AND so it came to pass in the Qing Dynasty during the rule of the Sun Emperor Jun that the Lord Wu Min ordered a caravan to set forth on the dangerous journey to the court of General Qiang Hüi Wei, governor of the states of Yan and Qui, bringing a gift of great value, for he was anxious to win favor and high position with the emperor. Whether he was pleased or disappointed that the designated courtiers and soldiers managed to succeed in reaching the stronghold of Qiang Hüi Wei after passing through hostile territory is lost in the passing of time. History only records that the caravan did indeed arrive in good order, and when news of such was brought to General Hüi Wei, he caused an audience to be granted in order to receive the gifts with all due ceremony in observance of the customs of the day.
“WHAT do you suppose Wu Min has decided would be an appropriate gift, Hüi?” Lord Jiang asked as the two men strode through the halls of the palace on the way to the audience room.
Hüi Wei emitted a short, mirthless laugh. “Bribe, you mean. He yearns for notice from the Son of Heaven and hopes I shall procure it for him.”
“You are cynical,” Jiang observed.
“And still breathing as a result.” Hüi Wei gave his friend a wolfish grin and paused before the door. The two soldiers stationed there raised their lances to let them pass and stood with inscrutable faces, as if they could not hear the comments of the two men. “We shall see what clever lies his envoys try to promote to me.”
With that, Hüi Wei nodded and one of the soldiers drew back the curtain to reveal heavy wooden doors with iron hinges. He swung the door back soundlessly, and Hüi Wei preceded his friend and advisor into the room, emerging from behind rich damask curtains upon a dais raised above the gleaming tile floor.
He stood, an imposing figure before the envoys sent to him, muscular and powerful, his impassive face handsome but weathered by his time on the battlefield, his eyes hard as he waited for the company to fall to their knees and bend in obeisance to his commanding presence.
His expression did not change as he took in the incongruous sight of a slender, beautiful girl in the midst of the men, and his gaze moved past her without a flicker of interest. He sat upon his massive throne, rested his hands upon the snarling heads of tigers carved at the ends of the armrests, and waited in silence. As a studied insult to Wu Min’s representatives, Hüi Wei had chosen to receive them dressed in rough clothing more suitable for battle, including his leather breastplate, and wearing his sword at his side.
Lord Jiang’s voice rang out as he announced, “His imperious person, the governor of Changchun province, including the states of Yan and Qui, oath protector to the Son of Heaven, Emperor Jun, General Qiang Hüi Wei has deigned to receive the representatives of Wu Min, lord of Liaopeh province. Who speaks for Wu Min?”
One of the ornately dressed courtiers bobbed his head while still staring at his reflection in the highly polished floor and answered, “His gracious Lord Wu Min has required me to convey both his respect and a small, meaningless token of his allegiance to Qiang Hüi Wei.”
“You will refer to my Lord as the Lord General Qiang Hüi Wei or your master will be pleased to receive you back—cut into a thousand pieces,” Jiang rebuked the man sharply, using Hüi’s military title rather than his civil one as a subtle reminder.
Hüi Wei tried to keep his lips from twitching. His friend Jiang would certainly never have carried out such a threat personally unless he deemed it necessary for the security of this province, but he had convinced many of his ruthless cruelty by use of utterances such as these. Apparently, this courtier was one of them because he cringed visibly and hurried to correct his address.
“A million apologies, your Honor!” he exclaimed, his voice somewhat muffled by the necessity of speaking directly into the floor. “I meant no offense. It was but my miserable ignorance that caused me to address his Excellency the General incorrectly. I pray you will not visit revenge for my abysmal infamy upon my gracious master.”
Hüi Wei dared not glance at Jiang, but he could tell how his friend was enjoying this. “Sit up!” he ordered impatiently. “What does this Wu Min want?”
The courtier sat back upon his heels, red in the face, as if with his girth he was unused to the position of obeisance. None of the rest of his company dared to even look up, but Hüi Wei noticed the four burly soldiers who flanked the girl maintained a tight cluster around her, as if she held some high position and was therefore in constant need of protection.
“Nothing, my Lord! He dares ask nothing of you.” The courtier glanced up slyly and then fixed his gaze back at the floor. “If, in some distant future, you should be moved to grant him some small token of your favor—but he is very aware that he deserves less than nothing from you. No, we have come to present you with a gift of great value, merely to express Wu Min’s loyalty and allegiance to you, Protector of the North, and to the Son of Heaven, Emperor Jun, and—”
“General Qiang appreciates this gracious gesture, but he is an important man. He has much responsibility in the business of serving the emperor,” Jiang interrupted smoothly. “I assure you any gift from Wu Min will be greatly valued.”
The courtier seemed to recognize he was being urged to get on with it, although clearly he would have been content to listen to his own eloquence for many hours. He held up one hand. “If I may have permission to direct these miserable servants to approach the most gracious governor—”
Jiang nodded. “You may. To that line and no further.” He pointed at a line of black stone set into the floor at least ten feet short of Hüi Wei.
The courtier held up one pinkie and a manservant approached the throne on his knees, holding a small chest. He opened the chest to reveal the gleam of many silver tael piled within.
“A small offering of coin,” the courtier said, as if the amount were negligible instead of a small fortune. He lifted the ring finger on the hand still held aloft.
A second servant shuffled forward with another small chest. This time the lid was lifted to reveal the lustrous beauty of pearls of various sizes and colors that ranged from black to pink to purest white.
“Rare pearls harvested from the ocean, at the cost of many lives,” the courtier intoned. He added his index finger.
A third servant came forward to unroll a bolt of shimmering silk.
“The finest silk in all of Liaopeh province. Note the subtle beauty of the orchid flower woven into the pattern.”
Hüi Wei yawned ostentatiously upon his throne to indicate his boredom with these offerings.
The courtier looked dismayed. “These gifts are mere nothings, not worthy of the governor’s greatness. Although garnered through great personal austerity on the part of Wu Min, these tokens are too insignificant to add to your great wealth and consequence. No, the treasure Wu Min wishes to present you with is none of these. It still awaits.” Finally, he raised the middle finger on his hand.
The four soldiers got to their feet, and one held out his hand to the lady who was still prostrated in full obeisance. She rested her hand upon his brawny forearm as lightly as a hummingbird in flight and rose gracefully, her gaze properly cast down and veiled by her lashes. The soldiers led her forward and stood ringing her as if guarding her from imminent attack. Her blue cheongsam was embroidered in gold with dragons and phoenixes, and the dark color served to set off her ivory beauty.
In a hushed voice, the courtier spoke as if so impressed with himself he could hardly bear the significance of what he was saying. “Wu Min has made the most profound of sacrifices to offer you his half sister, the Princess Zhen Lan’xiu, to be your wife.”
Hüi Wei didn’t even glance in the girl’s direction. “Thank your master, but I could not accept a gift that would deliver such cruel pain to the giver. The sentiment is gracious, but the sacrifice is unnecessary. I do not need Wu Min to choose my wife for me.”
The courtier hurried into flustered speech. “He means no offense! It is known that your Greatness already possesses a wife and several concubines! Wu Min had no thought of the Princess Lan’xiu displacing any of these revered ladies. No! In fact, you may use her as you wish and cast her aside if she displeases you!”
Jiang asked, “Does he undertake to accept this gift back if she is found to be defective?”
Shocked, the courtier said, “She is untouched! Chaste and pure! The most beautiful maiden to be found in all Liaopeh! None who see her fail to fall under the spell of her beauty. Her nature is modest and demure! And she has been most carefully guarded. There have been no sly trysts by moonlight to despoil her purity—”
Hüi Wei said in a bored tone, “You will give Wu Min my thanks for his impressive tributes. I am sure it has cost him much pain to part with his sister.”
“Oh, it has, it has,” the courtier assured him in an oily voice. “If only you would agree to accept these humble gifts, it would bring him such pleasure as to negate the torment—”
“We will consider these tokens. You have a memorial?” Lord Jiang cut the man off expertly.
“It happens that I do. Wu Min wished to ensure that your graciousness was aware of his loyalty—”
“So you had mentioned.” Jiang held out his hand for the scroll.
The courtier got to his feet and approached the dais, withdrawing the scroll from the sleeve of his robe. He winced as Jiang gripped his arm with one hand while he accepted the scroll in the other. He glanced at Hüi Wei’s face but could vouchsafe nothing and surrendered the scroll without a struggle.
“The audience is at an end. You may all withdraw,” Jiang announced. “The Princess Lan’xiu is to be conveyed to the harem.” He snapped his fingers at the general’s soldiers, who came forward immediately.
“But—the princess—her guard—she must not be left unprotected!” the courtier sputtered. “Her guards must—”
“I am sure we will be able to protect her adequately. The guards you brought may leave with you, while they still can,” Jiang said, his voice implying he would accept no argument.
“Her servant, then. At least permit her servant to bear her company as she makes a new home here—”
For the first time Jiang examined the short, slim manservant with a soft, slightly feminine face. “You are eunuch?”
Blushing, the servant nodded without looking up, taking a tiny step closer to the princess.
The princess’s beautiful face showed nothing of the emotion to be expected of a noble girl being delivered into an unknown court and a stranger’s bed, but she seemed to sway slightly in the direction of her eunuch servant.
Hüi Wei waved a hand and his soldiers came forward to lead the girl and her servant from the room. The soldiers who had guarded her made no move, as if they had no idea what to do in this unforeseen circumstance.
The courtier’s face wore a frustrated expression as he watched the princess disappear, but he seemed to accept his impotence and, once again, pressed his forehead to the floor. “I shall convey to his gracious Lordship Wu Min the fact that the Lord General Qiang Hüi Wei accepted the gifts he chose with much deliberation and thought for the enjoyment and enrichment of your Lordship’s house—”
Hüi Wei’s shoulders shook as he strode from the room chuckling, accompanied by Jiang. “Do you think he is still speaking?”
“I gave orders to the guards to take note of what he says, but I fear it is in vain to hope for some indiscretion. He is well versed in spewing many words while saying very little. I have no idea what Wu Min hopes to gain with this display.”
Hüi’s lips tightened into a grim smile as he walked through the halls. “Have you not? And you so long-headed, unless you flatter me by allowing me to be the one to elucidate. Answer me this: how did a man who governs a landlocked province many miles from the sea come by such a quantity of peerless pearls?”
Jiang looked much struck as he hurried to keep up. “That is a very interesting question. It would greatly add to his power and control if he had access to a seaport, but I fail to see how selling his sister would gain this for him.”
“At least, not to me. I am well supplied with wives and concubines. One might suppose that another would be a surfeit.”
“The emperor is said to have a harem of hundreds of concubines.”
“The emperor is the emperor and he does not need to ride to war or put down rebellions from upstart provinces,” Hüi Wei snapped. “A plain man like me does not need a different woman to warm his bed every night.”
“Speaking of peerless,” Jiang said, tactfully turning the conversation, “I have never seen a girl more beautiful than this princess.”
“I hadn’t noticed,” Hüi Wei lied.
“Of course you hadn’t, but when you can spare the time, you might have a look at her face.” Jiang sighed in admiration. “Such perfection of form. Her skin is as flawless as those pearls delivered with her. Almond eyes as deep as the night sky, a mouth curved like a—”
“Like a snake in its death throes? Enough! I shall take your word for it that she is a paragon of all female graces,” Hüi Wei said, laughing. “Take care you don’t fall under her spell. It is punishable by death to dally with another man’s concubine.”
“Then you mean to keep her?”
“I have not yet decided,” Hüi said coolly.
“But you’re not sending her back?”
Hüi opened the door to his private chamber. “Come in with me.”
Jiang entered the room, shutting the door behind him. “What game are you playing at? Do not hide your teeth with me.”
“What does he say in that scroll?”
Jiang unrolled it. “If I’m reading between the lines correctly, he is hoping to prevent you from invading his province and hopes you will honor your mutual borders. That means he’s doing something that he doesn’t want you to know about but warrants an invasion. Perhaps he’s hoping to distract your attention with her beauty.”
Hüi flung himself into a chair with none of the deliberate ceremony he had employed in the audience chamber when taking the throne. He poured both of them a cup of huáng jiu and took a sip before he spoke. “I shall keep her for a time, if only in order to find out what Wu Min’s plan is. He is ambitious and clever but owes allegiance only to himself. He is a careful man. I have fought on the same field with him, and he does not commit to an attack when it will not benefit him personally, no matter what treaty he’s signed. He resorts to deceit and trickery to get what he wants.”
“And by giving you this girl, he hopes to gain—what? That her beauty will occupy you to the point that he may march past you on the way to the sea?” Jiang laughed at the thought of any woman distracting Hüi Wei to the point of neglecting his sacred, heaven-decreed duty. “He doesn’t know you well.”
“At the very least, if you had allowed her guard to remain with her, he would have planted some spies in my court. Who knows? Perhaps she spies for him.” Hüi Wei held the glass up to the light, gazing at the golden liquor. “He judges others to be lesser strategists than himself. That is Wu Min’s greatest handicap. No, he has some other reason for sending me this girl. Something he hopes to gain by putting me in possession of her. Perhaps she was born under a curse and brings bad luck to whatever roof she resides under, despite her beauty. The gods sometimes amuse themselves by giving a gift with one hand and taking it back with the other.” He laughed. “It must have gone against his grain to give up that tribute of silver, pearls, and silk, simply to disguise his true intent. He must be confident that he will be able to retrieve it all at some point. Wu Min does not open his fist easily.”
“He cannot hope that her presence will lead to strife in your household,” Jiang mused in a perplexed voice. “A man does not concern himself with the petty squabbles of mere concubines.”
“Even Wu Min would not make that mistake,” Hüi Wei agreed dryly. “Have her escorted to the seventh house.”
“When you do see her, do you think she will tell you why Wu Min sent her?”
“She may not know. And I shall not see her, not at once,” Hüi said.
“I thought not,” Jiang said in a satisfied tone. “The news will be conveyed to Wu Min that you have ignored his gifts. Leaving them on the floor as you did when you left the audience room was a stroke of genius. Perhaps it might spur him to an incautious action.”
“Perhaps,” Hüi said. “In any case, have all the tribute cataloged and taken to the strong room.”
“With the exception of the Princess Lan’xiu,” teased Jiang.
“Find out about that family,” Hüi said suddenly. “It must be a most heartless man to send his own sister to endure the fate of becoming a minor concubine in an established household. I could not do it, even if the emperor commanded it. There is something odd behind this whole affair.”
“I shall see that the princess is established in the seventh house with her servant, but I shan’t make her too comfortable just yet. And perhaps I might arrange a meeting between her and first wife, Lady Mei Ju?”
A slow smile crossed Hüi’s lips. “I knew there was some reason I kept a jester in my court.”
“Jester! I am no jester!” Jiang exclaimed in pretended outrage. “The joke would be on you if I took that insult to heart and made humor my primary objective in your service.”
“I would not insult any but my closest friend so, Jiang.” Hüi rose and placed his hand upon Jiang’s shoulder. “We shall see this through together as we always have, come what may.”
“We shall,” Jiang agreed.