand, are still members of Chen clan.” the words of Yuan Xi were like hot iron stabbing into my heart. And my wife's – as she stilled, frozen in place.

    After a moment, she fell on the floor, kneeling in front of the inspector.

    “My lord! I beseech you! Not my children! I beg you, please spare my children!” The desperation was clear in her voice.

    “They are from Chen’s clan.” Yuan Xi said with finality. “But!” he interrupted my wife before she could protest.

    He got up and slowly walked up to me.

    “Should they changed the Chen surname, and were adopted into Yang clan...” I felt as Yuan Xi put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed it, strongly. “They would no longer be of Chen clan.”

    He turned around and walked back to my wife. She sighed with relief and put her hands in salute, bowing deeply.

    My children would live. Despite the situation, I was grateful to the man, for that mercy.

    But…

    Something was not right. Something was wrong.

    “There is one last… matter, Lady Yang.” He said stopping in front of my wife. “Some people might say, that you turned on Chen clan, only after it became apparent that the corrupt inspector would lose. Such rumours would be both dangerous and harming to your clan… Unless...” He dropped a knife right in front of Yang Xiuying. Her eyes landed on the knife, then she snapped her head up, to look at Yuan Xi “You would be the on to deliver the justice. If you were the one who executed the treacherous official, you would be seen not as a treacherous woman who would betray her husband to survive, but a staunch woman, who choose the loyalty to the Han over her loyalty to her husband – tragic, but something to look up to…”

    I heard him but I was not listening to him.

    I did barely react as my wive slowly reached for the knife.

    What didn’t match? What was wrong… I looked at Yuan Xi, as he calmly left my wife, sat down and put his arms-

    Then an understanding hit me.

    I understood, what I felt was wrong.

    Yuan Xi’s grip was far too strong for a man who was wounded days ago. But how…

    Unless…

    Slowly everything started clicking in my mind. The helping the populace – winning their hearts, the invitation of the inspectors and administrator despite the poor preparations, informing the crowd of the purpose of the meeting before our arrival…

    It was a setup…

    He prepared the stage and then-

    My head snapped to look at Cao Xing – Yuan Xi often praised his skills with a bow.

    I numbly lowered my head.



    He used me.



    An uncontrollable rage filled my heart.

    I started getting up but was quickly held by the guards. The wood of the gag crackled as I clenched my teeth over it.

    ‘Yuan Xi, you villain! How dare you destroy my dream of finally redeeming myself! How dare you give me a chance to finally do something good and finally make up to my surrogate father - only to take it away when I dedicated myself to it and trample over it-!’

    I groaned as the knife pierced my body. My legs weakened and wobbled, as my vision darkened I looked at the person I considered a ‘colleague’ with unrestrained fury.

    ‘Curse... you… Yuan... Xi!’

    The darkness swallowed me.

    * * *​

    Year 186.

    Despite the deaths of Zhang brothers, the Yellow Scarves Rebellion continued ravaging the country.

    In Yang province, after the failed assassination attempt on him, Yuan Xi defeated the rebels and pacified the populace.

    Fearing the court intrigues in the capital, Liu Yan - under the guise of quelling Yellow Scarves - convinced the Emperor to change inspectors into governors and grant them rights the authority to levy taxes and command armed forces within the borders. He then requested to be posted as governor of border Yi province.

    Liang Province Rebellion escalates. Almost all Han forces were defeated and annihilated - only general Dong Zhuo managed to keep his forces relatively intact, despite defeats the army suffered.

    Liu Yu is appointed as a governor of You province.

    Emperor Ling of Han dies of illness-

    The chronology of the reign of Emperor Ling of Han

    * * *​

    The pain in heart, unbearable
    Two loyalties, but only one path
    The love, the Han?


    A way out, a knife by throat
    The hand stays - cowardice, betrayal?


    Then clarity, and with it decision
    At night, gates open
    Raid commences, castle falls.


    The love bound, on his knees
    ‘Traitor!’ - he wails.


    Knife held firmly, eyes full of conviction
    ‘Loyal to Han!’, the eyes soften
    ‘Loyal to memory, of the love long dead’


    The tears flow, the hand raises
    ‘Death to traitors!’ the knife falls


    The body drops, traitor is dead!
    The tears flow, the stains are red
    Love long lost – avenged.


    Poem of Yuan Xi, praising Lady Yang
    Translation from the book ‘A hundred examples of bad poetry.’ by...


    * * *​

    AN:
    Beta-reader: NathanHale
    This is my first poem – don't judge it… too harshly.
     
  15. Threadmarks: Interlude: Empress Lingsi
    Castage

    Castage Getting sticky.

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    The moon was beautiful.

    There were so few chances for me to slip out of the palace. To have a breath of fresh air, instead of being stuffed inside - and I enjoyed every single moment of it.

    I took a bite of a plum. I sighed with pleasure as the sweet juices filled my mouth, my body practically trembling with pleasure.

    My head got lighter, my eyes flutter. My chest heated, as trembling spread all the way down my body, even making my toes curl lightly.

    I licked the sweet nectar from my lips, prolonging the pleasure.

    After the sensation weakened, I took a sip of bitter tea, clearing my throat, removing the taste of sweet fruit.

    I looked at the moon, again, enjoying the night, before taking another bite, and enjoying the taste from the beginning.

    Being born a peasant, and spending days hungry was not something unfamiliar to me. Only after I became a concubine, I could enjoy such treats - and I enjoyed each moment of it.

    Those born noble, they never knew hunger. They did not enjoy the taste of the treats they were… 'entitled' to. They just stuffed themselves with this delicacies, not enjoying them fully. Not even understanding how blessed they were by being able to taste such things on a daily basis.

    Such a waste.

    I sighed.

    The situation was slowly becoming more complicated. Just as Yuan Xi predicted, the Emperor was disappointed with my son being the heir. He often spoke about it, even mentioned making Liu Xie the heir. He did nothing but talk, but there were people who listened, people who might do something… people that were dangerous.

    That's why I was here, putting the final touches to rectify the situation.

    I turned and smiled as the attendants brought my guest.

    “Ahh… Lady Shang Dan.” I nodded, and put my hands together in greeting. “I thank you for coming.”

    “My Empress.” She saluted. “As you requested, I have delivered to Emperor the fruits - he was quite delighted by their taste.”

    I smiled hearing that.

    “I see. I guess it brought you his favour?”

    The woman nodded enthusiastically.

    “Indeed. The Emperor was quite pleased with my gift.”

    I smiled.

    It was rather ironic that I was inspired by Yuan Xi’s tale of poisoned fruit. The amount of poison in one fruit was so small, that it was almost undetectable. But considering how much of the glutton he was, how much my husband tended to eat, it will be enough to take effect. Not immediately - it would take a few days and a few more bowls of fruit, but it would eventually take effect.

    By the time he realized what was going on, he would be dying - unable to actively threaten my family. Nor me, nor my brother, and especially not my son.

    “Great! That’s good for you.” I clapped my hands. “And it requires a toast.”

    I waited for my attendants to put the drinks in front of us, before raising my cup.

    “For profitable cooperation!”

    “For profitable cooperation!”

    We both drank at the same time. The bitter taste of alcohol attacked my tongue, just as the heat spread over my body, warming me up in this cold night. I got goosebumps as the initial sensation of heat passed.

    “I hope that from now on, you will support me and my son.” I raised a cup, and the attendant immediately approached me to fill it.

    “Of course, my Empress.” Lady Shang Dan answered raising her cup, and my servant walked up to her with a pitcher.

    “Good. Then in the spirit of our newfound profitable cooperation, you won’t mind that I will permanently remove your ties to the eunuch faction.”

    Shang Dan froze hearing my words and looked at me with eyes filled with surprise. Before she could answer the attendant grabbed her hands and held firmly, while the other threw the cloth around Shang Dan’s neck and tightened it.

    I shook my head, took another sip from my cup and looked at the moon, ignoring the noises of struggle.

    Truly, did she really think I would trust her after she acted on behalf of eunuchs against Emperor? After she started acting as Yuan Shu's spy? As at the same time she started courting Yuan Shao's favour? Her? A corrupt official at best a traitor at worst?

    No, all she was, was a loose end.

    I took another bite of plum, enjoying the sweet taste of the fruit.

    "The moon shines,
    The beauty of night undebatable,


    The wine flows,
    The dry flavour undeniable


    The fruit splits,
    The sweet taste, unresistable


    The noble gasps,
    Her ambition unachievable,


    The moon set,
    The wine split,
    The fruit bit,
    The noble... dead,"


    I frowned. The ending was... off.

    Sometime during my poem, Shang Dan must have expired, cause my attendants were-

    I blinked.

    "Why are you disrobing her?"

    The servant standing next to me bowed.

    "When found, a naked body brings less attention than a one in rich clothes." One of them answered as they started dragging the body out.

    I almost laughed. It was logical, true, but hearing it from my attendants... I knew my servants for a few months already, but they continued to surprise me.

    While far from perfect or even good servants, they learned their duties quickly. And what was most important, they were loyal. True, at the start only to each other - and what kind of man just encourages female servants to bed each other? But after some time I managed to secure their loyalty by biding them to myself, just as they were bound to each other. I disguised it as rewards, of course, but it seemed to work all the better.

    I will have to find some way to repay Yuan Xi for such a useful gift. Who gives a woman a bunch of female bodyguards doubling as assassins? Truly, the man was something else.

    I smiled as my thoughts went to the young noble.

    He was the first person to consider me his equal - and not in sense of social standing, but as a person. I had people who were either above me or below me, but never beside me. It was naïve, it was an illusion… a refreshing one, a truly pleasant, but still, an illusion.

    In this world, you were either dominating or were dominated.

    Despite this foolishness, despite his naivety, I still craved for more of it. For it was like a gust of fresh wind, like a cup of cold water in a hot day... I almost scowled. Such weak thoughts for a person of my position.

    And yet… I still can’t help but wonder. If he was born ten years earlier if I became his wife... would I…

    I shook my head and looked at the liquid in my cup.

    Such thoughts about what-ifs would change nothing, only make me bitter. The world is, as it is. I can’t change what was, only take reins of my destiny and shape it to my liking.

    Yet, for all of my wants, Yuan Xi couldn't stay in the capital. He was too naïve, to simple… a boy playing politics… He was not ready for that life.

    So I had spread rumours.

    Yuan Shao heard about how noble, but naïve was his son. And how there were some rumours of eunuchs preparing to move against him.

    The eunuchs heard rumours, about how noble and powerful the young man was becoming. How he started forming his faction.

    When the Emperor announced the creation of the Army of the Western Garden, it was enough to make both parties move.

    Eunuchs proposed to move Yuan Xi to another post, outside capital. They could not move directly against the son of one of the most powerful nobles in the kingdom.

    But the Emperor, as usual, hesitated.

    But then, the ever shrewd Yuan Shao proposed to take his son's position. And Emperor jumped on such a solution.

    When both sides heard that the other wanted to remove Yuan Xi from the capital and that they helped in achieving that goal, both parties thought that they fell for some kind of scheme.

    Heh, they did.

    The eunuchs became even more suspicious of Yuan Shao, for they believed that they were played by him. That Yuan clan was granted more privileges and Yuan Shao himself took the prestigious position as a commander of Western garden Army.

    Yuan Shao on the other hand, when heard that eunuchs wanted to remove his son from the capital, had his suspicions - created by rumours - confirmed.

    Add the fact that he tried to get close to, now deceased, Lady Shang Dan - who suddenly disappeared right after his son was all but forced to flee capital…

    My lips curled up as I took another sip from my cup.

    Well, I won’t even need to do anything for both parties to be at each other’s throats.

    Another bite brought another taste of sweet juices in my mouth. As I looked at moon I started carefully counting, what I achieved by allying with Yuan Xi.

    One, I further divided one of the greatest clans in Empire. The weakening of the Yuan clan will only enforce He clan.

    Two, it made Yuan Shao and the eunuch's faction, even more antagonistic to each other.

    Three, it cemented Yuan Xi’s ties to me, while at the same time making him more antagonistic to his father.

    Four, it gave time for my Yuan Xi to build up his base and experience.

    Five, it ensured that my son’s position as heir was officially confirmed.

    Six, it secured my son’s safety by giving him the protection of two divisions of Army of the Western garden.

    Seven, it granted me a squad of my own murderous bodyguards.

    Eight… it allowed me to meet a surprisingly fascinating young man.

    Eight birds with one stone. You still have much to learn, Yuan Xi.

    I took another sip of wine and smiled.

    When the time comes, I shall call you back, and you will take on the position as one of my son's pillars.

    So, until then, grow, my dear Xianyi, for I miss your company.

    * * *​

    ...since the times of Ming and Zhang, one hundred years before Yellow turban rebellion, the Han dynasty has failed to produce a competent ruler. Truly, the Emperors of Western Han done their best to destroy their legacy through their incompetence, lack of abilities and misjudgment. The only thing keeping the Empire together were the Empresses with the support of their clans. It were women such as Empresses Hexi, Shunlie and Lingsi that kept the Empire from fragmenting into warring states and descending into total chaos. It was ironic that the Han Emperors, usually turned on these patriotic women and their clans, to continue their thoughtless and ignorant rule-

    "Empresses, Consorts, Heroines - the influence of women on the Han Empire, through the eyes of modern Suffragette." published in 1912...

    AN:
    Beta-reader: NathanHale
     
  16. Extras: Podcast
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  17. Extras: Short history of Three Kingdoms
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    Short (and I mean really short) history of Three Kingdoms by oversimplified on youtube:

     
  18. Extras: Maps of Han
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  19. Extras: Dramatis Personae gallery
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    Dramatis Personae gallery
    Disclaimer - I own none of the images


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    Last edited: Mar 21, 2021
  20. Threadmarks: Reign of Emperor Shao 1
    Castage

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    "I am still unsure if it was wise to send Ji Ling to suppress the Deng clan." Xun Yu said. His worry was warranted - just a moment ago Ji Ling was an enemy who killed several of my soldiers.

    "He needed to see that I trust him, and he needed to clean his reputation from the stain of working for corrupt official. Both for the way he is generally viewed as well for himself.
    Besides, the situation is all but resolved. The Deng clan are fools, for not seeing that even should they win, they would not be able to hold to the power." I explained.

    Really, some people just don't know when to give up. Once they get a taste of power, they are ready to throw away their lives, just to keep it.

    "Even so, why did you decided to keep him alive while you killed Chen Wen?" He asked, looking at me curiously. Now, the answer to that was rather easy.

    "The only crime of Ji Ling is that he followed orders of his liege. Giving him a chance to redeem himself, is only fair. Besides, to kill such a talented warrior in these uncertain times would be a crime."

    Not to mention that Ji Ling was one of few warriors who could fight Guan Yu to a draw, according to some sources I remember... I was not going to throw away a talent like that.

    "Chen Wen, on the other hand, was a known corrupt official. If we kept him alive, we wouldn't be seen as any different then the previous corrupt officials. His execution united people under my rule and secured the populace support for my regime. He also not greatly talented, so replacing him is easy."

    I couldn't tell Xun Yu that the main reason was that he was connected to my father. Having a man who owed Yuan Shao in my ranks, was not a good thing. I simply couldn't trust him. He posed to much a danger, should the time come when I would clash with my father. Somehow, I was starting to think, that it was not the question of 'if', but of 'when' I will fight against him.

    Unaware of my musings, Xun Yu hmmed then asked:

    "What do you intend to do with Chen Wen's widow?"

    "Lady Xiang is meaningless to me." I shrugged.

    "Then why force her to kill her husband?" He asked curiously. So that was his point. Well, I can't say that I took a typical approach...

    "There are several reasons. First, it would cut off her - and thus her clan, from the old, corrupt order. Second, it boosted Yang clan's reputation, and thus made it more… friendly to me. Third, it made it look like the situation was long in boiling point, thus it required only a spark to escalate - thus it removes the suspicion that it was all our scheming. Fourth, it gives Chen Wen's friends a target for vengeance, that is not myself. But the main reason I have done that were Lady Yang's children."

    "Her children?" Xun Yu was surprised by that part of my reason. Well, it was that or me killing the children... and I had already more than enough of innocent's blood on my hands. Killing children was... well, if possible, I would prefer to avoid doing it... again.

    "Should they ever seek vengeance, it is their mother they will turn their attention first." I explained. After all, a child avenging a parent was rather a common theme. Greek mythology was full of that theme.

    "That's a grim way of looking at things." He commented making me shrug. I prefer to consider it a realistic outlook on the situation.

    "If in twenty years Lady Yang is still alive, I will agree with you, if she's dead - well, then it would mean that I was right." I told him as I turned to look at approaching Han Hao.

    "Young Master, the Yang clan send one of their own clan members to serve as your advisor." he reported.

    Hoh. So they already hope to extend their influence on me by having their people whisper into my ear. I smiled at the thought.

    "It would be wise to accept him. People of talent is who you need now, my lord." Xun Yu quipped.

    "Indeed, show him in." I said, nodding.

    Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.

    "What is his name?" I asked before Han Hao left.

    "Yang Hong."

    Interesting. If I remember correctly, that man was one of Yuan Shu's advisors… I honestly don't know how to feel about that.

    * * *

    As predicted, the Deng clan fell within the days. General Ji Ling returned with the heads of the Deng clansmen as a gift. As per my instructions, the children were sent to a special orphanage, where they would be indoctrinated, and women were, as per custom, distributed among soldiers.

    It was barbaric and not fair to those women… but I just couldn't let them go free and risk one or more of them, to have a chance to take revenge.

    When I had time to reflect upon my actions, I was disgusted with myself, with my actions. But not as much as I would have at the time of my waking up in this era. I changed and started doing things I didn't think I would be capable of doing. Humans are truly adaptable animals.

    The question I asked myself was, how much I would change by the end? Would I still be me?

    I shook my head. Such meaningless thoughts. Humans are shaped by the events and environment. I would become, what would shape me... and what shaped me so far.

    If I stayed unchanged, I would die… and the simple truth was, I wanted to live.

    So I would continue going on the path I have taken.

    * * *​

    "Message from the capital." The messenger said as he kneeled in front of me, keeping the scroll above his head.

    I took the message from the man and read it.

    "What does it say, your master?" Xun Yu inquired.

    I finished reading and handed him the scroll.

    "The Emperor, in his infinite wisdom, decided to grant inspectors special privileges... making them governors." I said with a hint of distaste.

    It was too early. Liu Yan, has the situation in the court become so bad, that you were forced to act years earlier, then it happened in history?

    "You don't approve, young master." Han Hao asked. He became quite proficient at reading me.

    "For me, as the inspector... no, as a governor, it's very good. I have more tools to work with and a free hand to bring peace to the area I'm governing.
    For the Empire, on the other hand, it's bad. The Emperor basically gave away his control over the regions.
    Emperor Ling has done something that Xiang Yu aimed to achieve. The Empire is now not a united state, but rather a federation of kingdoms. It's hegemony in all but name." I mussed. I always felt sympathy for the so-called 'Hegemon King'... which was only emphasised by my dislike for the founder of Han dynasty.

    "Aren't you extravagating, governor?" Yang Hong asked. He actually showed himself to be quite a competent advisor and most of his suggestions showed themselves to be pretty good. He was not a brilliant advisor, but a competent one.

    "Think about it. With that amount of power, it's only a matter of time, before one of the governors decides to become a sole ruler of his territory. When that happens, the emperor will mobilise his troops - but the only troops he directly controls is the Army of Western Garden. So he will need to summon governors to aid him. Of course, not all governors would answer the call - for various reasons. They didn't receive orders, they were busy with fighting barbarians, they were too far away or they didn't want to waste their resources.
    Now, no matter how the campaign would go, the imperial army would suffer some losses... maybe even would be defeated. Seeing that as a chance, more governors would declare independence and attack neighbouring provinces, which's armies were away. helping the imperial army.
    Again, the imperial army would have to react, but the new rebellions would encourage others to rebel. Just like Xiang Yu travelled around putting down the rebel king, after the rebel king, so would the imperial army be constantly on the move. With time they would lose men, support of loyal governors and slowly, they would start loosing... And to survive, they would need to cut their losses, to give up the control over governors, and concentrate on keeping control over their direct territory.
    Thus, the Han empire would simply fall apart."

    Ironic really. The Han Empire, created by Liu Bang, was being dismantled by his own dynasty. If there is one thing I regret, is that the old geezer, Emperor Ling, didn't live long enough to see that his action destroyed his empire.

    The silence refined in the room after my disquisition.

    "Well." Cao Xing cleared his throat. "Isn't it a grim perspective?"

    "Doesn't make it any less true." I answer him then turned to the rest of my advisors. "But given the newfound powers I was granted, there are some changes I wish to make. Both in military and civilian sectors.
    First, let us discuss the military. " I started. It was time to start implementing changes, but I couldn't do too much too fast.
    "I intend to reform the army units in the following way…"

    * * *​

    "Father, you called me?"

    I looked up from documents. Lang Dü kneeled, waiting for me to speak. Gone was the dirty resigned child I found in the ruins of her house. I was looking at a young confident teenager, slowly budding into a beautiful woman.
    Has it been two years since I have taken her in?

    "I have a task for you."

    She tensed, but also leaned forward, eager with anticipation. That would be her first task since I took her in. For some time now, she was showing signs of distress, being restless, for not being able to do anything for me.

    "You will go to Beihai and seek a certain woman, who was last seen there. Once you find her, you will approach her as my representative, you will bestow gifts on her and make sure that she has everything she needs to live untroubled life. Offer to have her moved to a residence in Shouchun, but if she refuses, don't push the subject."

    "Who is she." She asked with eyes burning with determination.

    "…I don't know." I answered smiling at Lang Dü's surprise. "What I know is, that she is the mother of a very talented man, whom I want in my service. I would go myself, but I have to stay here to pacify the area." I leaned forward. "I don't expect you to hire the man, but I expect you to build a rapport with him and his family. You will take silks and silver for gifts and anything you think will help you in your task. Niu Jin and a group of soldiers will accompany you as an escort. Take Huo Tai with you… and few attendants, if you see a need to."

    I paused, then looked at her sharply.

    "Lang Dü, you will be my representative. You will speak in my name so I expect you to act accordingly."

    The girl gulped as she nodded.
    I frowned seeing sweat covering her forehead, few drops slowly making their way down her temples. I wasn't pushing her too hard, was I?

    "I will not disappoint you, father. What is the name of the man you want?" She asked with hoarse voice.

    For a moment I entertained the idea of reconsidering her task... but in the end, I decided against it. This task would be a good experience for her.

    "Taishi Ci."

    * * *​

    "Message from the capital!"

    I turned to the running attendant. I took the scroll and started reading. I almost recoiled at the message.

    The Emperor was dead.

    It was too early. It's way too early. He was supposed to live for another three years. Everything starts coming apart… to fast! I am not ready! I need a few more years!
    My army is still small and not organised. The reforms I planned to implement are still in the planning stages. I need more time!

    Damnit!

    I bit my lip. Now the history as I know it will be surely derailed. The question was, by how much. I had an advantage only as long as the events stayed unchanged… yet.
    Yet I was actively doing everything to derail the train of history. The only thing I truly had left, were the biographies of people I remembered.

    ...

    Wait a minute.

    No!

    I was wrong.

    "Young master?" I turned to Xun Yu who looked at me worried. My worry must have shown on my face.

    "Emperor Ling is dead. Emperor Shao took the throne." I said looking at my advisors. "Every single governor was called by Empress Dowager He and Regent Marshall He Jin to capital, to give their oath of loyalty to the new Emperor." I paused. "Prepare the escorts, we will depart as soon as possible."

    "Ha!" All of my subordinates saluted me and went to carry out my order, while I returned to my musings.

    I was wrong. I worried unnecessarily. It didn't matter how much I prepared my realm, for the Yang province is meaningless in this situation.
    He Shi holds the court and makes sure that her brother would not fall for some scheme. The eunuchs wouldn't dare to act against the legal heir, especially since he is now in possession of Army of Western Garden.

    I smiled.

    Yes, despite the Emperor's early demise, the situation was under control. It's only a matter of cleaning the court from the trash and making sure that the governors fall in line. The ones that won't answer the Imperial call, will all but admit their ambition and traitorous intentions.
    After getting rid of them and cleaning the court, the work on stabilising the country can begin...

    * * *​

    I sat with sight as we finished the eight-day of our travel.

    "Thank you." I nodded to the servant who brought me dinner.

    "Master Yuan Xi!"

    I looked up annoyed, from my bowl with soup. After the entire day of travel, eating my dinner was all I could think about now. And I couldn't even start the meal without being interrupted. No wonder so many rulers changed into tyrants.

    I glared at the man, but he completely ignored it.

    "Master Yuan! Ou Xing and Zhang Ju have risen in rebellion!"

    * * *​

    After arriving at Yang province, Yuan Xi's situation was most dire. There was almost no army, to defend against bandits, rebels and barbarians. The local administrative structures were corrupted, fragmented and inefficient. The fields were destroyed by drought and pillaging rebels. The only reasons Yuan Xi managed to gain control over the situation and somewhat stabilize the province, was because he had skilled personel and financial support. Interestingly enough, it was not his father, Yuan Shao, who aided him financially but rather the He clan - in particular, the Empress Lingsi was one who supported his expedition, by donating him a large amount of silver, silks and even jewels. It is a common assumption that it was a show of gratitude for his help in the creation of the Army of Western Garden, that would protect her son, the heir to the throne-

    Right after Emperor Shao began his reign, a number of rebels raised arms, hoping to use the chaos following the death of Emperor. Some, like Ou Xing, used it to declare themselves the Emperors. Others, like Zhang Ju, raised in rebellion in hope to kill the Eunuchs...

    'Hundred Years of Turmoil' – historical work about the 'end of Han dynasty' and an era that followed.

    * * *

    AN:
    Usual thanks to NathanHale for the input!
     
  21. Threadmarks: Reign of Emperor Shao 2
    Castage

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    I am starting to regret leaving Xun Yu, Ji Ling and Cao Xing in Shouchun. Originally I intended to leave Han Hao in charge of the military instead of Cao Xing but decided that I needed to have someone trustworthy by my side, in the capital... and that will be a good experience for Cao Xing.

    I slammed my fist on the table, making Yang Hong flinch. Han Hao didn't even react to my outburst, already used to my temper.

    "I have a total of three hundred escorts – two-hundredth infantry and one hundred cavalry. What do you want me to do with that kind of forces against Warband, counting thousands?” Ou Xing had between five and twelve thousand according to the reports. “What would you have me do? March with three hundred soldiers against the army of ten thousand?" I asked sarcastically.

    I massaged my forehead in irritation. The discussion continued for some time already and it was going nowhere.

    “Look,” I continued. “Even if I were to return to Yang province, I would be able to gather maybe four thousand soldiers. And that is the optimistic prognosis. Not only would I still be at a disadvantage against Ou Xing’s forces, but I would also leave the Yang province defenceless!”

    And considering that I already invested money and effort into securing that area, I was not eager to give it up.

    “Even if I did bring here the entire forces that I could gather," I shake my head, looking and Han Hao who nodded hesitantly seeing my point. "Ou Xing might already in a different province.” I finished.

    “That is true, Lord Yuan.” Yang Hong conceded, hesitating, still unnerved by my earlier outburst. “But consider this-” He moved his hand over his chin, stroking his short beard... gathering his thoughts before explaining his reasoning. “should you leave and continue to capital without dealing with bandits, they will pillage the villages and kill countless men. As a person who was in the area and done nothing to stop them, you will be seen as a coward, who escaped to the capital from bandits. Your reputation of the benevolent governor will take a hit. Depending on how much the rebellion grows…” He didn’t finish, he didn’t have to.

    I bit my lip, cursing. I knew that Ou Xing didn’t build the forces as large as Zhang Jue’s Yellow Scarves… but that was before the changes I made. If he managed to grow his rebellion into meaningful force, I would be blamed for not acting when the situation was still manageable.

    “Governor,” Han Hao quietly interrupted. “You should consider two more things. First, a quick defeat of the rebels would help the new reign's legitimacy immensely.” I nodded, seeing his point. We both were aware of how important it was to keep He clan’s prestige high. If there would be slip-ups, the eunuchs and the vultures from the court would not hesitate to jump on weakened regent… and Empress Dowager. “Second, their force is between us and the capital...” and that would mean days, if not weeks of detour…

    I gritted my teeth. I hated being forced by the situation to do what I didn’t want to do.

    I sighted. It seemed I couldn’t escape from this.

    “You've made your point Yang Hong, Han Hao.” I put my hands on the table and sighed in defeat. “Come, It’s time for us to plan.”

    * * *​

    “Cough, cough!” I covered my mouth as another fit of cough shook my body.

    “Your health is getting worse – maybe you should rest a few days after we finish our business in the city?” Han Hao suggested. We both knew how deadly unattended illness could be.

    I shook my head. Three days of intensive travel to the nearest city seemed to have taken a toll on my health.

    “No, we don’t have much time.” I looked at the gathering of civil and military officials waiting for us at the gate.

    “Governor, I welcome you to our city!” the man saluted.

    “Welcome, administrator.” I answered holding my hands in salute. After a moment, I lowered my hands. “I was on my way to the court, by the orders of Regent Marshal and Empress Dowager, when I heard about rebellion being staged in the area by one, Ou Xing. I decided to postpone my travel to the capital and add my meagre forces to suppression of the bandits.”

    The Administrator looked troubled for a moment, before smiling.

    “Thank you, governor, but I would dare not to pull you away from duties-” He started saying, but I interrupted him, not in the mood for that kind of play.

    “But on the contrary, Administrator. Taking care of those rebels, is part of my duties, as Han official. To turn away from those duties could be considered treason to the Han.”

    “Ah, bu- but governor, risking your life to fight meagre bandits is-”
    I lowered my hands, smiling. So that's how it was?

    “Administrator, you have no intention of marching against the rebels, do you not?” I asked. The look on the man’s face was enough of an answer for me.

    I grabbed my knife and with a swift movement sliced the man’s throat. He looked at me with the incomprehension of what just happened. He grabbed his throat and gurgled as the blood started leaking. Only when he fell on the ground, bleeding, the understanding spread among those gathered. Some civilians stepped away, some raised a cry, some soldiers grabbed their weapons...

    “I, Yuan XI, governor of Yang, have killed the traitor and rebel sympathizer!” I raised my jagger high turning and addressing not only gathered officials, but also the soldiers on the walls. “The Administrator had no intention of quelling the rebellion!” That was a lie... most probably. He probably wanted to wait till the rebels passed his position, safety behind city walls – a sound strategy. Unfortunately, I couldn’t allow it.

    “Anyone refusing to put down the rebels and allow them to ravage the countryside, pillaging, raping and killing, is rebel himself!” I addressed the officials, but the main focus of my speech was the soldiers on the walls. I cared little for the officials, but I needed the support of the local army. “Those of you, who harbour sympathize with rebels, are free to attack me!” Hopefully, the administrator was not loved enough for them to throw themselves with weapons on my person. “The rest of you will follow my command, and defeat the rebels!”

    * * *​

    “...with that, we have a total amount of three thousand soldiers. If we add our retinue to local forces, we will have four hundred cavalry.” Yang Hong finished.

    “That’s optimistic, advisor. These soldiers are more like militia – not many of them took part in fighting against Yellow Scarves or local bandits.” Han Hao shook his head, dissatisfied with the situation.

    “Even with those forces, we will be outnumbered...” I said slowly, thinking. “Chances for support from neighbouring cities?”

    “They are either too far away or tied with remnants of Yellow scarves or bandits.” Yang Hong shook his head, before continuing. “As you ordered, we sent messengers to local villages, ordering their evacuation... as well as your orders considering the food supplies.” I nodded absently. If the villages couldn't take the food with themselves, they were to burn it. Hopefully, we will thin Ou Xing's army with some attrition.

    Maybe…

    “How is the local armoury?” I asked, turning to Yang Hong, still considering the strategy that started forming in my mind-

    “Cough, cough!” I leaned forward as I head another fit of cough. I motioned and a female attendant quickly ran to me with a cup of hot tea. I took a sip, clearing my throat. I really needed to take some time to rest later. “It's alright” I raised my hand, calming my officers. “I will rest after this. Continue.”

    Yang Hong nodded then scoffed, as he started his report.
    “The actual equipment is maybe forth, of what it is supposed to be.”

    “They actually stole equipment from imperial arsenal?” I asked surprised. These armouries were usually kept well stocked and maintained. Only idiot with a death wish would steal from them, cause the punishment for that would be according to the military law. I shook my head. And the award of Darwin goes to- “Have officials responsible for armouries executed.”

    “You don’t want them interrogated?” Yang Hong asked surprised.

    “We don’t have the time to play with them-” I paused, before turning fully to my advisor. “I will leave that matter to your judgment.” I finally decided.

    “Ha!” The man bowed. It seemed I made a decision that satisfied him.

    That still left me with a problem. At best, the opposing force would be twice as big as mines, at worst, seven times. If I had veterans or elites, I would be happy to take my chances… but with militia…
    That left me with one option… and I really didn’t like it.

    “Every man and woman capable of caring weapons, are to be conscripted to the army.”

    “Governor!” “Governor!” Both of the men protested at the same time.

    “The morale of conscripts, their training-” Han Hao started speaking hotly.

    “I know!” I hissed. “I know… but if we want to win, this is the necessary step.” Because I was not Zhuge freaking Liang, pulling victories from my hat. I didn’t know the area, I didn’t know the opposing forces – saying that this situation was not pleasant to deal with, was like saying that the sky was blue. “I might do something about their morale… and I have an idea for strategy.” But for that I need numbers.

    I paused and took another sip of tea, calming myself. I gave the cup to the attendant, who quietly took it. I turned my attention back to my officers.

    “We have maybe... fifteen days before Ou Xing's force arrives?” Seeing Han Hao nodding, I continued. “In that time, we must give the conscripts at least basic training, so they don't break at first contact with the enemy. Make a point to them, that when bandits arrive, they will either kill them or die. The bandits need not prisoners.” I paused before turning to Yang Hong.

    “Will we have enough equipment to give to all new conscripts?” I asked him.

    “The recruitment should give us between five and eight thousands conscripts...” the man checked one of the documents and winced.

    That didn’t give me much hope.


    * * *​


    “People of Han!” I raised my voice, as I rode in front of the battle line. “The men that are coming are nothing more than beasts! They rob, pillage, burn, rape and kill as if it was something normal – something worth boasting about! You can't negotiate with them, you can't deal with them, you can't bargaining with them - for they only see you as victims, ready to be robbed! You either kill them or die!” I took a breath before continuing. “ Do no fear them! If you fear them, if you escape here, your homes, your households, your families will be their next victims! They will pillage your homes, burn and destroy everything you ever build, just for the fun of it! They shall defile your wives and daughters, torture and kill your sons and brothers, slaughter your elders! People of Han! You fight to defend your homes! To defend your families! You defend everything that is dear to your hearts! If they pass us here, then we have lost everything we hold dear!” I pause for the effect. “But they shall not pass! They shall not come closer to the city! Because they will die here, at our hands!” I raise my Ji. “Death to rebels!”

    Thousands of voices raised with mine.

    That was nostalgic. The first time I gave that speech, was right after I came to this era and was escaping the capital. Now, I was giving it again, while trying to break to the Capital. The irony was not lost to me. Has it truly been two years since the first time I gave that speech? Time flies...

    I turned to my two companions. Yang Hong commanded the archers and crossbowmen – a total of three thousand. Most of the females went to that unit… and unfortunately, all of the people in this unit, were without armour – the courtesy of local corrupt officials. Han Hao commanded cavalry – all four hundred of them. One hundredth being from my retinue. I commanded infantry, all six thousands of them.

    The battle line was simple. Archers and crossbowmen at the front, three thousand five hundred infantry in line behind the skirmishers, cavalry at the left flank. At right, a five hundred spear infantry detachment to counter any enemy cavalry outflanking manoeuvres. Additionally, two detachments, each counting a thousand, of cities most experienced soldiers were kept in reserves on flanks.

    And in front of us… about twelve thousands of bandits. More mob then soldiers, but an experienced mob. I shudder to think what the size of the army would be if it didn't suffer the attrition...

    We managed to buy ourselves a total of twenty-two days for training. Additional time was mostly due to bandit's slow march and Han Hao's night raid that bought us an additional two days. The training, the fear of losing everything they had and few executions of corrupt officials raised the morale quite nicely... hopefully, it will be enough.

    “Well then,” I say as I look at Ou Xing’s army. No intelligent remark came to mind, no joke, no inspiring speech, no snarky remark. “I will see you after the battle.” I say simply and nod to them. I unmount and give reins to Han Hao.

    “Good luck in battle.” He said and galloped to his unit.

    I step to the line infantry and take my place in the line. I could already see some of them visibly gain confidence. Unfortunate, but if I didn’t join, the mainline would probably break after a few minutes of battle. The presence of general on the frontline could make that much of a difference in impact on the soldier's morale.

    “Loose!” Yang Hong commanded.

    A first volley smashed against the storming mob, then the second. Then, they returned fire. While I could not see everything, I could see some of my soldiers falling with a rain of arrows… and I heard their screams.

    “Back!” Yang Hong commanded.

    The archers and crossbowmen turned and run through the small roads created by infantry, behind the frontline troops. Some of them, carrying wounded. Yang Hong followed them. Once they were behind, the soldiers moved, closing the roads.

    As the troops closed the ranks behind skirmishers, I was faced with advancing screaming horde. Suddenly, a young man ran forward – I looked with disbelief as he ran at the bandits, only to stop and grab a wounded archer and start dragging her back to our lines.

    “Hold!” I screamed as I felt the line waver, some men ready to run and help the fool. “Hold the line!” From what I understood from the screams, the guy wanted to save the woman he was infatuated with.

    I cursed silently. They won’t make it… and because of the little brats stun, the morale will take a hit.
    The bandits finally cough up to the pair – I could see that the guy was immediately cut down, the woman… she would be lucky if they ignored her, but she was probably trampled to death.
    I could feel the morale fall with the deaths and cursed again.

    “Brace!” I ordered, “Ready!” I paused waiting, for the first bandits to reach our lines.

    “KILL!” I screamed loudly, thrusting my Ji at the coming man at the same time.

    The first bandits fell… then the rest crashed against our line. Pikes, spears, swords, axes and Ji were put to work, as two walls of people pushed against each other. Yet, slowly but surely, the Han troops were being pushed back. The lack of numbers and experience were showing - but that was expected. That was calculated into our tactics. I was pleasantly surprised that the conscripts didn’t break and started running - and that was the most important thing right now.

    They pushed us for some time and yet, the line did not break.

    “Agg!” A man charged through the line, with one swing of the great axe, cutting the man who stood in front of me. Before the body fell on the ground, the rebel slammed into it and then into me, pushing the dead body on me. I fell into the mud and looked, stunned as the man raised his great axe, ready to finish me off.

    Just as it fell, a small soldier thrust sword right into axe’s path. The sword has broken from the strength of swing and the teenager fell on the ground with a cry. But the axe landed right next to my head instead splinting it in half. That woke me up. I started pushing the dead body to the side, just as the rebel started making another swing. But before he could take a swing, another teenager thrust a spear into the man’s side. The rebel grunted lowering the axe. He grabbed the spear and broken it easily. He was either a monster or had a really good armour. The teenager stumbled and fell forward as he lost the support. The rebel raised the axe again to strike the offending teenager.

    At that moment, I managed to finally push the body of my soldier. I grabbed my knife drove it into rebel’s leg unprotected by armour – right at the back of his knee. And then I twisted it. The man wailed and fell on his knees, almost dropping the axe. I quickly removed the knife and then thrust it into the man’s neck.

    He gurgled for a moment, before falling on the ground dead.

    I quickly got on my knees and looked around for enemies.

    To my surprise, there was now some free space between our forces and fighting in this section paused for a moment. A lone rebel walked in front of the ranks of the rebels. He looked more distinguished then the others – his armour and weapons were certainly of better quality.

    Guo Shi...” He said stunned, looking at the body of the man I just have slain.

    I got at and grabbed my Ji. As the man’s eyes turned to me, I got up and gestured two teenagers to fall back – without their weapons they were just hindrance in what was about to happen.

    “Ou Xing issues a challenge!” The rebel has raised his Ji.

    Of all people! I curse my luck!

    I took off my helmet – the mud and blood dripping from it were getting into my eyes.

    “Yuan Xi, governor of Yang of Han, accepts!” I took a stance.

    With a roar, the bandit leader advanced. After a first few bouts, he had me on the deference. His strikes were powerful and he had far more experience in using that weapon – and it showed. It was frustrating, that even no-name like Ou Xing was better than me.

    The soldiers gathered around were cheering for us, screaming loudly, striking weapons against shields or raising their weapons high.

    I backed off after our fourth bout was finished, trying to think of a way to win. I clicked my tongue with frustration… I had an idea, but it was a risky one. Not like I head any choice at this point.

    This time I attacked. Ou Xing was surprised but quickly put on firm deference. At one moment, my grip on Ji weakened – and Ou Xing noticed it immediately. He started circling his Ji, weakening my hold on the weapon even more. Then with a swift movement, he pulled his Ji with wide movement – reaping my weapon from my hands.

    Just as I planned.

    As soon as I lost my Ji, I advanced on the man. Seeing my advance, Ou Xing quickly tried to cut me, but he lost some balance with the last manoeuvre. As I got inside his guard, I blocked his elbow, blocking any movement he could perform with his Ji. Having disabled his attacks, I grabbed the hilt of my sword, and with one move, I cut Ou Xing’s stomach. The blade cut shallowly, most of the impact absorbed by armour.

    “Good armour.” I said to him, then thrust the sword into his stomach. The thrust was strong enough to pierce his armour. Ou Xing grunted and let go of his Ji as his body jumped from my strike.

    Then I thrust the sword again, and again and again.

    As he fell on his knees, I removed his helmet. Then with a swift movement, I cut his head off. I picked up his head and presented it to bandits.

    “Rebel Ou Xing is dead!” I screamed. The rebels flinched and some even actually took a step back. “Death to rebels!”

    A loud roar answered my call as my soldiers advanced on now panicking rebels.

    I looked with satisfaction as my soldiers started pushing the rebels back – the news of Ou Xing’s demise spreading like a fire among the ranks.

    “My lord.” I turned to see two teenagers who saved my life. The one who lost the spear was holding my Ji, offering it to me. I turned to the younger of teenagers, still holding the hilt of a broken sword. I frowned, this would not do. I would not have my soldiers fight with broken weapons.

    “Keep it.” I shook my head. The boy has lost his spear, so at least that would serve his weapon… I then offered my sword to the younger one. “Take it.” I said, starling the poor youth.

    “But you will be without a weapon, my lord!”

    “There are plenty of weapons on the ground for me to choose from, take it.” After a moment, the younger one accepted my sword.

    I walked to Ou Xing’s body and took up his Ji, with a grunt. That damn thing was three times heavier than mine! No wonder his strikes felt so strong. I shuddered at the thought of facing Lü Bu, Guan Yu or Zhang Fei – their weapons are said to be even heavier…

    “What clan are you from?” I asked the teenagers.
    “Lü!” the spear-wielding teenager said.
    “Bu!” the younger one added.

    I was startled for a moment before shaking it.

    “You both save my life. After a battle, come see me. I will be sure to reward you.” I said as I turned to battle. I smiled seeing that we were winning.
    “The loss of their leader broke the rebels.” The spear teenager said.
    “Not only that.” I said as I started explaining. “You see, right now, the rebels are attacked from three sides.”
    “What?” he asked startled.

    “Usually, you put your veterans in the centre of your formation. But for this battle, I put the regular troops on the sides and weaker soldiers, conscripts in the centre, so the bandits easily pushed the front line, while the detachments with veterans stud their ground, easily flanking the rebel army. Now, we only have to wait for Han Hao’s unit to deal with rebel cavalry and strike at their back.” I smiled looking at the battle turning in my favour. “Smaller army surrounds the big army.”

    At this moment Yang Hong arrived.

    “Governor! Han Hao reports killing rebel leader Zhou Chao! His unit attacked the rebel’s rear and finished the encirclement.” My advisor reported. “The rebels are starting to slaughtering each other in panic, seeking a way out of the encirclement.”

    “The battle is won!” the younger teenager exclaimed.
    “Not yet.” I shook my head. “Now, we have to kill thousands of bandits… Yang Hong, move the archers and crossbowmen behind the infantry. Have them fire at the bandits at point-blank range. That should break them even further.”
    “Ha!”
    “Let’s go. This will be a long day.” I turned and started walking back to the battlefield.


    * * *​

    People laughed and celebrated the victory. In the end, we managed to slaughter twelve thousand of bandits, while losing merely four thousand soldiers… but, they were not just soldiers – they were conscripts. Men and women forced to take up arms.

    There were much-stolen goods in rebel’s camp. There was also much silver, gold and silks confiscated from corrupt officials. So I decided to use those riches as awards to soldiers for participation in battle. That was enough to quiet any dissatisfied voices.

    “Governor! A message from the capital!”

    I nodded to the messenger, took the message. I took a sip of tea, as I calmly started unrolling the message. The cough returned after the battle, so I had every intention to finally take some rest and get well - it just would not do to present myself to my Empress, while being barely able to stand on my legs from the illness. Taking another sip of tea, I started reading the message.

    * * *​

    Not much is known about Yuan Xi's battles before he became governor. What is known, is that he served under the orders of General Huangfu Song, where he gained enough merit to be made responsible for forming the Army of Western Garden. But it was the battle with Ou Xing, during which he massacred twelve thousand soldiers with the inferior force that showed the deadliness that put him on par with the heroes of the era.
    Modern historian about 'Hundred Years of Turmoil' in 'Behind the propaganda - the records of Hundred Years of Turmoil'


    “Your armies shall shatter, your weapons shall break, your shields shall split before the power of Yuan Xi…”
    “My tactics are outside your comprehension and my strategies are beyond your imagination…”
    “You want to face me? Fine, come meet your death at the hands of Yuan Xi!”
    “I will compose a verse describing our fight and your death… but don’t think I will bury your body.”
    The battlefield introduction lines of Yuan Xi in the sixth instalment of game ‘Turmoil Warriors’. The character voiced by awesome...


    * * *​

    AN:
    Thanks to NathanHale for the input that made this chapter better than it was!
     
  22. Threadmarks: Interlude: Emperor Shao
    Castage

    Castage Getting sticky.

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    The attendant put the cup on the table, then backed away respectfully. I nodded lightly to the servant, making her bow even deeper. My father would not even acknowledge the existence of the attendant, thanking her with a slight nod would be beneath him. For him all subjects of the empire, existed solely, to serve his needs.

    I could not understand that.

    Wasn't the Emperor's role, to look after the subjects, in return for their service? Wasn't that the principle of harmony?

    It was confusing how different father was as an Emperor, compared to what master Shi Zimiao thought me.

    Father always indulged himself in foods, drinks and pleasures… everything that went against the teachings of my teacher.

    It was so… abhorrent.

    His shameless behaviour towards his concubines in front of his court, his mannerism while he was eating and drinking during the fests, his disregard to his court officials who were giving him good advice and real assessment of the situation... and his contempt to the peasants, the very foundation of the Han Empire.

    How could one ravage his own house… no, why would one seed such chaos in his own house?

    It was surprising to learn after my return to the court, just how different people my parents were, in comparison to how they were portrayed. My father, instead of being an epitome of wise Emperor, who's efforts were sabotaged by corrupt officials, was a wasteful ruler who encouraged his officials to be more corrupt, so he could gather more riches. I cringed as I remember that my first thoughts of Emperor were that he was a tyrant… at one time I approached my mother when she was alone and told her, that I heard some in the palace called the Emperor a tyrant. I was curious about her reaction. To my surprise, she laughed. I thought she would tell me that those were just baseless accusations. Instead, she told me this:

    "Calling the Emperor a tyrant, is to overestimate him. He is foolish, corrupt, greedy, glutton who is easily manipulated by his close advisors. He values high only advisors who tell him what he wants to hear, dismissing all the good advice he doesn't like. He gathers riches from wherever he can, to build more palaces - places where he could indulge in wine, women and food. He is a man easily manipulated, who lives for his pleasures while promoting his version of the reputation of Han."

    "His version?"

    Mother then spoke mockingly, speaking just the way that father used to speak:

    "My ancestor was the first Emperor, bow to me! Everybody lives on the bounty of Han, so they have to stay loyal, no matter what. Any action taken by the Emperor is for the good of the Han and you should happily follow any order of your Emperor, even you'd starve to death!"
    Despite her mocking words, the way she spoke - pride, cold disregard, scorn - she captured the Emperor’s character and views spot on.

    I couldn’t understand… and despite what my father boasted, I couldn’t follow his behaviour.

    So I stuck to simple drinks and food, using my free time to study. Father considered that frivolous. Being humble? Being modest? Han Emperors were not modest! They were rulers of the world and everyone were beneath them!

    ‘But once upon a time, so too was the Qin Dynasty, and look at them now. After they disregarded the people, they were replaced by the Han… and you are making exactly the same actions as them’ – I wanted to say, but I kept my mouth shut. My teacher warned me many times, not to express my opinions freely, cause it was a fast way to the grave.

    The irony was not lost to me. The Qin fell mostly due to actions of the eunuch, and now, the Han were also slowly, but surely, falling due to eunuchs.

    My silence was taken as meekness. That disrespect, that assumption of my weakness... it made me so angry – I wanted to rage, to scream, to hit something. But I quickly calmed down. My teacher taught me to control myself – thrashing around would not bring any constructive outcome.

    Instead, I continued as I was, ignoring my father’s hurtful humiliating comments.

    I showed my appreciation to servants for their work, I was humble to officials loudly admiring their wise advice, I was respectful when in the presence of father’s concubines… and my actions did produce results.

    Some of the servants and attendants started actually sharing information with me. An attendant explained how the life of common folk looked like. To hear how their life looked like beyond the walls of the palace was soo… alien. To hear how much everything became worse year after year, how the situation became worse not only due to inaction of the Emperor but also due to his actions – it truly hurt my pride as a member of the house of Liu and descendant of the Emperor Gaozu. But when I heard that in many regions, eating bodies of fellow family members in order to survive... hearing that, I puked.

    How did it come to this? How did my clan fell so much in our duties and management of the realm?

    The Emperor had to rule wisely, being just and fair ruler. In return, the peasants had paid taxes and worked on fields

    Without balance, there could be no harmony. Without harmony, there could be no peace. Without peace, there could be no prosperity.
    But now - How could there be harmony?

    After that, I managed to convince some of the officials to explain the current reforms to me as well as the state of civil service.

    I was shocked to learn the current state of affairs. Majority of reforms and imperial decrees introduced through the last few years had only one purpose - to fill Emperor's trunks. Even after natural disasters, even after rebellions, the Emperor didn't lessen the burden on common people… he levied even higher taxes. The policy of paying for offices practically forced the civil officials to heavily tax the common people.

    How was the empire supposed to function if the peasants weren't left enough to survive!? It was as if the Emperor was pushing them into rebelling.

    It was somewhat hard to understand. How could you gather more gold and more power, if you knew that it's hurting other people? The teacher said I was still young and naive. Mother told me that it was easy to hurt someone if you didn't know their name or their looks. That hurting hundred peasants is easier than hurting the wise Long Gan, the beautiful Ru Li or the courageous Zhao Tao…

    I understood her lesson.

    I tried to create rapport with some of the concubines of my father but failed miserably at getting close to any of them. To my great surprise, it was one of them who approached me. She explained to me a great many things about the politics and schemes in both, Imperial harem and Imperia court. As she explained the mechanics and my mother’s role as the dominant power in the harem, I slowly became suspicious of her. If what she said about all the conflicts and scheming in the harem was true, why was she telling me about it? She actually laughed and confessed that she approached me and educated me because she hopped to ally with my mother and her clique. The things she told me about harem and my mother were both, scary and inspiring.

    From one point of view, my mother was a cruel woman for what she done to Lady Wang… yet from another, as the concubine explained, that very action, was done for my protection. I was at a loss for some time… but in the end, she was my mother - and despite her actions being cruel, they were taken to secure mine life. If I hadn’t got to know my father, I would not understand, and I would denounce her. But… knowing the Emperor, his way of thinking and doing things… I came to understand her… to respect her.

    I was a filial son, and all the actions my mother took, were for my safety - how could I not honour her?

    With that realization, came an oath. I would create a world, where my mother would not have to bloody her hands for my safety.

    Father's mismanagement is what brought yellow scarves to rebel. I could still remember the panic in the capital when Ma Yuanyi was discovered to be planning a rebellion. It was only after my uncle secured the capital, the Emperor and the court settled down.

    Due to the actions of my uncle, the semblance peace was restored and the rebellion put down. I was not so naive, to think that we were out of danger - on the contrary. My father continued wasteful decrees brought us even closer to disaster.

    Then… my father’s way of life finally caught up to him, as he became ill and died soon after. And so, I became the Emperor.

    Was it strange now, that after his death, instead of turning to eunuchs, who were known for their corruption and were partly to blame for a current disastrous situation, I turned to my uncle for help? The man who was quite popular with officers and army?

    Mother also helped.

    She has suggested hiring a number of scholars, who were judged in the Disasters of the Partisan Prohibitions - the Partisans. The men were eager to prove themselves and already suggested a number of reforms, that would make government less corrupt and lessen the burden on peasants.

    She insisted on keeping the troops of the Army of Western Garden at hand at all times. She explained that since I was the new Emperor and my rule still fresh, there were people ready to kill me, for fear of losing their privileges.

    My mother was a wise woman. I had no doubt about her love for me. Often, when we were alone she would dote on me.

    But she was also a strict and harsh teacher. Often she would ask me how I would do something, about my opinion on someone… and then, she had me explain why. After that, she would tear down my decisions and opinions by pointing out the obvious flaws in my reasoning, the facts I have forgotten or circumstances that simply made my decision faulty.

    It took me a while to understand that many times, she was testing me. When I understood it, she smiled and complimented me on figuring that out.

    Then she admonished me - I was to be Emperor. I had to be better than that.

    I smiled as I took another sip of my tea.

    With the aid of the new officials, the Partisans, I will be able to reform the Empire, to ease the suffering of people. First, I shall lower the taxes, then reform the rest. Then I shall order the measures to be taken to secure the food and relief the areas harmed by the disasters.

    With the aid of my uncle, I shall have the military bring order to the realm. Whether they have to fight barbarians… or rebels. I had no illusions, my mother did not allow me to have any. The people I wanted to help, would rebel to survive… but if I were to succeed, I needed to bring order, even if I had to put down rebelling hungry peasant.

    And with the aid of my mother - pointing out the obvious flaws in my reasoning and suggesting the solutions I would not have thought about - the prospect of not only bringing such neede relief to the Empire but also bringing it to the third golden age was not something impossible. It was a target I could reach. It would take years, maybe a decade or two. But it was achievable!

    I frowned as a drop of ink dropped on my paper. How clumsy of me - in my thoughts about the future, I casually spill the ink on an important document. Not good, I really should concentrate on my current task. Daydreaming about glory, before finishing my task - the teacher would scold me-

    I frowned as another drop fell on the paper. But my pen was-

    I touched the drop of ink and smeared it - it was red. I brought my hand to my lips then looked at it - it was red…

    What?

    Suddenly, my head became light as nausea took over me - unable to control myself I spit. The red covered the documents. I looked at that with wide eyes, not truly comprehending what I was seeing. The fear slowly started spreading in my mind.

    I started coughing violently, the globes of blood splitting on the table-

    It didn’t stop flowing. Why it didn’t stop?

    As my head slowly became lighter, I could not stop thinking…

    'There shouldn’t be so much blood...'

    * * *​

    -While the short-lived Ou Xing's rebellion, while had little impact on the political stage of the era, it had rather large military implications. During the battle, the leader of Han troops, Yuan Xi, used exactly the same tactics as Hannibal of Barcids during the battle of Cannae. And while it is unknown whether the Han general heard somewhere about the tactic or came with it on his own, he is the second confirmed person to ever use the tactic successfully...

    The Military history on ancient kingdoms, 2010, London - the work received many negative reviews for it's banal approach to the subject, the author's not deep enough study of the subject as well as being an obvious propaganda work. The author was nominated to be the minister of education by the Prime Minister last week...

    * * *​

    AN
    I was listening to “Game of Thrones: Season 6 OST - Light of the Seven (EP 10 Trial scene)” when I was writing this.
    And as usual, thanks to NathanHale, who decided to become my full BETA.
     
  23. Threadmarks: Interlude: When Yuan Shang's parent plans his future, the heavens tremble
    Castage

    Castage Getting sticky.

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    Family, is a foundation, source of strength and a pillar that supports you.

    If you have a strong family, you can create many connections and forge strong alliances through marriages.

    The Liu clan understood this – a third of the empire was governed by the Emperor's relatives.

    My grandfather and his brother also understood it. With clever alliances they made with eunuchs, they made Yuan clan into a powerhouse it was today. For three generations, the Yuans held prominent positions in the Han court and became one of the most prominent noble families in the Empire.

    I did not understand it when they married my sweet sister to some country nobleman. Yet now, I do. Gao Gan's clan, while not from capital, was from an influential family in the Yu county. My ambitious nephew quickly noticed the benefits of marrying into Yuan clan and became a pillar for our influence in that county, spreading the influence of Yuan clan.

    ...
    But without a strong head of the family, the house would start falling apart – that was what was happening with the Han.

    I would NOT make that mistake.

    I would lead the Yuan clan through these chaotic times, ensuring our survival. Chaos posed danger to our survival, it disrupted the set order of things... but also, offered the opportunity, to grow to even greater heights I would seize that opportunity, and ensure Yuan clan's position, for generations to come!

    * * *​

    I smacked the sides of the horse with my heel. My ride neighed loudly as it galloped forward. The hoofbeat of the raiders following me resounded loudly around the area. We were raiding as if we were running from death itself, yet I could only think one thing:

    Slow!
    To slow!

    It had been a day since I received the message, and I was still too far behind!

    Fear was gripping my heart, as realization slowly filled my mind. If I was late, if I failed, all my plans were for nought! And he would-!

    No!

    I shook my head, crushing the panic bubbling in my mind. It was still not decided!

    The trees became a blur of brown and green, as my horse galloped.

    * * *​

    My eldest son, Yuan Tan... my firstborn.

    I was never prouder in my life, then the day I held him in my arms. I often heard from my elders of the feelings of pride and joy while holding your first child in arms, yet I did not understand it... not until I experienced it.

    Yuan Tan grew up to be charismatic man, gathering many people of renown around himself. He showed himself as a charismatic leader and a skilled warrior. He made me proud... Yet I wasn't blind to his vices. He was quick to anger, vein, flippant, poor governor and his belief in his own superiority often overshadowed his judgment... What was worse, he was a poor judge of character, the man he employed, while were men of renown, were not skilled or corrupt.
    There were many things our status as noble clan could forgive, but with that kind of character, he would die on the court pretty fast...

    That made seriously doubt Yuan Tan's ability to lead the clan into the future. And, despite the teaching of Confucious, despite my love for my eldest, I started thinking of making someone else, my heir. After all, the Han Emperors were chosen from branch families all the time.

    * * *​
    "Hah!"

    I thwacked the reins. We left the forest and rode into the village.

    "Out of the way!" I screamed at the villagers. The memory of rebellion was still alive in them. The Zhang brothers, despite their short-lived rebellion, shook the country... and people remembered. So when armed soldiers rode through the village, the people scattered.

    Good.

    Cause I cared not to give them another warning. I did not have time to deal with peons...

    Not when my son's life was on the line.

    * * *​

    My second, Yuan Xi, child of one of my concubines, turned out to be a disappointment in comparison to my heir.

    He was quiet, shy, passive, always staying in the shadow of his siblings content with what he had. He was intelligent but always avoided conflict, only from time to time, throwing a sarcastic comment. Truthfully, my feelings about him were ambivalent. I never thought he would make anything of himself. Too much of his mother was in him.

    Until one day, he left.

    My servants told me that he took a horse, some gold and silver, and rode off. I did not worry. For all things I considered him, Yuan Xi was not someone who would do something stupid. I suspected that he either went hunting or to meet with some woman. Still, leaving without informing me... the boy deserved a punishment.

    Next thing I heard about him, he became an officer in the imperial army and gained renown fighting rebels, winning battles under general Huangfu Song. That left me shocked. Yuan Xi, escaped to join the army? My Yuan Xi? Without telling me anything?

    As the schock passed, a different feeling started rampaging through my chest – a swelling pride!

    I was never so happy to be wrong in my judgment of character. I was proud my second son decided to make something of himself – his accomplishments brought enough renown to Yuan clan, that I was even ready to forgive his escapade. I even accepted that little stray he adopted... maybe it was time to find him a wife? The daughter of Zhen clan was said to be virtuous and good looking. A beautiful wife from the influential clan for a gallant officer. That would be a good reward for Yuan Xi... and it would give Yuan clan a foothold in Wuji County. Two birds with one stone.

    Then, I've met him again, when he returned to the capital... He seemed so different... so angry. He reminded me of Yuan Tan in that regard. Yes, I suppose that the war and atrocities of rebels would have changed him. It hardened him, that was for sure.

    Yet, my son returned as an experienced and renowned officer. Not only that, the way he skillfully won the debate against his younger brother, showed that his studies were not only concentrated on martial arts.
    I was happy with the growth he showed.

    Then he started moving on the court, and I realised what a chance it presented for the Yuan clan. I quickly used the opening created by my son, to elevate the Yuan clan into an even higher position. Staying closely tied to He clan while appealing the Emperor's ego truly bought Yuan clan imperial favour with all factions, but Eunuchs.

    Some of them were allies once, but the virtuous eunuchs were a thing of the past. Now they were a root, which needed to be cut. The time will come, when we will have to deal with them... and that time is quickly approaching.
    For all of his actions, I was proud to have Yuan Xi as my son.

    * * *​

    “Faster! Faster!” I screamed as the horse galloped forward straight into the river.
    I ignored the cold water hit my legs.
    The horse panicked for a moment due to water's temperature, but I quickly regain control over him.

    I had to hurry!

    I left the capital as soon as one of my spies reported that someone, had sent assassins after Yuan Shang. I quickly send for him, but the boy had left a day earlier with his companions for hunting.

    I grit my teeth as my veins pulsed on my temples, rage slowly filling my heart, fighting with fear and anxiety for dominance.
    I had to get there fast!
    I would save my son!
    And then, someone was going to pay!

    * * *​

    While my firstborn had talent and reputation, my secondborn gained renown and connections, it was my thirdborn, in whom I saw the future of the clan. He was handsome, brave, charismatic and cunning... and a skilled warrior. Already he was giving his instructors troubles. In a few years, with some experience, his martial arts would be unparalleled in the lands of the Han.

    Yuan Shang had all the marks of the true Hero of the era.

    What's more, his mother was of the imperial clan – and that was an incredible boon. My marriage with Liu Shi, opened new gates for the Yuan clan to grow.

    For I foresaw Yuan clan's raise.

    On the north, Gao Gan with my sister would secure Yu county.
    On the south of the capital, my brother, Yuan Shu in Nanyang.
    On the east, the seat of Runan the Yuan clan's power steered by me, and then by my heir, Yuan Tan.
    On the far south, Yuan Xi, ever-expanding and taming the wild Yang province, gaining prominence for the Empire and renown for the Yuan clan.
    And in the centre, holding guard over the capital, Yuan Shang, the loyal cousin of the Emperor. Emperor's trusted guardian and advisor...

    Under the guidance of the Yuan clan, the Han empire would recover and reach new aegis. The Yuans would be remembered as pillars of the Empire, as the ones who stabilised it and lead it into the third golden age!
    The glorious future was already on my lips. I could feel it's taste.

    ...

    That made me wonder... if each of my sons outgrew the previous one, how would my youngest, Yuan Mai, outgrow his elder brothers?

    * * *

    “Hah!”

    I hastened my ride as I rode into a ravine. I was close.

    Suddenly my horse fell, carving the ground with its head, throwing me off.



    “Ugh” I slowly got up, my head ringing, something wet and warm flowing down my forehead. I shook my head and tried looking around, my vision swimming.

    People were screaming... falling. Sharp sounds-

    I made a step forward as something hit my back. A warm metallic taste filled my mouth.

    I turned and looked around. Not seeing anything, I looked up. There – silhouettes on the cliffs.

    “A tra-” I felt numerous impacts on my chest.

    Everything went black as something sharp pierced my eye, and went dee-

    * * *​

    I took sight of carnage in front of me, with calmness. This was the age of war. Age of violence. And also, the age of opportunity.

    “My lady.”

    I turned and looked at one of my soldiers. The man was kneeling while holding the head of Yuan Shao. I walked up to him and took the head. The left eye was missing, but there was no mistaking it. It was not a double.

    Yuan Shao took a bait with such easiness, it was disappointing. The archers have all but massacred his reunite. He never even realised, the trap I set for him.

    I smiled as I walked up to the cliff. I held the head up and caressed his cheek.

    “Always such a wishful man. Planning for a glorious future, when it can come crushing in but a moment. You should know this. Besides-” I smiled. “Why divide something for an uncertain future, when you can have it united right now?”

    I let go, dropping the head into a ravine.

    “Worry not, my dear husband,” I called behind the head. “our Yuan Shang, will lead the Yuan clan into greatness.”

    * * *​

    “Quarrel like Yuan.” – Chinese proverb.

    “...the conflict between the Yuans ripped the central plains apart.” A fragment of the 'Hundred Years of Turmoil' – historical work about the 'end of Han dynasty' and an era that followed.

    * * *​

    AN:
    It took me some time to finally break through my block. But here it is!
    There is so little we know about Yuan Xi from historic records. The only thing showing his character was a comment he made right before his execution. When he and his brother were left tied on the frozen ground in the cold, Yuan Shang asked for a mat. Yuan Xi remarked: “Your head is about to make a journey of 10,000 li, what do you want with a mat?” Yuan Xi seemed to realize that it was the execution that awaited them. But how he received it, was impressive. A sarcastic yet calm remark. It's a pity we don't know more about him, but since future emperor of Wei took his wife as his own, the Wei historians were not eager to write about him.
    Yuan Mai was actually once mentioned in the sources, as one of three Yuans to seek refugee with Tadun chief. That's all I know about him.
     
  24. Brando

    Brando Getting sticky.

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    Rebellion is still on the way... is it fate or is it a coincidence?
     
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  25. Threadmarks: Interlude: Eunuch Zhao Zhong
    Castage

    Castage Getting sticky.

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    I walked up the stairs, my reunite obediently following me. One of the perks of being in power was to have subordinates that would do everything to please you, in hopes of gaining more power themselves. I would know – it’s how I climbed the social ranks.

    Breathing heavily, I stopped to rest for a moment. It was becoming harder for me to travel. I remember that a few years ago I could walk the entire distance without stopping. Was it the age? Or weight? Heh, they say that the fat belly is the best way to show off one's riches.

    A tired sigh escaped my mouth.

    It seemed like but a few years ago, I could sprint the up the stairs of the summer palace and then down them, few times a day… now… now I wasn’t yet halfway and already had to stop for rest.

    I took out an elaborate cloth and started wiping the sweat from my face. One could probably buy a month worth’s of food with this piece of cloth – years ago I would kill to have something like this… come to think about it, I think I did. Now, it was yet another reminder of how far I have climbed in social status.

    I turned and looked back, taking in the sight of the capital city before me. I remember, that when I saw it first time climbing these stairs as but a young attendant, I was in awe of this site. Now… now I was so used to it, I barely take notice anymore. The city looked as if there was no end to it, people, like ants, moving down the streets.

    I have almost forgotten, how satisfying it was to look down on the city. How it is to remind myself, how far I have gone, how much above I am the common people.

    They think eunuchs are nothing but greedy. Hah! As if only eunuchs were greedy and they weren’t! Merchants haggle as much as they can, seeking saving wherever they can. Peasants still from their neighbours, kill unfortunate travellers or raid neighbouring villages. The less said about nobility the better.

    But in my case, they are right. I am greedy. But more then greedy, I am jealous. Jealous of others, jealous of things I would never have. It’s what defines me. I know what I want, and I do everything in my power to take it.

    Most of my fellows were castrated in their youth. I was castrated, when I was already a grown-up man... And it wasn't my choice. I didn’t even done anything to deserve that kind of fate. I was merely a young talented official but a few months into his service in imperial court... but, there was a need for a eunuch, so I was given a... 'choice' to become one. That, was not a choice at all.

    Unlike my fellows, I know what I lost – and I never forgave my ‘masters’ for it.

    My lip quirked as I turned and resumed my march.

    ‘Masters’ - Hah! They may call themselves rulers, but it is us, eunuchs, who rule. We reap the rewards and profits – leaving the Han a shell of their former selves. The way the Han are ruined now, their reputation in the mud, brings my cold satisfaction – puppets in our hands, dancing to our tune and thanking us for it.

    Revenge is such a sweet fruit. Cold, refreshing and bringing soo much satisfaction.

    The guards pushed open the door.

    And now, I would tear a thorn from my side and add yet another sweet act of vengeance to my collection.

    The Empress Dowager sat on the throne, wearing her regalia. She must have seen us coming because she had her maids arranged in a line in front of her – as if a pitiful wall like that could protect her.

    The He clan had gone too far – they have managed to wrestle our control of Empire from us as swiftly taking control of both – army and the new Emperor himself. Blasted Yuan Xi and his suggestion about the Army of Western Garden. We thought he gave us means to counter the He clan, but instead, it gave Emperor Shao legitimacy. We saw it too late to counter it directly… well, there were other ways to wrestle the control of the Empire back – our adviser gave us a truly good strategy as to how to deal with this predicament.

    The young would-be emperor was successfully poisoned. Without him, the He clan lost legitimacy and any claim for the throne. We kept the emperor’s death under the warps to buy ourselves the time to deal with his family.

    I quickly chided myself.

    Easy, it was still not. He Jin still held control over the army – thankfully, Emperor Ling left few regiments under our control – and even know, our men were quietly subduing the commanders of others.

    And while Zhang Rang went after He Jin, I got to deal with her majesty. A pity that a former ally had to die, but that’s how it was in the court.

    “Your highness...” I didn’t bother with bowing – no sense to show a sign of respect to a dead woman.

    “Attendant Zhao Zhong...” The Empress frowned. “What brings you here?”

    “I am here to present you with last will of His Highness, Emperor Ling.” I answered smoothly, making the woman frown.

    “Last will?” She asked. “How was it not found earlier.”

    “It seems Emperor wrote it sometime during his illness, but as it progressed, he failed to tell anyone about it.” I explained – not like there was anyone who could question that version.

    I unrolled the decree and started reading.

    I, the Haven’s chosen, Emperor Ling of Han, decree the following:
    Prince Liu Bian is henceforth stripped away from his position of heir to the Empire – I have found him unfitting to the position and unworthy of it.
    In his place, Prince Liu Xie is to be made heir to the Empire – for he possesses the wits, and the mannerism, that we find wanting in future Emperor and the head of the Liu clan.
    For his crimes, intentions to rebel and conspiracies against the Han dynasty, Marshal He Jin is ordered to commit suicide.
    For her crimes, the murder of Lady Wang, Empress He is ordered to commit suicide.
    So decree I, Emperor Ling, the ruler of the Han Empire.”


    With a respect due to Emperor's decree, I rolled the document carefully and handed it to the attendant, who received it with his head bowed. Quickly another came, handing me a bottle with poison.

    I paused as one of the maids ran from behind the pavilion and whispered something to Empress’ ear. What an unsightly things the Empress has sounded herself with. They weren’t bad – but truly, the empress might have chosen far better looking women as maids, than these… comely wenches.

    “I hope you will fulfil your duty, without any protests, my lady.” I said holding the poison and turning to her. It didn’t matter, really. I brought few soldiers, in case she had objections. That would be less pleasant to her, but the end result would be the same.

    Then, I froze.

    I looked at the woman bewildered, as she boomed with a deep laugh, as if I told a joke. Has she broken? I heard that people could react strangely to imminent death, but this?

    “Good one, attendant Zhao.” She said with good humour as her laugh substituted. “But, attendant Zhao, we both know, that this is not Emperor Ling’s decree.” She said.

    I sighted. It looked like it would be the hard way. It was a pity, Empress He was a good ally at a time.

    “Be as it may, the Emperor and Marshal have already obeyed the Emperor’s orders.” I said with patience, hoping to convince her to take poison. I respected the woman, who climbed, like I, from the lowest poison in society to the top. I would hate to see her suffer strangling.

    “Oh?” Empress dowager tilted her head. “Is that why there is a smoke raising from Emperor Shao’s quarters?” She inquired, making me freeze.

    I didn’t saw – but her son’s complex is on the other side, I couldn’t see… was she telling truth? Have we miscalculated? Have others failed?

    “I knew about the commotion, just as you started climbing, and decided to wait to see who was responsible. And here you are presenting me the answer – the ten attendants and prince Xie.” She said, still smiling. Was I played? Was she giving me a way out? But… it didn’t matter. The attack on Imperial blood, would not be forgiven. I could only go forward with the plot.

    “Well played...” I nodded with respect. She had the courage to confront me just to ascertain the situation. “But it seems, it will not change your fate.” I saw no soldiers guarding her and our spies reported no one else present but her maids. It would not change the outcome.

    “On the contrary.” Empress He said and tapped her throne.

    Immediately, the maids kneeled, raising from under their robes crossbows.

    The chaos ensured as bolts started flying.

    “Agh! “ I screamed as I felt a sharp pain in my stomach. I fell on the ground, howling in pain as something torn through my leg.

    Through tears, I could see the ensuing chaos.

    The maids using repeating crossbows rained death on my surprised retinue. They were falling like flies.

    One of my guards charged and cut the throat of one of the maids, taking a swing at the other. The woman used a crossbow to block – it didn't save her. The sword went through crossbow and through her chest, like a butter.

    Another guard took a swing at the maid – but she and her companion blocked and locked his sword with short spears. A third one stabbed his wide-open chest.

    There was a certain beauty in their ruthlessness.

    I hissed in pain as suddenly a sharp pain in my stomach has almost made me pass out.

    When the pain passed and my breathing calmed down, I opened my eyes again.

    Lady He was standing above me, observing me.

    “Yo-u -Khu!” I started coughing as blood filled my mouth. It didn’t look good for me, I realized. As the coughing stopped I put my head on the floor – why was it so cold? – and breathed deeply. “You will not win this.”

    “...We will see.” She answered after a moment. Her voice serious, and full of conviction.

    I couldn’t help myself – I started laughing. I laughed hard, I don’t remember when I was laughing that hard last time. I laughed until I started coughing again.

    “Yes...” I said when the cought finally stopped. “I guess we will.” I said as a smile started forming on my lips.

    It didn’t matter, I realized. Whether the Han was dominated by Eunuchs, or puppeteered by He clan, my vengeance would be fulfilled. In some points, the He clan provided an even better form of retribution, I realized.

    “Good luck...” I said as I looked at the woman whom I worked with and came to respect. In the end, she outsmarted and outplayed me. Emperor Ling was never a ruler, always a puppet, but Empress He... she was more of a ruler than that old Emperor ever was… I could serve her with pride.

    “Ahg!” I cried as the pain in my stomach almost overtook me again.

    As I opened my eyes, I could see Empress kneeling next to me, holding an opened bottle with poison – the very one I brought to kill her. I would laugh at the irony, but I was in too much pain.

    I nodded gratefully, as she purred the poison down my throat. The relief started coming almost immediately. The pain lessened, and my vision slowly darkened. I was suddenly very sleepy.

    A smile slowly formed on my face as the pain was washed away. I looked at the Empress gratefully for that retrieve as my eyes started closing slowly.

    Whatever happened…

    Han would burn.
    ...
    My…

    Vengeance...
    ...
    ...

    * * *​

    ...by the end of 186, Emperor Ling died. His eldest son, Liu Bian, became ruler of the Han dynasty and took the name, Emperor Shao. Shortly after taking over power, Ten attendants and their allies rebelled against the Emperor and supporting him He clan, under the pretence, that late Emperor Ling, changed the heir last moment. Whether the decree was real or not stays debatable, but it would fit the Emperor Ling's weak character and tendency to make bad, not thoroughly thought decisions.
    The ensuring conflict, drawn the capital city Luoyang into chaos. It was first of serries of conflicts, called-


    A fragment of the biography of Emperor Ling from 'Hundred Years of Turmoil' – historical work about the 'end of Han dynasty' and an era that followed.

    AN: Not dead yet. We are only beginning!
    Special thanks to NathanHale, who BETA'd the chapter, and who still is accompanying me in this journey, despite the long breaks. Thanks for your support!
     
  26. Castage

    Castage Getting sticky.

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    The rank is called xiaowei
    In Wikia, it's translated as a colonel. Since I don't know that well the history of military ranks in ancient Han and am not a native speaker from China, I decided to steak with Colonel. Also, it makes the story easier to read then if I used Xiaowei.

    I am also a fan of the era. It's a pity but there are not many fics using the setting.

    Those less well known, but the people that made everything ran smoothly.
    That and Cao Xing was Lu Bu's officer.

    Thank you!

    Well, it would be a boring story if he was just some kind of godlike being who just made everything work, wouldn't it?
     
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  27. Threadmarks: Interlude: Loyal Han Servant 1
    Castage

    Castage Getting sticky.

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    I snugged my head deeper into Fu Shi’s bosom, our naked bodies entangled tightly. I stopped crying some time ago. Her heat was my comfort - the comfort I very much needed. As I went to sleep, the strain of situation and grief became too much to bear. My maid embraced, and with that simple action, she brought me soo much needed relief and comfort. I could move forward.

    For days I hid inside the capital, trying to gather information and assess the situation. The city was in Chaos. Soldiers of Western Garden Army clashed openly on the streets with each other and with He Jin’s troops. No one knew anything. Then the message came.

    My son was dead.

    That message almost broke me. I did not believe it. It had to be a lie. My son assassinated? Who would dare to assassinate Emperor? In the middle of the capital, surrounded by guards? The eunuchs were the obvious answer. I have underestimated their desperation. Their need for control and hunger for power.

    I thought they would realize that He clan is all that held the Empire together. I did not think them so blind and bitter to start a coup, burning the Empire, just so they could rule over its ashes.

    It was my brother who just put a major rebellion down. That act gave him popularity and support of the military. There were still some minor rebellions, but the people mostly settled and the situation was stabilizing.
    It was my son, who has shown his willingness to reform the Empire, by recruiting the scholars from Disasters of the Partisan Prohibitions incidents. It was he who showed the willingness to work for the people and bought so much needed time.
    It was the reforms we were preparing that, while would be painful for treasury, were necessary to ease the strain on the Empire.
    But it was not only our willingness to act, it was also the reputation of the Han that had, bought the loyalty of people.

    Yet those damn fools would start coup now?! When the situation was barely stable? Have they not realized that they directly acted against the Han dynasty? Even if they won in the capital – the stain of rebellion would stay with them forever.

    What were they counting on? That little false last decree of Emperor Ling? Even if it were real, with eunuch’s reputation, no one would believe it’s validity.

    The cold comfort was there – the rebels plans were flimsy and execution, lacking.
    The soldiers of the two regiments of the Western Garden Army serving as Liu Bian’s private army were furious. When the news reached them about the Emperor’s assassination, they stormed the Eunuch’s controlled forces. In the ensuing battle, few prominent Eunuchs were slaughtered.

    Then there was chaos in He Jin’s army – while I failed to contact my brother, his troops were raging around the city.

    As the denial stage passed, anger flooded every fibre of my being.

    I have tolerated those wretches too long. I will find each and every of so-called Ten Attendants. I will make their lives an embodiment of pain. I will make them beg for death – and when I had my fill of their pain, I would deny them the release of death. The legend of their suffering will be told right next to the exploits of Da Ji and cruelty of Human Swine.

    I fell asleep with tired, from grief and rage, the heat of Shi Fu keeping me warm.


    “The heat of someone sharing does bring some relief, doesn’t it?” I sighted as the hand caressed my side.
    “...There is solace in that.” I allowed.
    “Especially in lonely night~” I cuddled feeling the heat of other body spread to mine. “Having a good dream?”
    “The best one.” I murmured. “You, my soldier?”
    “Hmm…” He hummed as he put his cheek to mines. “Seeing you in arms of another woman? The best dream~ a pity you need to wake up.” I chuckled hearing his comment.
    “Beast. Always so needy~” I turned and took a look at him- "Mine." and captured his mouth. Familiar taste rolled over my tongue, but he backed off after a moment and put a finger on my lips.
    “I would love to continue, but you have to wake up my love.”
    “I am awake, we can-”
    “No.” He shook his head. “Wake up.” I looked at him, incomprehensibly. “Wake up He Shi.”
    He leaned forward.
    “WAKE UP!”


    “They found us!” I opened my eyes and darted up at Qiao Na’s cry. Shi Fu hastily raised from her spot next to me and quickly handed me a robe, before putting her own on. I tied the cloth around my waist and cursed hearing the sounds of a fight.

    There was no time.

    I run outside following Qiao Na, Fu Shi right behind me. I stopped right after exiting the house as something warm splashed on my face. I whipped my face, only to find it covered with blood. I looked up.
    Qiao Na slowly fell on her knees, a man with a sword standing right in front of her. As she fell on her side, her head slipped out of her neck and started rolling down the stairs. I couldn’t stop but follow it’s trail with my eyes – and the chaos that was ensuing.

    My retinue was surprised by soldiers wearing heavy armour and wielding wide shields. In the short exchanges that still happened, my maids repeating crossbows and short spears were useless against clearly seasoned and more numerous opponents.
    It was a massacre.
    Those lucky of my maids were cut where they stood. Those unlucky ones-
    I grimaced as I saw one young woman captured, her clothes torn open-

    I turned my head to face the soldiers who ambushed me. I grit my teeth as I heard them drag Fu Shi away. I kept my visage impassive as the soldiers ripped off her clothes and started having their way with her. I kept calm as two mountain of the men grabbed me and dragged me to the commanding officer. I held my rage in check as I faced the very eunuch who ordered the death of my son.

    Zhang Rang observed the battle but turned to look at me when I was dragged before him. He smiled smugly and walked up to me. I shivered as he untied the cord holding my robe together.

    “Is that some pathetic attempt to take away my dignity?” I cocked my head. “Or did official made a mistake when he was castrating you and actually left something between your legs? Are you perhaps a quarter of man?” I smiled seeing his face taking dark shade – his rage and humiliation was the sweetest honey. “No? Fifth of man?”

    “If I wanted to bed someone, I would certainly not choose someone as defiled as you.” He grunted his answer, then smiled as he gave the cord to the soldier. The man took it and moved behind me. “No, it's just that I noticed that this rope is fashionable enough. I am sure that Empress Dowager Dong will reminiscence you fondly, every time she will tie it around her waist.”

    I froze as if struck by lightning. The old crone?

    “Empress D- Ugh” I chocked as the soldier threw the cord around my neck and tightened it. I jerked forward, surprising one of the soldiers holding me and freeing my hand, but he quickly grabbed it and held even firmer.

    “Gha!” My eyes almost bulged as the man behind me jerked the rope.

    “Slowly!” The eunuch exclaim. “I want her death to be prolonged.” He snarled as he looked at me. “I want you to know that no one will come to save you – your clan is decimated, your brother was slain, your son is dead, your allies are scattered. You will die here – and I will enjoy every moment of it.” The eunuch mocked me as I arched trying to gasp for air.

    Did he take control of the capital?
    With help of Empress Dowager Dong and control of prince Xie, he would control the Empire.

    He… won?

    I gasped jerking, weaker. I looked at the man who killed my son… Liu Bian.

    Never! I would never accept that outcome.
    I jerked forward, with a new strange surprising the soldiers. It was a moment, but it was enough I smiled with satisfaction my spit landed on eunuch’s face.

    The rope tightened again as the soldier pulled me back. My eyes landed on the sky as my body weakened. My lungs burned and all strength was leaving me.
    I looked at the sky - the sun was rising, like a fire phoenix ready to rise from its ashes…

    No… It was a devil king spreading fires of hell that devoured everything.

    A smile crept into my face.
    Enjoy your victory traitors, for it is short-lived. You have already lost.
    My lungs burned as dark spots started dominating my vision as the leaves started falling.

    I… win…

    Do you think I will be good Emperor, mother?”
    I looked at my son and smiled.

    Yes.” I answered as I moved my hand through his hair.
    Hmm… Yuan Xi says that the path of kings is a heavy one.” I smile at my son’s comment.
    Indeed. It’s a heavy and difficult path. But I believe you will manage it.” We sat in silence, just enjoying the scenery. The leaves falling, in the background of the yellow sky made a magnificent sight.
    Do you think Yuan Xi would be a good king?” my son asked, making me laugh.
    No, Yuan Xi doesn’t have what it takes to be a good king.” I smile as I moved my hand through my son’s hair and closed my eyes. “But… he would make a wonderful tyrant.”

    * * *​

    My boot landed on the dead woman’s face.

    'It is so satisfying, to finally be done with that pest.' I thought with a smile as I twisted my heel.

    Finally, He Shi was dead, and with her-
    I stepped on her chest.
    -the last remnant of He clan, fell.
    I kicked the body. The corpse rolled down the stairs but didn’t reach the end. It stopped about halfway, the robe rolled around the body, leaving it practically naked.

    I scowled.

    Damn peasant woman – even in death she held no dignity. How much more would she mock the position of the Empress of the Han?
    No, she would not be treated as venerated Han. Her only purpose was to serve as a vessel for fresh Liu clan’s blood – she has overstepped her responsibility. Her son… he was a Liu clan and would be buried in a ceremony befitting the imperial clan. But I’ll be dammed if I bury that tart with the rest of royal ancestors.

    I looked around, the soldier continued raping Empress’s maids – those that were alive. I frowned at their focus on delights of the flesh. Such a weakness.

    “When you are done with them, kill them all. Then strip their corpses and leave the bodies outside of the city’s wall.” I ordered the captain, then I threw one last at the dead ‘Empress’. Calling that peasant an Empress of Han made me sick. “Including that carrion.” I ordered pointing at the dead woman.

    Worms need to eat as well, and at least in her death, the damn harlot would serve as compost for the fields. The thought made me smile. It would be the first time she would do something productive for the Empire.

    I turned to the soldier who strangled the He woman.
    “Take the cord to Empress Dong and give her my regards.” The soldier bowed and left.

    I started climbing the stairs, ignoring the sounds of debauchery, the pleads and wails of maids – after all, it was only right. The rebels deserved the cruel end.
    My step was lighter as the heavy burden was lifted from my shoulders. I have finally done it. The usurpers were dead.

    * * *​

    There is very little information about Empress Lingsi's bodyguards, mostly because no one knew that they existed. While their origins, training and equipment are shrouded in mystery, we do know that they served as Empress's attendants and maids. We only know about them, because during the Purge of He clan, they defended their mistress numerous times, killing a large number of soldiers. Eventually, after days in enemy territory, the entire unit was surprised and cut down by numerically superior heavy infantry, along with their mistress.
    'History of women in ancient warfare'


    People call Yuan Xi one of the greatest villains of his times not without a reason. But during his time he was actually considered a Han loyalist. At the time he received news of events of capital, he was said to get up, pale and exclaim in shock “Dead! The Emp-” and faint. The shock of the news of the death of Emperor Shao made him collapse and lose consciousness for three days. Of course, we know that his later actions have all but shattered that image and that, his image of Han loyalists was but a role he played masterfully.
    'The villains of Hundred Years of Turmoil - crimes, lies, deceptions and treacheries of Yuan Xi'


    * * *

    Thanks to NathanHale, who shot down the first version of the chapter, then helped refine it, then gave me advice that resulted in cutting thrid of the chapter out... There were many corrections and returns to the blackboard.
     
  28. Threadmarks: Butcher of Luoyang 1
    Castage

    Castage Getting sticky.

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    I breathed deeply, the smelling the sweet scent of peaches. I shivered, feeling the cold air and culled under the sheet, the cover and the body heat warming me up.

    “Waking up?” The sweet voice asked.

    “Mhmm...” Was my only answer as I hugged her body, seeking more warmth. Her laugh was like gentle bells, pleasant, calm something I could listen to for hours.

    “You know, you cannot sleep the entire day, my soldier. It’s time to get up.” Her voice, was calm, shooting. Like waves in the sea.

    No, it wasn’t time to get up. And yes, I could sleep for the entire day. After all, why stop something, that was so pleasant.

    She moved, lying on top of me, her chest pushing against mine, her face right above my.

    “Mine.” She whispered huskily, then leaned and kissed me. Her lips tasted of peaches and iron.

    * * *​

    I opened my eyes as the thunder cracked. The shadowed room was only lightened by a single candle. I slowly sat up, the thudding of raindrops deafening any sounds I made. I looked around until my eyes stopped at the scroll laying on the table.

    Like a landslide, memories started hitting me. My breath hitched as the emptiness resurfaced. The shock was gone – only realization stayed.

    She was dead.

    Slowly, the emptiness grew inside my chest. Dull pain started filling me, as my breath hitched again. My hands started shaking. I leaned forward, hiding my face in my palms as the burning feeling spread over my cheeks, eyes-

    A hiccup escaped my throat.

    I could not think.
    I could not act.
    All I could do was sit and cry, as one thing repeated again and again in my mind.

    She was gone.

    I would never again hear her laugh.

    I would never again feel her scent.

    I would never again see her eyes.

    I would never again feel her touch.

    I would never again taste her lips.

    The tears stopped flowing. The throat became silent as it hurt too much to make a sound. My hands fell, as I looked dully at the wall.

    What was the point to all this?
    ...
    What was I supposed to do now? All I’ve done was supposed to secure the peace, to prevent the collapse, with her-

    Without her… what was the point?

    * * *​

    I slowly made my way to the entrance, my hair hanging loosely, my robe a mess. Normally, I would make an effort to put my clothes in order. Now – I couldn’t care less.

    I could hear voices arguing.

    Yang Hong and Han Hao were loudly arguing with someone… I didn’t know. A middle-aged man wearing rich robes. I stood, looking at them dumbly… not really caring what was said. Only observing them, as if they were a curiosity.

    Slowly, the voices lowered, as people noticed me, all present turning to me.

    Han Hao quickly walked up to me.

    “Young Master, are you well?” His voice was filled with concern.

    “Ah, governor Yuan! Just the man I was trying to meet! I am official Rei Meng and bring a decree from the Emperor.” His voice was filled with self-importance. Confidence, power, superiority.

    “Can’t you see that Governor is ill? Look at him, he is barely standing!” Han Hao called angrily.

    A number of voices raised again. The cacophony of voices filled the room.

    “Emperor?” My voice was barely a whisper. Tired, hoarse. How come it was so weak? “Emperor?” I asked again, and slowly people around me became quiet. “Emperor’s dead.” I said shortly.

    “No, his majesty is alive.” The official said, somewhat surprised.

    Emperor Shao is alive?” I asked, my hands started shaking. If news of Shao’s death were wrong, then so were the news of He Shi-

    “No, Emperor Xian.” The man said killing the hope he ignited in me.

    “You were... unconscious for days, Governor.” Yang Hong said with a wince and I looked at him dully.

    “Recently crowned Emperor Xian, orders you to return to Yang province, and continue your loyal service there.” The official said as he held document to me.

    I took it numbly.

    “What of killers of Emp- Emperor Shao.” I asked weakly, my voice almost collapsing.

    “Liu Bian” The man started with contempt. “Was self-styled Emperor, a traitor. Emperor Ling wrote with his own blood an edict declaring He Jin and his family traitors and ordering purge of He clan.”

    Eunuch, realization washed over me. He was an Eunuch.

    I looked at him, my face blank. I was slow… numb. But, something started building inside me. Something hot… yet cold. Something filling the numbness.

    “I was for some time in the court…” I started. My voice was quiet and hoarse. I needed to pause after every few moments, to swallow “At that time, I discovered something… something I found strange… I had to ask one of...” I paused. “Ministers… for explanation…” I walked to the table, my back to people as I reached for a knife. “You see...” I slowly walked up to the eunuch, my body waggling with each step. Weak. “I was told then… that Emperor Ling never wrote edicts with his hand… because he saw the act of writing... an edict... below his dignity...” I stopped in front of him.

    The man’s face twisted – but I could not get read on his emotions. He opened his mouth to answer- but instead of words, and a grunt escaped him. He looked down, then his head moved up and our eyes meet.

    I saw fear and disbelief in his eyes. I could feel something rising in me. Growing. Thirsting. Then it was gone.

    I took a step back, leaving the knife sticking from his chest. I turned and started walking. I heard a soft moan and a thud behind me. No one said anything as I stopped in front of the table. I picked up Emperor Xian’s orders and looked over them again.

    I could feel the tension in the room.

    “Master Yuan?”

    I stayed silent and walked up to the candle. I lowered Xian’s... Emperor Xian's edict, observing as flames started slowly devouring the material.

    “Han Hao... Kill the messenger's retinue... Make sure no one escapes... Yang Hong... Start organizing the troops... we will be marching out tomorrow... with the dawn.”

    I turned to look at the people present. None made a move. They looked at me. Scared. Confused. Uncertain.

    I stayed silent, looking at each of them for a moment.

    “We will execute Emperor’s orders... We shall purge the Capital from traitors...” I said calmly. There was no emotion, in my voice.

    Only emptiness.

    Han Hao stayed silent for a moment, then as if coming to a decision, he saluted, and left, with a spring in the step, filled with determination. Yang Hong stayed longer, still looking uncertain, but finally, he too reached a decision. He saluted and left.

    I looked at eunuch. The man was laying on the floor, moaning, as a pool of blood slowly spread under him.

    I knew, what I was going to do.

    * * *​

    'A million deaths are not enough for Yuan Xi!' - Han loyalist

    'If we are all going to die, what's the point?' - quote from the 'Stories of the Lost', 3rd-century book of unknown scholar

    AN: As always, thanks for the support of Nathanhale.
     
    Last edited: Dec 26, 2020
  29. Gladbitch

    Gladbitch Getting out there.

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    Woah I really like where this is going. Contunue like this my friend!
     
  30. Threadmarks: Interlude: Loyal Han Servant 2
    Castage

    Castage Getting sticky.

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    The plaza was filled with screams, pleadings and cries of men, women, old and children as one after the other, they were taken to the execution stand and cut down. The sight was blood-chilling, yet I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

    Finally, after two decades of tyranny, the usurpers and their allies lay defeated.” Emperor Huan of Han smiled, as he looked at the carnage. “A pity, that Grand Marshall Liang Ji and that temptress wife of his Sun Shou, took their lives to escape punishment.” There was disappointment in the Emperor’s voice.

    I shivered at the sound of the voice. I could only guess what his Highness planned to do with the pair, but I had no doubt it would be painful and bloody.

    Part of me couldn’t help but be thankful that Liang Ji’s wife took her life with her husband. The history was full of stories of women who used their charms to tempt the rulers, the story of Da Ji chief among them.

    It was better, that way.

    * * *​

    My brush stopped for a moment, as the flame of the candles flickered.

    “How is the situation?” I asked as I resumed writing the document. Orders to governors, and officials. The cleaning up after that mess will take months of work. We will have to replace the majority of administration with loyal servants to squash any sign of rebellion.

    “Seventh, Eighth, Fifth, Third and First Camps are all but wiped out. I have sent the Fourth camp to occupy the Hulao pass. The Sixth Camp was, as you ordered, send to Nanyang Commandery. The Second camp and remnants of First, Third and Fifth camps continue to serve as capital’s garrison while hunting down He clan loyalists.” The adviser reported.

    I sighted.

    We have underestimated Yuan and He clans. We thought that the purpose of the Yuan clan in the notion of creating the Emperor’s army was an acknowledgement of Liu Bian. The choices they made while creating the Army of Western Garden weren’t suspicious, so we mostly ignored the army. As we took over the command of the Six Camps loyal to the Emperor, we found nothing that would be out of ordinary. We suspected nothing, especially since it was so easy to buy the loyalty of the officers and soldiers of six camps. Gold, fine silks, foods, women and wine.

    We planned to take over the last two camps loyal to the prince, after his death. Even if we failed to take them over, with a numerical advantage, it should have been easy to crash Seventh and Eight camps.
    It was... a great miscalculation.

    The men that were recruited to Liu Bian’s camps, were veterans of Yellow Turban Rebellion... soldiers who hated Eunuch faction. The leaders of those Camps were not interested in any negotiations. Thankfully, we did manage to assassinate Xia Mou and throw Eight Camp into chaos. Only the arrival of Chunyu Qiong saved it from annihilation.

    I gritted my teeth.

    Colonel of Seventh Camp, despite the disadvantage, has managed to all but annihilate First, Third and Fifth Camps of Army of Western Garden.

    To think we would owe victory to a stray arrow, killing Chunyu Qiong.

    It was luck- no.

    It was the will of Haven.

    I put down my brush and got up. I stepped to the gallery and turned into the direction of Liu Hong’s tomb.

    A smile slowly crawled on my face.

    Despite the losses, we did it. Just like with Liang and Dou clans before, we have brought down the He clan.

    The He clan wasn’t the first that had tried to usurp the power of the Han. But I would be dammed if I allowed another Xin dynasty to rise to power. The He clan were self-serving fools who brought ruin to the Empire at the pretence of trying to stabilize it, to make things better. But in reality, they were no different than any other usurpers – power-hungry beasts who would destroy the established order for their own personal gain.

    Fools.

    No, what held the Empire together, was the Liu clan’s splendour and people’s belief in the divinity of the imperial clan. That perception of Liu family started with legendary deeds of the Great Ancestor, who forged the Empire. That and the peace he brought, made people venerate him and his family.

    Two hundred years later, a skilled scholar wanted to make things ‘better’. His reforms all but ruined the Empire and his creation of Xin dynasty has plunged the Empire into civil war. And it was again, the Liu clan who united the empire and started the second golden age of the Han empire.

    The moment I heard that scoundrel He Jin gave support to the traitor Liu Yan’s petition and tricked the Emperor into giving governors more rights, I realized that the Empire entered the crisis that wasn’t seen in hundredths of years. For I understood, that his actions weren’t about securing the Han Dynasty, but rather, they were all about buying the loyalty of local governors and weakening the authority of the Liu clan’ authority.

    In the hindsight it was obvious. It was not enough for the He clan to control the Emperor, they wanted to go as far as to create their own dynasty... just like Wang Mang did.

    No, with giving governors power, the damn He Jin has all but created them, kings. In that situation, he could all but declare new order and few would oppose him! That was the true danger the He clan created. That is why I decided to exterminate the usurpers.

    * * *​



    Will I be a good Emperor?” I turned to look at the young boy.

    Whether you will be good Emperor or bad, doesn’t matter.” I answered gently, as I put my hand on boy’s arm. “The work of Emperor is to keep the Empire together, for he is a symbol of unity. The problems start the moment you allow someone outside of the imperial clan to wield power. It happened before, and if we are not careful, it will happen again. You being on the throne – that is enough. You don’t have to be extraordinary-” I hesitated, seeing the boy’s fear. “Don’t worry, I will be there to help you and serve with advice should you need it.”

    Young Liu Hong hugged me. The twelve years old boy seemed so fragile, lost, malleable… an ideal person for Empress Dou to control.

    You promise?” He asked, his eyes wide.

    Of course.” I smiled and patted his head. “I will be there for you.” and I shall take care of Dou clan, should they aim too high.

    He hid his face in my robes.

    Thanks, papa.”

    I froze.

    I never thought of having a family – how could I, being a eunuch?

    I slowly reached for his head.

    But maybe… I could have one… if not a son of the flesh, then at least a son of heart?



    * * *​

    The sun started rising over Emperor Ling’s tomb. I put my hands together in a salute and bowed.

    Your wish was granted, my son.

    Your favourite son, Liu Xie has been made Emperor.

    The He clan was slaughtered and only a few loose troublemakers were left to deal with.

    The regiments of Western garden army that rebelled against your true heir and were all but wiped out.

    The usurper He Jin and his brother He Miao, the fox He-Shi and her puppet son Liu Bian, along with the rest of their clan were executed.

    All of the He clans supporters were slaughtered in the capital.

    The only major He Jin’s supporter that stayed a real threat, was Yuan clan. In the capital, all of their members were slaughtered.

    Yuan Shao was reported dead.

    Yuan Shu was in Nanyang Commandery as administrator. Troops were already dispatched to deal with him.

    Yuan Tan was missing. The little worm would be dealt with as soon as he resurfaced.

    Yuan Xi was too far away to be dealt with directly, so I send a message to an assassin loyal to Han. The whelp would die.

    The widow after Yuan Shao, the princess of the Imperial clan has already kowtowed with her son before Emperor Xian. Her son, young Yuan Shang would continue as governor of Runan, as a reward for his loyal service.

    A smile crept on my face. Yes, with the capital back in our hands, we would deal with the governors and retake the Empire. The Han would-

    “Ugh!” I coughed, the metallic taste of blood quickly filling my mouth.

    “There is one thing left to do. You see, someone has to take the fall for assassinating of young and skilled Emperor Shao, for the destruction of popular He clan and decimation of noble Yuan clan.” The adviser asked.

    “Y-u-” I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even speak.

    “The young Emperor Xian, to raise his authority, needs to show some deeds, to calm the people. And what better way to do that, then putting down a rebellion? And who would play the role of rebels better, then hated corrupt Eunuchs – the men who all but committed regicide, exterminated the loyal He clan, and purged Yuan clan. The very people who but a few months ago have saved the Empire from the Yellow Scarves?” The adviser stood beside me and looked at me. “It’s for the future of Han.” I choked as his assassin twisted the sword.

    That wretch!

    I looked at Emperor Ling’s tomb.

    * * *​



    Times change… people raise against us… even in court, the rebels start raising...” I grabbed my dying's son’s hand. “Promise me...” He choked with pain. “Promise me… you will preserve… the Han…”

    I promise my son.” I gave my word, tears streaming down my eyes. “I will take care of everything… so...” I choked. “You… can rest… now...”

    Tears were flowing down my face as I looked at Liu Hong, closing his eyes for the last time.

    ...

    * * *​


    'Ugh! Forgive me, my son. I have failed to enforce the world you sought.'

    ...

    The assassin ripped the blade from my back. My legs failed me, and I fell on my knees, my hand still hanging from the railing.

    I cursed the injustice of Havens.

    More time. All I need is some more time to remake the laws and undo the privileges of governors. Please, give me some more time and I will preserve the Han!

    Something hit my back.

    * * *​

    At the begging of 187 the ‘Ten Attendants’ and their faction, raised in a coup. They assassinated Emperor Shao and slaughtered He clan and their allies, purged the long supporters of the imperial clan – the Yuan clan. In retaliation, the Han loyalists under the command of Minister Wang Yun purged the treacherous eunuch faction, restoring the peace and order in the capital. In the wake of chaos in the capital, Prince Xie was made Emperor Xian with Empress Dowager Dong as his regent.

    'Hundred Years of Turmoil' – historical work about the 'end of the Han dynasty' and an era that followed.

    AN:
    Beta-reader: NathanHale
     
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