What If They Had a War, and Nobody Came? (Part 3)
What if they had a war, and nobody came?
That was the question Gu Qing had whispered to Zhao Xiaohu, whom she’d found crying behind the quartermaster’s tent one evening, because it was his mother’s birthday and he missed her; to Sun Tianfang, whom Gu Qing helped to write long, reassuring letters to the younger sisters she’d left at home, not knowing when or even whether they would arrive; to Li Gui, who had been studying for the imperial examinations before war broke out, and spent most of his nights reciting passages from the Four Books and Five Classics to himself as if they would keep him safe.
And that had spread to the next platoon, and the next, and the next, and then the next company, and then the next battalion, and the next, and the next. Before Gu Qing knew it, she was sitting in the middle of a web of whispers and rumours and half-kindled hopes. News filtered through to her every day, of the numbers that had already been won over, of the names of those who might be. Half of the twelfth battalion had come over to their side, she heard one day, and the indefatigable efforts of that half meant that the number had grown to seven-tenths by the following day. Captain Wu of the first battalion, who had been demoted from battalion commander for couselling against the initial attack on the border provinces, was willing to stand with them, came another whisper, and Gu Qing confirmed this when she ‘accidentally’ ran into him just outside the physicians’ tent. Battalion Commander Zheng, who had lost a son and two protégés over the course of six short months, might be amenable to persuasion, suggested some of his troops, and so Qian Sangu, a fellow borderlander, was despatched to sound him out, and reported back triumphant. Scouts brought her news of similar movements from the Yi camp: small clusters of soldiers from different battalions and companies engaged in quiet, intense discussion in out-of-the-way corners, scattering quickly whenever an outsider approached.
What if they had a war, and nobody came?
The answer, as Gu Qing soon discovered, was meetings, at least in the short term. Most of these were presided over by Captain Bai, who had at some point become Acting General Bai. Public meetings to which Gu Qing and her fellow representatives were invited, and where Acting General Bai made a show of seeking their opinions. Secret meetings between Acting General Bai and other members of the Zhuo high command, to which Gu Qing was very definitely not invited, but which she found out about anyway, because there was no way of keeping anything secret from the eyes and ears they had in every single corner of the camp, and which she, Shi Yi and Qian Sangu delighted in bursting upon at the worst possible moment. Meetings with officials hastily summoned from the Zhuo capital. And finally, a meeting between the representatives of the Empires of Zhuo and Yi, which took place in a vast open pavilion constructed specially for this purpose. It was here that the details of the peace treaty were hammered out, clause by painful clause. Gu Qing lost all interest in the process at about the time the two sides started arguing over how the two emperors should address each other in official correspondence in future.
But there was at least one bright spot — well, one bright spot other than peace, anyway. Yelü Ning had arrived with the Yi delegation, and the smile bloomed on her face when her eyes met Gu Qing’s across the crowded pavilion was like the sun coming out after a long and dreary rainstorm. Gu Qing smiled back; it was impossible not to. Every fibre of her being felt as if it were vibrating with light. Yelü Ning’s looked away only when the keen-eyed man who seemed to be in charge of the Yi delegation drew her attention to some detail in the document he was holding, and even then, traces of that smile still hovered about the edges of her mouth—
‘So that’s how you managed it.’
Gu Qing tore her gaze away from Yelü Ning, and found Qian Sangu looking at her with a broad grin of amusement. ‘Please for the love of everything under Heaven, tell me you’re taking notes,’ she hissed at the other woman. ‘I stopped listening to what they were talking about some time ago.’
Qian Sangu snorted as she spread out a fresh sheet of paper. ‘No offence, Xiao Qing, but that was obvious.’
‘What’s obvious?’ asked Shi Yi, who was hovering next to them.
‘Our glorious leader is in love,’ said Qian Sangu, blithely ignoring the daggers Gu Qing was staring at her.
‘Who with?’ asked Shi Yi, with a gleeful curiosity Gu Qing could not help thinking was very unbecoming of a senior member of the Beggars’ Guild.
Qian Sangu jerked her chin towards the other side of the pavilion. ‘Over there.’
Shi Yi squinted. ‘Tall man in the purple robes? The official shouting at Acting General Bai? You can’t mean the young lad who’s just come in with— ’
‘No, not them. Her. In the battalion commander’s uniform, talking to Prince Nu.’
A brief — to his credit, very brief — look of surprise flashed across Shi Yi’s face, and then he, too, turned to Gu Qing with a broad grin. ‘Well done, Lao Gu. Or should I say, Madam Battalion Commander?’
‘Shut. Up,’ said Gu Qing, with feeling.
Shi Yi turned to Qian Sangu. ‘Looks like you were wrong. This just might turn out to be more exciting than horse trading, after all.’
‘Spoken like someone who’s never experienced the true thrill of a bordertown horse fair— ’
Gu Qing let their friendly bickering wash over her as her eyes sought out Yelü Ning again.
For the first four days of their impromptu truce, the two armies stared at each other across the mile or so of plain that had been tacitly acknowledged as neutral ground, curious, a little wary, but not unfriendly.
On the morning of the fifth day, a ball rolled out from the Yi side onto that neutral territory. A moment later, Yelü Ning emerged from the ranks of Yi troops, looking for all the world as if she were going for a stroll in her own courtyard. She flicked the ball up with one foot, bounced it off her left knee, then her right knee, then each shoulder, then her chest, then her left knee again.
Never had a lone woman playing kickball been the focus of so much rapt attention.
Somehow, somehow, her eyes found Gu Qing’s through the mass of Zhuo soldiers, and she arched an eyebrow in inquiry. Gu Qing pushed her way to the front of the crowd, just in time to hook the ball with a curl of her right foot as Yelü Ning kicked it towards her. She bounced it off each knee, once, twice, and then passed it to another Yi soldier who had stepped out of the crowd, who spun it deftly towards Shi Yi, who—
And then what had once been intended as a battlefield erupted into festivity. The two armies surged forward, met, mingled. Other games of kickball broke out around them, followed almost immediately by heated debates over the finer points of difference in the Zhuo and Yi styles of scoring. Ten immense jars of wine were rolled out from the Zhuo camp, followed by ten more. Several Yi hunting parties returned with what seemed to Gu Qing to be an astonishing quantity of wild game, which was soon roasting over a large fire pit. From somewhere deep within the crowd came the sound of drums. Gu Qing saw Zhao Xiaohu hand a bowl of wine to a Yi battalion commander, saw Qian Sangu challenge a tall Yi captain with the most impressive eyebrows Gu Qing had ever seen to an arm-wrestling match, saw Sun Tianfang teaching a complicated series of dance steps to a Yi soldier who was taking the lesson very seriously, and was briefly embroiled in a spirited debate between Li Gui and a Yi soldier named Tanmozhe over the correct interpretation of several passages in the Book of Rites. Gu Qing extricated herself from the scholarly discussion just in time to be pressed into service as an interpreter for Qian Sangu and her arm-wrestling opponent. Her grasp of the Yi language was still an uncertain one — a far cry from Yelü Ning’s fluency in the Zhuo language — but it was enough for her to ascertain that Qian Sangu and the Yi captain had a great-grandmother in common. As she watched the two of them shriek with excitement over the discovery — their emotions amplified, no doubt, by the fact that they’d both had several large bowls of wine by this point — Gu Qing felt tears prickling at her eyelids.
The peace treaty was signed, sealed and ratified with all due pomp and ceremony. And then just like that, the two armies began to disperse, long columns of troops and horses and wagons streaming east and west, back to their respective outposts and garrisons and, ultimately, home.
‘First they couldn’t wait to get all of us here, and now they can’t wait to get rid of us,’ said Gu Qing.
‘It has probably dawned on them that an army with a conscience is a revolution waiting to happen,’ said Yelü Ning.
They were sitting on the same rise where Gu Qing had confronted General Lei what seemed to be a lifetime ago, basking in the last rays of the setting sun. From her vantage point, Gu Qing could see all the way to the mountains that marked the border between Zhuo and Yi: the gatehouses of Yunhui Pass were just visible in the distance. Of the two vast armies that had occupied the plain below, only a few straggling battalions were left. As Gu Qing watched, a handful of campfires winked into life.
Gu Qing dangled her legs over the edge of the rise, smoothing down the skirts of her grey robe. It had been left behind by one of the Zhuo officials from the capital, and she had bartered two jars of wine, a precious packet of sugared melon strips, her best pair of shoes, all that remained of her meagre soldier’s pay packet, and a letter-writing session for it from the laundress who had claimed it as her own spoil of war. It was a little too short in the sleeves and hem, but Gu Qing liked it. For one, it had a rather pleasing pattern of rabbits embroidered in silver thread around the cuffs. For another, it was a relief to finally be wearing something that wasn’t uniform.
She had asked for a discharge from the army that very morning. Acting General Bai had looked wary but unsurprised when she walked into his tent, as if he’d been expecting her, though his expression had become more and more bewildered as it became clear that she was requesting neither a promotion, nor a command, nor a position at court, nor lands, nor even money. After confirming several times — and then several times again — that she was truly asking for a discharge and nothing else, he had granted her request with almost unseemly haste, an unmistakeable look of relief on his face. If he still suspected her of engaging in some elaborate scheme, Gu Qing decided, so much the better; he would sleep that much less easily at night.
‘And how does it feel, to have your soldiering days behind you?’ asked Yelü Ning. She was dressed in neither armour nor the jerkin and trousers Yi warriors favoured when away from their cities, but a deep blue robe of rather fine material, with a pattern of orchids embroidered in gold across the shoulders and along the sleeves. It was cut in the Yi style, with narrower sleeves, shorter hems and slits high up the sides for ease of riding.
‘Liberating,’ said Gu Qing, stretching luxuriously. ‘Idle as a cloud, as free as a crane in the wild. It’s been a long time since I was just Gu Qing, disciple of the Feihua Pavilion, and nothing else.’
‘You must be keen to return to your old life,’ said Yelü Ning, with a casualness that was just a little too studied.
Gu Qing did not answer immediately. She had spent the last year and a half longing desperately for her old life as a jianghu wanderer, and the idea of the whole world lying ahead of her, with something new waiting around every corner still held its appeal. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that she needed something more, or at least something different. And besides — she stole a glance at Yelü Ning, found Yelü Ning looking expectantly at her, and looked away again hastily — it rather depended on what Yelü Ning wanted to do next, as well. If Yelü Ning wanted it to, anyway. Gu Qing hadn’t quite broached the matter with her yet, mainly because she wasn’t sure how to. She had spent a significant part of her waking hours — and no small number of what should have been her sleeping ones — thinking up ways of doing it, but so far, all of her ideas had seemed either too flippant, too grandiose, and in at least ten cases, too horrifically sentimental.
‘I’m not sure,’ she said eventually. ‘I’ve been thinking … what we did here, what we were able to do here, how long do you think it will last? I mean, I know our countries signed a peace treaty for a hundred years, but really, how long before a new emperor casts his eye over the border again, or some general or official decides that war is the easiest path to power? And when that happens, will people still remember what we did here? Will they remember that it’s possible — not easy, not at all, but possible — to end a war, if every single soldier on the battlefield just stood together and said no, if we remember that we have more in common with each other than the ones tossing us onto the battlefield like so many nameless sacrifices?’
Yelü Ning only listened, her eyes intent.
‘And then I thought about Qian Sangu and that captain of yours, the one with the amazing eyebrows — sorry, I really should remember her name, but there’d been rather a lot of wine— ’
‘Captain Erliben,’ said Yelü Ning, looking amused. ‘Possibly the best archer in my battalion. She does, indeed, have the most magnificent eyebrows.’
‘Well, as it turns out, not only are they distant cousins, they both have sons of around the same age. They were practically weeping on each other’s shoulder when they had to say goodbye, and talking about how their sons should become sword brothers.’ Gu Qing smiled at the memory. ‘I’d hate to think of their sons facing each other across a battlefield instead, or their sons’ children. And then I thought, if only there was something I could do to keep that from happening somehow, or at least try to … but then again, I wouldn’t even know where to begin.’
Yelü Ning looked down at the plain, up at the sky, and then cleared her throat. ‘I might have the answer to that,’ she said slowly. ‘Or at least, an attempt at an answer.’
And there it was again, that flare of hope in Gu Qing’s chest. Yelü Ning was not the type of person who made such claims lightly. ‘Tell me. Please.’
‘There is a clause in the peace treaty about what they finally decided to call cultural exchanges. Do you recall that?’
Gu Qing cast her mind back to the day the treaty had been ratified. Each clause had been painstakingly read out to all assembled, once by a Zhuo official and once by a Yi official. She’d only been paying attention to the clauses she thought of as the important ones, but what Yelü Ning said tugged at her memory. ‘That was the bit right after the long speech about “strengthening the bonds of brotherhood between our two countries”, wasn’t it? I thought it sounded a bit odd. It was something about … emissaries, almost? But between people, not just courts?’ Gu Qing hoped she hadn’t got the comparison too horribly wrong: everything she knew about imperial politics could have fitted easily on one side of those tiny sheets of paper carried by messenger pigeons.
Yelü Ning smiled. ‘You could put it that way, yes. Every year, five hundred subjects of Yi will take up residence in the Empire of Zhuo, for a period of no less than three years. Depending on their inclinations and abilities, they will study at Zhuo academies, learn from Zhuo artisans, train with Zhuo soldiers and serve Zhuo ministers and officials as attendants and scribes. And in exchange, five hundred subjects of Zhuo to take up residence in the Empire of Yi every year, doing the same. It was my idea,’ she added, and for a moment she looked both fiercely proud and a little bashful, and it was all Gu Qing could do not to lean over and kiss her.
‘The hope,’ Yelü Ning went on, ‘is that the more our people know of each other, and the more closely our lives are entwined together, the less likely it is that we will want to take up arms against each other. It is one thing to call for war against a faceless enemy, quite another to imagine cutting down the classmate whose notes you used to borrow, or the fellow apprentice you once made fun of your master with. I imagine that the participants will be mainly young people, keen for opportunities they would not otherwise have. And so, in ten or fifteen years, Captain Qian’s son and Captain Erliben’s son may indeed find themselves studying or training alongside each other.’ Her smile faded slightly. That is the hope, at least. Whether it will come to fruition or not, I … truly cannot say. But I thought it had to be worth a try, at least.’
Gu Qing stared at her, lost in admiration. It was only when Yelü Ning waved a hand in front of her face that she came back to her senses, and had to scrambled after the question she wanted to ask. ‘But how did you get them to put it into the treaty in the first place? Don’t tell me you just … sneakily wrote it in while they were busy arguing over whether the Emperor of Yi should address the Dowager Empress of Zhuo as “cousin” or “aunt”?’
Yelü Ning chuckled. ‘If only it had been that simple. No, first of all, I knew I had to secure strong backing for my proposal. I sent a message to my mother and aunts, after it became clear that our plan — your plan, rather’ — and here she gave Gu Qing a smile of such sudden tenderness that Gu Qing forgot how to breathe, for a dangerously prolonged moment — ‘had succeeded. They, in turn, called a meeting of the councils of all eight major clans.’
Gu Qing nodded. Yelü Ning had told her something of how the clans worked. Yi society had been organised along clan lines long before the Yi Empire came into being, and the balance of power between the throne and the clans was a delicate one. As far as Gu Qing could work out, it consisted of a tacit agreement that all of the clans would support the emperor completely and without reservation, provided that the emperor refrained from asking them to do anything their elders might find unpalatable.
‘I knew I stood a reasonably good chance of success,’ Yelü Ning continued. ‘A good proportion of the elders of each clan are in favour of peace, or at least peace for now, for a mixture of reasons, some more laudable than others. The clans whose ancestral lands lie closest to the border have borne the greatest brunt of the war, and are anxious for respite. The elders of my own clan’ — which was also the Yi emperor’s own clan, Gu Qing knew — ‘have, for some time, been unhappy with the way the emperor has ridden roughshod over their concerns about the impact of a drawn-out military campaign, and see the abrupt termination of that campaign as a well-deserved rebuke. And then there are those clans who are not opposed to an expansionist military policy in principle, but are vehemently opposed to any campaign that would bring thousands upon thousands of new subjects that owe no allegiance to any clan under the banner of Yi.’ She grimaced. ‘But that is a discussion for another time. Given all this, I knew that if I presented the proposal to them in the same way as I explained it to you, it would be dismissed out of hand. So instead, I pointed out that this scheme would allow us, that is to say, the Empire of Yi, with the perfect opportunity to embed agents of our choosing within all levels of Zhuo society, so that we would never be taken unawares by any invasion again. In the end, six out of eight clans, including the Yelü clan, agreed to throw their support behind my proposal. I then presented it to Prince Nu, the head of our peace delegation. Prince Nu is of the Shulü clan, whose lands lie closest to the border. He was immediately in favour.’
‘So that’s how you talked them round,’ Gu Qing marvelled. ‘But what about our side? The Zhuo delegation, I mean. Weren’t they, well, suspicious?’
‘I was concerned that would be the case, which was why I engaged in a little subterfuge. After the first day of peace negotiations, I arranged for a discussion between Prince Nu and me to be overheard by some of the junior officials from the Zhuo delegation. I made it very clear to Prince Nu that I was concerned that the Zhuo delegation, cunning negotiators that they were, would come up with some scheme that would enable them to spy on us under the pretext of strengthening the friendship between our two countries. I even gave some examples of what such a scheme might look like. The following day, the Zhuo delegation had produced a draft version of what is now the cultural exchange clause. All we had to do was put up a token show of resistance.’
Gu Qing laughed, smacking the grass beside her in glee. ‘So our officials will be watching your spies watch us, while yours watch ours watching you,’ she said. ‘And all the while, the young people who aren’t spies will be allowed to get on with the business of getting to know each other.’ She shook her head, looking at Yelü Ning in wonder. ‘Yelü Ning oh Yelü Ning, what surprises should I expect from you next? I’ve seen you hit an archery target from horseback at a full gallop, and I’ve seen you go one hundred and eight rounds against one of the most fearsome fighters from the Moshan Brotherhood without breaking a sweat, and now you’re proving to have a real flair for political manoeuvring as well. Is there anything you can’t do?’
Yelü Ning made a show of thinking this over. ‘Well,’ she said finally. ‘my cooking skills are not the most refined, as you know all too well.’
‘If you’re referring to the tangyuan incident, I would like to point out that I never said a single word— ’
‘You didn’t have to! The look on your face when you came into the kitchen was enough.’
They shared a moment of companionable silence, looking out at the western sky and its blaze of red and gold.
‘Although,’ said Yelü Ning, after a while, ‘if the governments of both countries do intend to use the cultural exchange scheme as a pretext for spying on a mass scale, they will soon find their plans significantly curtailed.’
‘The treaty imposes on both countries the obligation to receive five hundred delegates every year through the cultural exchange scheme, but each country reserves the right to object to any particular delegate chosen by the other, where there are reasonable grounds for believing that the selection was not made in good faith. I intend to use every method at my disposal to ensure that the Yi delegation is composed of as many genuine scholars, trainees and apprentices as possible, even if it means I have to slip information to my Zhuo counterparts that would give them grounds for rejecting a particular candidate. And needless to say, I will be scrutinising the lists of Zhuo delegates very carefully.’
Gu Qing’s head snapped towards her. ‘Wait. You will be scrutinising the lists…?’
‘Yes,’ said Yelü Ning. ‘As of this morning, I am no longer a battalion commander of the Yi army, but a junior official within … well, I suppose you would call it the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, with responsibility for administering this new cultural exchange scheme between the Empires of Yi and Zhuo. A demotion in practice, as General Xiao was happy to remind me, but to a post I much prefer.’ She plucked at little self-consciously at the front of her robe.
Daringly, Gu Qing reached out and stroked the fabric of the robe where it lay across Yelü Ning’s knee. ‘I was going to say, it suits you.’
‘Thank you,’ said Yelü Ning.
They sat looking at each other for a long moment. Gu Qing realised that her hand was still on Yelü Ning’s knee, but she felt absolutely no inclination to move it away, and it didn’t seem as if Yelü Ning wanted her to, either. In fact, Gu Qing fancied that she had shifted a little closer.
‘Of course,’ said Yelü Ning at length. ‘I will need an advisor. Someone who has travelled the length and breadth of the Empire of Zhuo, and is familiar with different spheres of life, particularly the less rarefied ones. Someone who has already shown their commitment to bringing about peace and strengthening the bonds between our two countries.’ She looked steadily at Gu Qing.
Gu Qing’s heart did not so much skip a bit as turn several backflips and wind up somewhere in the region of her throat. She forced herself to take a deep breath. ‘And would this person have to be a Yi subject?’ she asked cautiously.
‘No,’ said Yelü Ning immediately. ‘In fact, it would be preferable if they were not, as they would be better placed to spot issues I might miss. Though they would, of course, need to have some knowledge of the Yi language and Yi customs, and a willingness to learn more. The post would not be an imperial appointment, either, so there would be no question of having to swear fealty to the Emperor of Yi. Even the most free-spirited of Zhuo subjects would balk at that, I suspect. No, the appointment would remain strictly a matter between the two of us. And also,’ she added, a little note of uncertainty in her voice — Yelü Ning, uncertain? — ‘it would make things much easier for my advisor should they wish to … step down from their post. There would be no need to petition the emperor for a discharge; a simple word with me would do.’
‘I can’t imagine why anyone would want to do that,’ said Gu Qing faintly.
‘It would not be a particularly settled life,’ said Yelü Ning. ‘Six months in Yi, overseeing the selection of the candidates, identifying placements for them, and making arrangements with our Zhuo counterparts. Six months in Zhuo, making sure that our delegates are settling into their training and apprenticeships, and that our Zhuo counterparts are holding up their end of the bargain. Then back across the border to begin the cycle anew. We … that is, my advisor and I would be spending a lot of time together, often in close quarters.’ She shot a sidelong glance at Gu Qing. ‘They might soon find that life tiring.’
‘I think that’s very unlikely,’ said Gu Qing, more firmly this time. She reached out just a little further, and placed her hand over Yelü Ning’s, ready to draw in back in case there had been some horrible misunderstanding—
But Yelü Ning only threaded her fingers through Gu Qing’s, and turned to her with a smile that put the sunset to shame. ‘Well. Is that a yes then, Qingqing?’
‘On one condition,’ said Gu Qing, her head buzzing with joy.
‘You are going to have to come back to Feihua Pavilion with me, and explain to my master exactly how her favourite disciple has been led so far astray from our sect’s proud tradition of the wandering hero.’
Yelü Ning frowned. ‘If you think your master might object— ’
‘No, no, it’s nothing like that at all!’ said Gu Qing hastily. ‘I was trying to make a joke. Not a very good one, I can see that now. No, my master couldn’t possibly object. We’re disciples of the Feihua Pavilion, after all. Let the falling blossoms drift where they will, and all that. Besides, she hasn’t got much of a leg to stand on. She once spent a whole year minding a tavern halfway up Tianshan.’
‘She always said it was because of the scenery. I think it was because she’d heard that the new leader of the Tianshan Sect was an exceptionally beautiful woman.’
‘So she did go all the way up there to admire the scenery, then.’
Gu Qing eyed Yelü Ning suspiciously. ‘Was that a joke?’
Yelü Ning shrugged. ‘As the Zhuo saying goes, those who keep company with ink find themselves stained black.’
‘Me? Ink?’ Gu Qing yelped in mock indignation. ‘Shouldn’t it be, those who keep company with vermillion find themselves burnished red?’
‘Let’s ask your master to be the judge of that, shall we?’
‘So you will come back with me to see her then?’ asked Gu Qing, a little anxiously. ‘I wasn’t joking about that part. I … really would like you to meet her. And … I think she would like that too. And you. She would really like you, is what I mean to say.’
‘On one condition.’ Yelü Ning was smiling again.
‘The next time we cross into Yi lands, you will have to meet my mother and aunts. They are all very curious to see the woman who brought two empires to their knees with nothing but a single question.’ She chuckled at Gu Qing’s surprise. ‘You didn’t think my message to them was all about diplomatic manoeuvring, did you? Although you will have to be prepared for many tests of your mettle, at least for the first month or so. Sparring matches with my aunts. Long runs across the plains with my mother. At some point, likely within the first ten days of your visit, one of my cousins will present you with a raw rabbit’s liver at dinner and claim that it is a delicacy.’
‘Properly prepared and served with deer’s tongue sauce, yes. But it is also what we serve to unsuspecting Zhuo guests as a test of their sincerity.’
Gu Qing laughed. ‘In that case, Ning-er, I would eat a thousand rabbit’s livers for you.’
‘I have to warn you, it is something of an acquired taste. I would suggest not making any rash promises before you try— ’
Gu Qing drew Yelü Ning into her arms and kissed her. For a moment, she wondered why she had waited so long to do this, and then she stopped thinking about very much at all.
The sun set over the western plains.
It was, they later agreed, the most glorious sunset they had ever seen.