What If They Had a War, and Nobody Came? (Part 1)
The tent was exactly where Gu Qing had expected to find it, in the southwestern quadrant of the Yi camp. The scouts’ reports — which she was not, strictly speaking, authorised to know anything about — had proved to be accurate. It was lit from within by a single lamp, and in the soft glow she could just make out the lone figure inside, its head bent over a book.
Gu Qing’s chest tightened for reasons that had nothing to do with the exertion of slipping unseen through an enemy camp twenty thousand strong. That had been simple enough. Her qinggong had stood her in good stead as she flitted from shadow to shadow, avoiding the sentries at the perimeter, the soldiers nodding off around their campfires, and the cooks and laundresses still scurrying about their tasks. It was the next part, she knew, that was going to be the difficult one.
She was absolutely sure that she had made no sound, but the figure in the tent suddenly looked up. A moment later, one of the tent flaps lifted, a face peered out, and a low voice — still so familiar after all these years, so familiar that just the sound of it was enough to twist her guts into knots — called out, ‘Are you coming in?’
She looks the same, was Gu Qing’s first thought, as she stared into Yelü Ning’s face in the faint light from the tent. She still wore her hair in the style favoured by many unmarried Yi women: the back and sides shaved, the rest gathered into a long braid that hung over one shoulder. The proud tilt of her head was the same, and the way she arched an eyebrow in inquiry was achingly familiar. But then Gu Qing saw the harder line of Yelü Ning’s jaw, the weariness in the set of her shoulders, the look in her eyes. Gu Qing had often compared those eyes to autumn pools, before — much to Yelü Ning’s amusement — but now they looked as if they were rimed with a thick layer of frost.
Somehow, her feet took her through the entrance of the tent without tripping over themselves. It was, as she’d expected, austerely furnished: a low table, a few mats, a bedroll, several distinctly utilitarian-looking storage chests. An unstrung bow lay atop the largest of these, and a sabre rested against another.
Yelü Ning sat down at the table, and gestured for Gu Qing to take the mat opposite. ‘Wine?’ she asked, and reached not for the flagon on the table, but into the small chest beside her. From this, she produced a small wine jar, and when she broke the seal and lifted the stopper, the fragrance that rose from the jar instantly transported Gu Qing to the intricate waterways and drooping willows of home, thousands of miles away from the austere majesty of the western plains and their surrounding mountains.
She tried to speak, tried being the operative word. Her first attempt produced no sound whatsoever, her second a sort of strangled squeak. On her third attempt, she managed to choke out, ‘Scholar’s red?’
Yelü Ning nodded, as composed as ever. ‘Of course. Would you like some?’
Gu Qing, not trusting herself to say anything more, nodded. She watched as Yelü Ning filled two cups. Scholar’s red was what she had been drinking at the little wayside tavern where she and Yelü Ning had first met, so many years ago. Before the Emperor of Zhuo had decided to take advantage of the new Yi emperor’s ascension to press Zhuo’s historic claims to the four provinces that lay at Yi’s eastern border. Before the Yi emperor, emboldened by his military successes, had turned his defence of those border provinces into a retaliatory strike at the heart of the Zhuo Empire. Before Yelü Ning had been recalled to the Yi capital, to take up the military post her mother had retired from. Long before Gu Qing had reluctantly taken up a soldier’s mantle herself, when she had just been a disciple of the Feihua Pavilion, free to roam whenever and wherever she wished.
Yelü Ning held a wine cup out to her. As Gu Qing took it, her fingers brushed against Yelü Ning’s for the briefest of moments. That fleeting contact was enough to send her newly-gathered thoughts scattering in all directions again. She tried, very hard, not to think about what else those fingers were capable of. Had been capable of. The sensations they had once left upon her skin, the way they —
In a vain bid to conceal her rising blushes, Gu Qing took a hasty gulp of wine. Its mellow sweetness — even richer than she’d expected — was a welcome change from the harsher, heartier varieties that were common this far north and west. ‘You were expecting me,’ she said, once she could trust herself to speak again. ‘So you did get my letter.’
‘Of course I did,’ said Yelü Ning, as if it were an inevitability. Which it wasn’t. Not at all.
Gu Qing had left the letter at the altar of a little temple that stood on the outskirts of a village about ten miles equidistant from both the Zhuo and Yi camps, one that had recently been abandoned by villagers fleeing the approach of the two armies. She and Yelü Ning had once taken shelter in that temple from a sudden thunderstorm, during one of those glorious, long-ago summers when it seemed as if nothing could ever part them. Well … taken shelter, among other things. Gu Qing, carefully tucking the letter beneath the temple’s statute of Guanyin, had found herself still unable to look the goddess’ benevolent countenance in the eye. If Yelü Ning had found the letter — Gu Qing’s absurd, last-ditch, ten-thousand-to-one plea for help — then that meant she must have thought to visit the temple in the first place, which meant…
A complex knot of emotions rose in Gu Qing’s throat.
‘Do you know,’ said Yelü Ning unexpectedly, ‘that letter is the first news I have had of you since … well. Since. I didn’t even know you had enlisted, much less that you would be here. I knew that the Zhuo military had finally become desperate enough to let women serve,’ she added, a faint note of disdain slipping into her voice, and well it might; Yi women had fought alongside the men since well before there was even a Yi Empire. ‘But I didn’t realise someone in your position … that is, I was surprised to learn that you had enlisted.’
Gu Qing knew what she was referring to. The jianghu sects had always held themselves aloof from governmental structures and strictures; at any other time, the very notion of a sect member joining the military would simply have been unthinkable. But these were not any other times. With the Yi armies breaching line after line of defence, pressing ever closer to the Zhuo capital with every passing day, even the most free-spirited jianghu wanderers had begun to feel that there were few other honourable choices left to them. ‘Desperate times,’ she said. ‘I wasn’t even one of the first. About a third of the Beggars’ Guild had joined up by the time I did, those young enough anyway, and a good quarter of the Five Peaks Alliance. Even some of the lay disciples from the Lianjing Temple.’ A sudden thought struck her, and she added, ‘Though not my master, of course. She’d burn down Feihua Pavilion itself before she let anyone else tell her where to point her sword. She’s still there, or at least she was when I left. She’s probably got bored by now, and run off to look for adventure somewhere unlikely —’ she realised she was babbling, and stopped.
‘They have posted you very far away from home,’ said Yelü Ning softly.
Gu Qing took a deep breath. Out with it, she told herself. After all, if this did turn out to be the last time she ever spoke to Yelü Ning again… ‘I asked for this posting,’ she said. ‘I knew you’d be here, you see. Well, not here exactly, but I knew you’d be at the front lines. Where else would they deploy one of the Yi Empire’s best battalion commanders? That’s how I knew to leave you the letter.’ Left unspoken was the thought that had been at the forefront of her mind when she put in her request: if I’m to die, it might as well be at her command. If I’m really lucky, by her hand.
Something unreadable flashed across Yelü Ning’s face. She started to speak, seemed to think better of it, and reached out to refill Gu Qing’s wine cup instead. ‘And how have you found soldiering?’ she asked, after a moment.
‘Awful,’ said Gu Qing instantly, with a lightness she did not feel. How could she begin to describe everything she had seen and done in the last year and a half? ‘I didn’t realise the killing would bother me so much,’ she said finally. ‘I’ve fought my share of jianghu battles, after all, and not all of my opponents have walked away alive. You know that.’ Again, that indecipherable flicker across Yelü Ning’s face; some of those battles they had fought side by side. ‘But killing someone because you’ve chosen to, because of something they’ve done that’s wrong or unjust by your lights … that’s hardly the same as killing someone you’ve never seen in your life, someone you know nothing about and will never know anything about, just because some general at the back of a battlefield or some faceless official at the capital pointed you at them and said kill.’ She downed her wine in a single gulp; Yelü Ning refilled it silently.
‘And so many deaths,’ she went on, contemplating the play of lamplight on the surface of her wine. ‘When they spoke about bodies being piled as high as mountains, I used to think it was an exaggeration, but now … There was a young man in the same platoon as me. A boy, really, barely a few months past eighteen. Didn’t even know how to hold a spear when he first joined up. The number of drills I had to run with him before he stopped dropping it every time he tried to point it at someone…’ she chuckled at the memory, though it was tainted now, as so many things were, with the knowledge of what had come after. ‘During the battle of Jingshui, I saw him cut down just a few feet ahead of me, moments before our battalion commander sounded the retreat. He didn’t even have time to scream. Afterwards, I … sneaked back to the battlefield. I’m still not sure what exactly I was trying to do. I had some idea of saying goodbye, perhaps of burying him somewhere a little nicer than the mud where he had fallen. All foolishness, of course. I couldn’t even find him. Bodies piled as high as mountains…’
Yelü Ning reached across the table and placed a hand over Gu Qing’s. Only for a moment; before Gu Qing could do anything more than blink, she had already drawn it back. But the ghost of that faint, warm pressure lingered. ‘I am sorry,’ said Yelü Ning, and something in her voice — an awful tenderness — wrapped itself around Gu Qing’s heart and made her want to weep.
‘I…’ Yelü Ning began, then stopped, drained her own cup and refilled it again before continuing. ‘When I answered the Emperor’s summons all those years ago’ – unspoken, the words when we said goodbye hung between them like ghosts — ‘I truly believed I was making the right choice. After all, I would be defending my homeland from invasion, or so I thought.’ Gu Qing nodded; she could hardly fault Yelü Ning, daughter and granddaughter of generals and distant cousin to the Emperor of Yi himself, for making the same choice as she herself had done. ‘But now, I have become one of the invaders, it seems. To tell the truth, I had thought of just … walking away, more than once. My mother and aunts have enough influence that the repercussions of doing so, even against the emperor’s wishes, would at least be survivable. But to what end? Simply to salve my own conscience? Should I stand by while the battlefields run red, just so I could say my hands were clean? Better, I thought, to stay where I could have at least some sway over the decisions made, to carry orders in ways that would at least reduce the amount of death and suffering and displacement. If I wanted to, I could flatter myself on having had some small successes in that regard, but’ — and here she spread her hands helplessly, a gesture Gu Qing had never seen from her before, and all the more heartbreaking for that — ‘but truly, they amount to less than a cup of water in the face of a conflagration. Your letter, when I read it, allowed me to hope in a way I have not done for a very long time.’
Ah, yes, the letter. That was what she had come about after all, not to drown in the fathomless sorrows within Yelü Ning’s eyes. Gu Qing sat up a little straighter. ‘What I proposed in the letter … you didn’t think it was too, well, farfetched?’
‘Oh, it was. Farfetched, preposterous, outrageous, completely beyond belief. I also thought it was the only thing that might save us all.’ She leaned forward, and Gu Qing realised that her eyes were no longer frozen pools; they were suddenly, painfully bright. ‘Did it work?’
‘Did wha—’ With a monumental effort, Gu Qing managed to pull herself together. ‘On our side, you mean? Yes. Yes. Oh yes. And so much better than I ever dared to imagine, at that. We’ve won over nine-tenths of the troops below the rank of captain, and eight-tenths overall. A good number of the captains themselves, and at least three battalion commanders. We’re there. We can do it. When they sound the charge tomorrow, all it takes is for us to hold our nerve.’ She shook her head in wonder. Knowing it was one thing, but saying it out loud drove home the strangeness of it all. ‘I almost can’t believe we managed it. But then I suppose we’ve all been away from home too long, and we’ve seen enough death.’
‘Did you have any difficulties with secrecy?’
‘A few close calls, but General Lei and the rest of the high command should still be in the dark. They’re rather … distracted at the moment, for obvious reasons. Not that we haven’t had our share of glory-hunters who’d happily sell us out just for a chance at promotion, but the beauty of having eyes and ears inside every single platoon and every single company across the camp is that no one could pass on a secret message to the high command without someone on our side noticing.’
Yelü Ning nodded approvingly. ‘I am glad to hear that. We have had some challenges in that respect, even though we were very careful about who we approached. Like you, however, we have managed to keep it contained. I am sure General Xiao suspects something, but I’m equally sure he knows nothing of the details, or even the broad outlines. How could he, when it is something only you could have dreamed up?’ Was that … fondness in her voice? ‘We did have the joy of dealing with my troublesome cousin Chuzhe,’ Yelü Ning went on, grimacing. ‘Not that any of us would ever have thought of approaching him, but he caught a whiff of a rumour and simply refused to let it go. I had to set some of my most trusted soldiers to watch him day and night. This afternoon, I finally gave up, and saw to it that he had a small accident while crossing a ravine. I instructed the physicians to make sure he was adequately sedated before they set his broken leg. He is a big man, you see, and the usual dosage might not have sufficed. Two of my soldiers are now keeping watch over his tent, to make sure he gets the rest he so obviously needs.’
‘Wait.’ Gu Qing’s brain finally caught up with her ears. Hope flared, bright and hot, in her chest ‘Does that mean — Did you — Were you able to —’ she stopped, cleared her throat, and tried again. ‘Do you mean to say — you’ve done it too?‘
‘Everything is in place,’ said Yelü Ning. ‘Tomorrow, when they sound the horns for battle, our comrades-in-arms will do exactly as yours do. Well, eight-and-a-half-tenths of them, anyway. But I am sure the remainder will swiftly be convinced of the folly of doing otherwise. When you return to your camp, you can assure your fellow soldiers: in this, the soldiers of Yi and Zhuo stand as one.’
Gu Qing’s head was still reeling. She had hoped, of course; she’d even thought it probable, given reports of certain movements in the Yi camp that had found their way to her ears. But to hear Yelü Ning speak of it with such firm certainty… ‘I thought it might be more difficult for you. Not that I ever doubted your abilities, of course,’ she added hastily. ‘But, you know. Your side is winning.’
‘But at what cost?’ said Yelü Ning. ‘Do you know how many souls we lost, just taking Yunhui Pass?’ Yunhui Pass was the only significant route through the mountains that separated Zhuo and Yi for hundreds of miles in either direction; the peaks on either side were so formidable it was said that even clouds drifting westward would turn back in despair, hence the name. ‘If our forces defeat yours here, the generals will only command us to push further and further east. Where does it end? All of us know that, whatever path we manage to carve to the Zhuo capital itself, it will be paved with bodies, Yi and Zhuo alike. And for all your tales about bloodthirsty Yi warriors’ — Gu Qing opened her mouth, then shut it immediately; Yelü Ning was perfectly aware that Gu Qing herself did not subscribe to such beliefs, and in any case, that was hardly the point — ‘most of us take no particular joy in sweeping terrified Zhuo villagers ahead of us, or cutting down young soldiers barely out of boyhood. Or at least, no more so than your Zhuo soldiers. Many of us have been on campaign for years. We would rather it end swiftly, in peace, rather than slowly, in death.’
Gu Qing exhaled. ‘We all want the same things, then.’
‘Yet another message you can bring to your comrades-in-arms, when you return.’
Silence fell. Gu Qing knew that it was past time for her to go, and yet she lingered. The tent was warm after the chill of the plains at night, the wine was good, and the woman she had thought she would never see again was sitting mere feet away from her. She cast about for something to say, and her eyes fell on the book Yelü Ning had been reading earlier. ‘The Annals of Spring and Autumn? Really?’
Yelü Ning smiled for the first time since Gu Qing had set foot in the tent. ‘It seemed appropriate, given the momentous challenge we are about to attempt tomorrow. Besides, you know I’ve always been an admirer of Lord Guan the Second.’
Gu Qing laughed, surprising herself. How long had it been since she last laughed without bitterness? ‘Have any of your soldiers realised yet what a flair for the dramatic their commander has?’
The corners of Yelü Ning’s mouth quirked up higher. ‘None of them suspect, and if you try to tell them, I’ll deny it most vehemently.’
And now she had really run out of excuses to put off leaving. Gu Qing rose, and clasped her left hand over her right fist in farewell. ‘Well. I should go. There’s so much left to do. Making sure everyone knows we can rely on your Yi soldiers to stand with us come the dawn, for one. That’s going to be the first order of business. I …’ A thousand things flashed through her mind, things she wanted to say to Yelü Ning in case their audacious, impossible plan for tomorrow came to nothing, but in the end, all she said was, ‘I’ll see you on the other side, then.’
‘Wait.’ Yelü Ning stood as well, and thrust the jar of scholar’s red — still half-full — at Gu Qing. Reflexively, Gu Qing took it; it was either that, or let it drop. ‘You should take this.’
‘It must have been expensive, this far north. I couldn’t possibly —’
Yelü Ning looked steadily at her. ‘I bought this jar of scholar’s red the day we parted ways. I’ve kept it by me all this while. I’ve no particular taste for it, but I know you do. Whatever tomorrow brings, I am just … glad I was able to share it with you.’ She hesitated, then added in a lower voice, ‘I wasn’t sure if I would ever have the chance.’
Gu Qing stared at her, fingers trembling around the wine jar. ‘Ning-er —’
Yelü Ning reached out suddenly, nearly upending the table between them — Yelü Ning, knocking over a table by accident! — and wrapped her hands around Gu Qing’s. ‘If we both survive tomorrow, Qingqing, I —’
From outside came the distant cry of a sentry calling the hour. Yelü Ning blinked; a veil seemed to fall over her face. She let go of Gu Qing’s hands as abruptly as she had taken them, and took a step back. ‘You should go,’ she said, not looking at Gu Qing. ‘As you said, there is much left to do before dawn. Hearts and minds will need strengthening, if we are to hold fast come the morning.’
‘Ning-er, I —’
The memory of her face haunted Gu Qing all the way back to the Zhuo camp.