-------------------Chapter Nine, As Told By Xiao Ping and Wen Hung-Lo---------------------

The Trebuchet

I was supposed to have been getting ready for my wedding that morning; instead, I was getting ready for an assault.

Xia and I carefully uncrated my new looking glass. It was huge as mirrors went, and cost a thousand Jin. The deliveryman stayed and made sure it hadn’t shattered before he left. I’m sure he was wondering why such a plain woman would need such a large mirror. I told him it was for Xia.

The mirror had a luxurious gilded frame and it weighed as much as a heavy shield. While mirrors were used for admiring one’s own beauty (or hating the lack thereof), this one had another real purpose; I was going to use it to scry on Ochir. He still had not returned from the Mongol controlled side of the river. We had to find out if he was being held against his will, or was staying because he wanted to. 

We laid the mirror flat upon the floor and I sat down cross-legged and peered into it. At first, I could see only Dipaka’s reflection and the ceiling above him as he stood across from me.

Dipaka began speaking softly, “You are getting sleepy… very sleepy… concentrate on my words…”

I concentrated hard on his voice and it changed into Ochir’s. Suddenly I could see and hear Ochir through the looking glass.

I could see Chaka and Aju having an early breakfast with him and a couple of the other Gnomish engineers. Aju scowled at Ochir.

“What do you have to say for yourself? How did the woman escape?”

“Well, she is a Sorceress; she probably flew away with her magic,” Ochir said.

“Magic? She uses magic? That would have been nice information to have before now!” Aju huffed.

“You never asked. I was trained to follow orders and keep my mouth shut,” Ochir explained.

“You’re not keeping your mouth shut now, Zhuru!” Aju warned. “Maybe you should.”

“Maybe you should worry about defeating the entire Song Empire and not one skinny girl! She’s a Jap, really, and not necessarily on the side of the Chinese, if someone here were to talk to her maybe she would come over to the Mongol way. Then maybe Japan could be persuaded join our Empire without a fight. Think of what the Hubidai Khan, no, the Kublai Kahn, will say if you accomplish that.”

“See Aju! That was our plan all along,” Chaka said.

He gave her a dirty look. “You’re in this with him aren’t you?” He slammed his fist down on the table. “We can’t let wind of this fiasco get back to Hubidai. We’re going after the Witch,” he said, “and we’re going to get her back.”

“There’s no need to do that,” Ochir said. “She’ll come here on her own with all of her friends and attack the trebuchet. They're a bunch of feckless do-gooders. They’ll make it their main objective. Trust me.”

“Hmmm…” Aju considered. “Perhaps you are right, Gnome. But you would have me sit here with my thumb up my ass and do nothing until she comes to us?”

“Actually, yes. Put everything you’ve got here and wait and I guarantee you that she'll come down on this position hard. Then you can recapture her at that point. Whether or not you keep your thumb up your ass until then is entirely up to you.”

Aju was silent for a while as he ate some food. “Maybe you’re just trying to keep me here, away from the real attack--” His voice faded.

I gradually came back into my own house and living room. Dipaka was shining a light into my eyes, one at a time. He snapped his fingers in front of me.

“Hey, that’s enough Di,” I said. Dipaka took the light away and looked somewhat relieved.

My eyelids felt very heavy. I took a deep breath and tried to shake the feeling away. Dipaka helped me to my feet.

“Well, it worked. I could see and hear what Ochir and Chaka were doing. Aju was there. Ochir talked him out of coming after me directly. He’s doing a good job of being believable. Too good, maybe,” I said.

I was worried. He was playing a dangerous game.

“He did tell them we’d be coming, though, and to have a welcoming committee ready for us when we arrive.”

“What are we going to do?” Xia asked.

“We’re going to give them what they want.”

We all went to meet General Dan in the early morning darkness. It sprinkled as we walked through the misty streets. The drops were cold on our faces.

Wen asked us all to stop for a minute. We gathered around him to hear what he had to say.

“Champion Lo, I have a favor to ask of you. I would be honored if you would help me in my quest to destroy the trebuchet. After that has been accomplished, I would also be honored if you would be my best man.”

“My friend, it goes without saying that I will help you destroy the Trebuchet. These Mongols are a stinky little people. I do not know why it has taken us so long to join this War against them.” He paused, looked puzzled for for a moment, and then asked, “What is a best man?”

He was truly a Goliath. Wen laughed before he answered, “Why, he is an honored friend that stands by a man's side at his wedding and makes sure that no one attacks the wedding party, and he gives a hopefully kindhearted speech afterward.”

“And he dances with the Maid of Honor,” Xia said. 

“I would be honored to do all of these things,” Lo said.

Lo and Xia were an item now; I gathered that something had happened between them while I had been held captive at the stockade. They seemed happy together. I instantly got on very well with Xia. Perhaps it was because we were both innkeepers’ daughters. Maybe it was because we were both mages.

Lo had showered Xia with expensive gifts. One was a magic wand of eagles splendor. It could bestow a temporary personality improvement on someone. It was said that even a black hearted curmudgeon could be made to sing as smoothly as a lark. Wang Chung had actually constructed the wand. Pang Mei had secretly arranged the whole thing.

Wen said next to Dipaka: “Father, I was wondering if you would do us the honor of conducting the wedding ceremony.” Wen looked at me. “That is if it’s ok with you, my Bride.”

“Of course!” I said. “I would rather have Dipaka marry us than the Emperor himself.” I meant it too. We had been through a lot together.

“Oh my,” Dipaka said, overjoyed. “I have learned something of your Chinese customs, but it is true that they are not my own. You must forgive me the details, but I think I can manage something!”

“If you include something about Bahamut in there, it should be just fine,” Wen said, smiling.

We set off again. The light rain had stopped.

A few minutes later, as the morning sun squatted at the edge of the sky and shadows stretched across the city, I briefed the men on the logistics of the upcoming flight.

“The duration of the flying effect will be about five minutes. We will advance to the starting position on foot and then drink potions and activate the rings. We will fly at thirty feet above the ground and straight over the river to the trebuchet. Stay thirty feet apart from each other. This will prevent more than one warrior at a time from being caught by trebuchet fire. The winds are currently high; it will take some extra time to get there safely. Get out right away after the engine has been destroyed, while you can still fly. You must get over the river before the spell is done or you will be lost in Mongol territory.”

I scanned their faces; they were tough men that had endured a long terrible siege. They knew what failure meant.

Wen cleared his throat.

“Men, it's time. We have our orders. We must move into position and await the command from General Dan to attack. He has eyes in the air watching the catapult. When he is sure that the main defense has drawn off, he’ll signal us to move out.”

The eyes he was talking about were Cairn’s. She had eventually returned to her original Gnomish form after having been a Wolf for a while. It turned out she was not suffering from Lycanthropy after all, as I had so foolishly guessed. Woodland Druids were known to have Wildshapes, and it was said that they could become any other creature when disciplined enough. Cairn had a disarming appearance as a Gnomish woman, but she harbored the great power of Nature in her tiny body. That day she had transformed herself into an Eagle.

Spad the Raven soared high over the city along with Cairn. 

We were ultimately stationed where we could look upriver and see the two bridges that were going to be stormed. We waited in an area directly across from the trebuchet, where the buildings kept us hidden from the enemy’s view.

Long horns sounded and General Dan’s men rode out of their forts and charged across the bridges. We could hear war cries and the ringing of hooves on stone.

The General’s forces reached the other side of the bridges before the opposition could muster. The defenders poured hot pitch down onto the soldiers that were battering their gates with rams. As men screamed and fell, more brave men stepped forward to take their places. They knew that if they did not, there would be innocents killed that night in Hangzhou. Both gates gave way at almost the same instant. General Dan’s men poured into the enemy towers.

The Mongol drums began. It was their call to arms.

Cairn was to fly down and report the trebuchet’s guard had abandoned the catapult, but she didn’t come down. The battle raged in and beyond the towers until noon, but I could see Cairn and Spad still circling in the sky. Gray clouds had rolled in and hidden the sun.

General Dan ordered an additional naval assault. Men yelled and ran into the river with makeshift rafts and boats fashioned from old wagons. They paddled them across the river and landed unopposed. The Knights charged up the riverbanks to take out the smaller catapults. The Mongol drums doubled in speed.

I saw Cairn dive towards General Dan’s distant command position. The signal horn blatted. The time had come.

I cast a fly spell on Wen’s horse Chi Hai and she carried both of us. During our stay with the Brotherhood, we had practiced riding tightly together while the horse rode the winds. It was difficult at first. Once we got used to shifting our weight as the horse banked around turns, we could do it without having an extra fly spell on each of us for safety.

I gave Xia my jeweled ring of flying and made her invisible. I cast a mirror image on myself. Cairn returned.

We began on the ground standing in formation. Wen’s warriors and clerics stood at attention in lines, each spread out at least a fireball’s distance from each other. They were like huge wings that came from the flanks of Chi Hai. Wen and I sat in her saddle at the front and center of the formation. Lo, Aki, Dipaka and Cairn went on either side of us.

“Rise,” Wen commanded and we all slowly rose to thirty feet. Once we had stopped and he had double-checked the formation, Wen said, “Forward,” and we all flew towards the Trebuchet. We flew faster and faster. Our feet brushed the tops of tall trees but we were well above the highest roofs.

I could see the choppy reflections of our strike force in the river directly below as we sailed across. Our clothes whipped around us as we headed into the strong wind.

Suddenly I heard the whoomp whoomp and I knew what was coming. I saw a huge spiked ball soar upward and then come down straight at us. Wen, Chi Hai and I were going to be blown to bits.

“I hope you prayed hard this morning, my Husband,”

“You’d better believe I did,” Wen said.

The huge bomb missed us narrowly and plunged into the river below with a deep sploosh. The fuse sparkled all the way down; it had simply been cut too long. The bomb rose undetonated to the surface and then bobbed on down the river.

“Oh my God,” I said.

“No,” Wen said, “that was my God.”

As we reached the far riverbank, we saw that the Trebuchet was surrounded by a horde of Ogres and bugbear Persians armed with heavy crossbows.

We saw a forty-foot stone munitions tower next to the catapult that had two levels. It was constructed as if a smaller cube were stacked on top of a larger one. Its outer walls had arrow slits on both levels. There was no one stationed on its roof, but I could see movement inside through the arrow slits. The staccato rat-tat of tiny drums from inside could be heard above the wind. It was Chaka Khan beating out a heart pumping rhythm on her waist drums.

There was a much smaller guard shack out in front of the engine itself. Two especially large and ugly Ogre Brutes came out of it.

Ochir’s voice rang out from inside the tower. “This isn’t your fight Wen, go away!”

“This couldn’t be more my fight!” Wen yelled back.

“You’re supposed to be protecting your Bride now! You have to remember that you are Japanese now Wen, not Chinese!”

“Look at your troops!” Wen cried. “Ogres?” He was so disgusted he yelled again, “Ogres!?”

“What about Chinks?” Ochir asked. “They’re worse than Ogres. You’ve no real reason to attack this trebuchet. Think about it!”

Havarak growled back at Ochir and tried to shoot at him through the arrow slit but his bowstring snapped. He swore.

I spat a huge fireball down into the enemy’s ranks and it killed an Ogre and three Persians.

Suddenly a bolt of lightning flashed from the heavens and struck the trebuchet directly. The resulting crack of thunder was so loud my ears rang afterward.

“Thake that!” Cairn yelled. Somehow, she had called real lighting down from the very clouds, and it was no wimpy wand lightning like mine was. She was indeed a scion of Nature. No longer an Eagle, she rode on the back of Gun-Gun. 

The trebuchet was damaged, but it was so sturdy that it was going to take more lightning to destroy it. There was a loud and continuous clacking noise. They were drawing the arm back into firing position.

By now, the Mongols knew that the bridge attacks had mostly been a feint designed to allow us to destroy the Catapult. It would not take Aju and his men long to get back to the trebuchet.

Crossbow bolts came from the Persians, but the winds made any accurate aim next to impossible. Only one of Wen’s men was hit with an errant bolt and he just kept on flying. The eight warriors engaged the Persians in two separate groups, and the two clerics provided support.

Aki waded into the enemies and began attacking an Ogre. He dodged a crushing blow and broke one of the Ogre’s legs with a kick to the side of the knee. The Ogre screamed and dropped to the ground. Aki jabbed him in the temple and finished him.

Lo drew Suishen and rushed into the fray. He chopped an Ogre clean in half. “Aaagghh!” he bellowed, “Mongols not welcome!” A second katana swing sent a nearby Persian to his grave, and then a third swing killed another. Lo was a whirling death machine.

I kissed Wen’s cheek, and wished him luck on his charge. I rose up and away from the back of his horse. All my mirror images came with me. I hovered there, unmoving.

“By Bahamut’s bidding! We will take this field!” Wen flew Chi Hai down at an angle to meet the ground and her hooves tore up the dirt and mud as she found purchase on the riverbank. He lowered his lance and he ran it straight through an Ogre. The Ogre’s eyes bulged and it spat blood in Wen’s face. It wrested the lance from Wen’s grasp and snapped it with a roar before it died.

Ochir fired three arrows into Wen’s mount. I don’t know why. The horse showed its doughty heritage and practically ignored them. It looked up at the arrow slit Ochir’s arrows had come from and snorted.

I was growing very angry with Ochir. This wasn’t funny anymore. I bit my lip in frustration.

I spat a second fireball at the opposite side of the battlefield near where Lo was fighting. Another Ogre burned to death, and two bugbears ran away with flames leaping from their backs.

Cairn brought down another lightning bolt on the trebuchet. The sound was incredible, it was like an entire house was being demolished all in one instant. The smell of ozone and burning wood filled the air.

An Ogre sneaked up, clubbed Wen, and knocked him out cold. His feet were stuck through his stirrups, so he just lolled off to one side of his saddle. My heart felt as though it had been seized by an iron fist. The dirty Ogre smacked its caked lips, grabbed Wen, and pulled him from his steed. The monster licked Wen’s face to see if he was tasty then threw him over his shoulder. He had one massive hand wrapped around both of Wen’s ankles.

Aki engaged one of the larger Ogre Brutes by himself. He deftly swept the clumsy monster off its feet and then struck it several times in the face and neck. The Ogre howled and kicked at Aki in return.

I fired my wand of lighting at the trebuchet. I dared not think about Wen. I was honor bound to complete his mission.

Cairn pounded the catapult yet again with real lightning. She was very single minded about the objective on this one.

Three Ogres emerged from the munitions tower and ran over to put another big and bristly iron ball into the catapult’s massive spoon arm.

Dipaka ran into the very midst of the Ogres loading the catapult as though he thought no more of them than gnats. They all stopped and looked at him, astonished. Two just stood there, but one was unaffected by Dipaka’s aura and he bashed the Holy Man’s head with a powerful club swat. The club shattered, for striking Dipaka was as though striking pure Peace. The stunned Ogre and his two friends turned and ran away in fear.

“Go ahead, hit me, it’s a good way to work your frustrations out,” Dipaka said to them with a smirk.

“Hey! I told you not to hit the bald guy! And get back here!” Ochir cried. He started to climb out of the arrow slit.

Xia had remained invisible and on watch so far. “I see the Mongol horsemen heading this way! They’ll be here in a minute!” she reported. I looked over and then looked back.

I noticed Ochir was now stuck halfway out of the arrow slit. He was screaming to Chaka for help, and struggling to get free. The bizarre drumming stopped and Ochir magically shrank down in size was pulled back into the tower.

Havarak had finally restrung his bow and begun firing at the Ogre that carried Wen. I held my breath; there was always a danger that such a shot could strike the person being carried by accident. Two arrows sprouted from the Ogre’s chest. The Ogre roared, turned, and stumped towards the munitions tower.

Lo could do nothing to help Wen, he had gotten into Dipaka’s sphere of influence at the catapult, and he had succumbed.

Wen woke up and began slamming his armored fists into the Ogre’s back. The Ogre howled and pulled Wen in front of him and tried to break his neck. I screamed.

Xia popped into view and a magic missile flew into the Ogre trying to kill Wen. The Ogre dropped Wen, stumbled, and fell flat. Wen landed roughly in the dirt. Xia hit the Ogre twice more for good measure. The Ogre shuddered and lay still.

Ochir flew out of the tower and over to Dipaka. He was only a foot and half tall now; Chaka had magically shrunken him. He landed on the front of Dipaka’s glowing halo and sat with his legs dangling over the side.

“Hey Dipaka, why don’t you move forward? Give us a break, huh?” Ochir said.

“I will weigh your words,” Dipaka said, but he remained where he was.

“Hey! Let him talk, let him talk, he’s starting to make sense,” one of the Persian bugbears said. “You know, we’re going on break.”

The few surviving Persians fighting Wen’s men withdrew from the combat and deserted the catapult.

Chi Hai went over and nuzzled Wen as he got up. Wen drew his katana and used his Holy Power to heal his injured steed. Chi Hai neighed loudly.

Lo and all of Wen’s men made it to the front of the trebuchet to hack at it with their swords. They could not actually do it being so close to Dipaka’s aura of peace. They waited.

“Lo, I’m warning you!” Ochir said. He flew straight up from Dipaka’s halo and out of the Holy Man’s aura. He had wild eyes.

Another bolt of lightning from the sky cracked the siege engine. Dipaka flew up, headed back towards the river, and in so doing freed the men’s minds. “The weapon must be destroyed,” Dipaka said.

“Hah!” Lo shouted and gave the trebuchet a mighty chop. All the men began chopping at the engine with their swords too.

Ochir fired an arrow at Lo and it came so close to him that it ripped a hole in his pants. Lo looked down worriedly and Xia screamed.

Wen flew up on Chi Hai and knocked Ochir's bow from his hands.

Lo chopped again hard on the trebuchet, and it shifted, groaned, and collapsed.

The bomb that sat in the throwing arm at the rear of the weapon rolled over the back lip and blew up. Shattered beams, splinters, and shrapnel flew in every direction, but miraculously no one was close enough to the ball itself to be seriously hurt.

"Your will is done my Lady," Lo said.

We didn’t see Ochir anywhere. We gathered ourselves together and did a quick head count and headed back across the river.

When we looked back, we could see the Mongols arriving too late to a scene of utter devastation. Aju thundered up to the bank and shook his fist at us while his horse trotted back and forth. The legendary Mongol bows of wood and horn tried to bring us down, but even their great range was not enough. One Mongol even stood up on his saddle to get some extra range and hit a cleric. All the other arrows fell short and plunked into the river.

We all made it back across the water and landed safely on the other side.

We’d done it. There would be no more death from the air in Hangzhou for the time being.

Now maybe I could get married.


The Emperor

The next day there was an Imperial ceremony. We were all to be introduced the Emperor. Wen was coaching everyone on how to behave and what to say. General Dan came and thanked us again and told us to be in our fineries.

 

Lo looked at Xia and asked, "What's a finery?" 

 

“Oh Lo,” Xia said, giggling.

 

Xia helped me to get ready. I wore a new gown I had already gotten for such an occasion, and so did Xia. Wen had polished his armor again, and Lo changed his clothes. Cairn even brushed all the knots out of Gun Gun's coat and put flowers in her collar.

 

We were all part of a parade. We rode at the head of a column of the Legendary Brotherhood. Wen and I rode on Chi Hai. The crowds cheered, and people threw confetti into the air.

 

We arrived at the Imperial Palace, a magnificent stone fortress guarded by enormous winding stone dragons. They looked down on us with their stone eyes. We went in a line under the massive open fortress gates.  

 

There was an expansive courtyard filled with people, and there was a raised area with a ramp and a stair. There was a throne and a row of chairs at its center. 

 

Emperor Lizong was resplendent in his shimmering silk hanzhuang huafu. It was yellow and embroidered with red details. The sleeves of it draped all the way to the ground and back up again; there was a servant behind the Emperor on each side of him just for carrying them. The Emperor had a tall and narrow crown of gold filigree that had pointed petals pointing in four directions. He had a long black beard that was meticulously groomed and shaped. His black eyebrows were very thick, and his eyes were brown and baleful.

 

We dismounted and then came to stand before the Emperor. General Dan introduced us.  

 

“This young man is Captain Wen Hung-Lo, he is the Grandson of the Governor of Guangdong Province. He has protected and served the Caravan that delivered the supplies that allowed us to weather the winter here. Yesterday, he led the attack that destroyed the trebuchet that threatened the city. He returned with his strike force intact, down to the least in rank. He’s faced hordes of Ninjas, Ogres, Jurchens, and even been a prisoner of war. He is a fine young Paladin whose bravery is next to none. These are his staunch companions.”  He waved his hand to Wen to present the rest of us.

 

“The Captain will take over from here,” General Dan said. Wen bowed.

 

“My Emperor, this is my Betrothed, Aiko Kaijitsu. She is one of the only living direct descendents of the Amatatsu. She can and does speak for herself,” Wen said.

 

I bowed before the Emperor. 

 

“I am honored to be in your presence Emperor,” I said, “I found your Mother charming when I had the pleasure of meeting her in Guangzhou. She spoke of you quite fondly. I look forward to building a bridge between our peoples.”  My eyes met those of the Emperor for just an instant; they were covered with thickly folded eyelids. I lowered my eyes.

 

Wen went on with the introductions. “This is Lo, my Bride’s House Champion, and wielder of Suishen, the House Katana of the Amatatsu.”

 

“This silent Monk is Aki, and I know of no warrior his equal.  He will often deal with more than twice as many foes in a battle as any of us can, and with no weapons.”

 

“This lovely girl is Cairn, she is a Druid of the Woods, and she has rescued me and aided us in our travels.” Cairn smiled, giggled, and sprinkled flower petals from her tiny hands.

 

“This is Dipaka, our Spiritual Advisor and Healer, and his wisdom in many things is unending. He is nonviolent per his order.” Dipaka bowed.

 

“You have a halo? Are you glowing? What trickery is this?’ the Emperor asked.

 

“It is no trickery, your Majesty,” Wen said, “Dipaka is indeed so devout that he has been anointed by the Gods. He glows.”

 

The Emperor sat back and regarded us all. After a time he spoke.

 

“Our Nation needs heroes in these times of War. You are to be commended for your service. And rewarded. We will show you our generosity. We shall have our Imperial Wu Jen fashion a wonderous item for each of you.”

 

We all looked at each other, this was amazing.

 

"Captain, you have my blessing to marry your Japanese Princess. A good day will be in two week’s time,” the Emperor said. We shall need time to make the rings that shall adorn your fingers at your wedding!”

 

Dipaka asked that his item be endless clean water for the people. The Emperor ordered that they build him a large public fountain and even carved marble a statue of him on top. When Dipaka consecrated the fountain, it became a blessed font and those that drank of its waters would always be healthy. He preached to people around his fountain morning, noon, and night. His sermons drew huge crowds. He took the opportunity to guide and direct people from all walks of life.

 


The Wedding

Wen and I were re-assigned to separate houses, and I was in my house with Xia, while Wen was in his house with Lo and his Sergeants.

 

The night before the wedding, I sat next to a window where I could see the Moon. Xia combed my hair four times in a series of ritual combings. Each combing stood for something different. The first combing symbolized time from beginning to end. The second symbolized harmony from now till old age. The third symbolized sons and grandsons in abundance. The fourth symbolized good wealth and a long-lasting marriage.

 

The next morning, I took a shower and Xia scrubbed me clean everywhere. I put on new underwear, as it was a wedding custom. Xia helped me to put on my red wedding dress. We burned incense until we were both lightheaded.

 

Dipaka knocked and I went out front and he tied my hands with a silver cord. He covered my head with a red veil. He led me out to the street and into a red palanquin. Everyone was there, they were bearing the palanquin themselves.  As we went to the wedding place, they shook the palanquin roughly, to symbolize my passing from my family into Wen’s family. I had a bruise or two by the end of it; my friends take their symbolism seriously. Lo sure can shake a palanquin.

 

Cairn arranged tons of flowers and placed them everywhere along the route to the wedding place. She had done a fantastic job decorating the wedding place too. It was beautiful.

 

We served tea to our elders according to custom; I served tea to Pang Mei, since she was my only elder. I wished my parents form Silk's End could have been there, but they didn't even know I was getting married. General Dan sat in as Wen’s Family elder.

 

At the end Dipaka said to Wen, "By Bahamut’s Bidding, I now pronounce that she is your possession, and as with any possession you must treat her with respect.”

 

Wen lifted my red veil. I smiled and looked deep into Wen’s eyes. I loved him. I was so happy. We exchanged rings, and we kissed.

 

"Now a Daughter of Japan is married to a Son of China, and as they are linked, so are our Nations. When you have retrieved power in Japan, you must bring an army back to help us with the Mongols," the Emperor said.

 

Everyone gave me red envelopes filled with money. Cairn had even given me all of the money that she had. She said she didn’t really have a need for money, and she wanted us to have it. Lo gave me a new warhorse. It was a boy. I named him Mayor. Everyone was quite generous, I felt quite loved.

 

Aki gave me a letter.

 

Dear Princess Xiao Ping,


My full name is Akira Yoshi, a Monk of the order of Kuan Yin, Our Lady of Mercy. The Monks of Kuan Yin have been teachers, advisors, protectors, and friends to the royal house of Kaijitsu for many generations. We are also Guardians of the Warding Box and the Seal of Amatatsu.


Japan is and has been on the brink of civil war. The great lords have amassed power and wealth through their alliances with Jurchens, Undead, Demons, and other evil spirits.


Your grandfather, Lord Rokoru, in his despair and frustration with the impending Civil War, called the Warding Box and Seal from our monastery’s catacombs, thinking that with the power of the Seal he could end the war and bring peace back to the land. He was in error. The power of the Seal could not be so readily used against one's enemies, and the cost of the assumption was great. The cost was his life and the displacement of your family. You and your sister were secretly taken out of Japan and hidden in Silk's End, under the protection of Lord Sywan, one of his most trusted friends outside of Japan.


Our order has sent many Monks to the far reaches of the World to locate the Box and Seal, and to find you and your sister. The Monks on this mission could never speak of their purpose. We each took a vow of silence, never to speak until the task was completed. I was the lucky one that stumbled on your trail and came to Silk's End. I knew I was on the right track when I saw the Kami, a weapon of our order. Rokuro must have written that letter and asked one of my Monk brothers to deliver it to Lord Sywan to give to you. Unfortunately, Lord Sywan had his own problems and my Monk brother went missing. The secret message never made it to your hands until I arrived in Silk's End. One of the Great Lords had discovered your whereabouts and corrupted Lord Sywan in his Tower. This was no coincidence. Jurchens, Undead, and foul spirits are definitely signs of external influence. Silk's End was too small and remote to have such a concentration of evil activity. Truly, one of the great lords has grown very powerful indeed to reach so far from Japan.


With your father and mother missing or dead, your older sister Princess Amieko is in line to be the next Empress of Japan.


Your sister and you are the only hope to reunite our people and bring peace to the land. You must rally the great lords and exact justice on them if they prove to be beyond redemption.


I am your humble servant. How shall I be of service to the House Kaijitsu?


Aki

 

At the reception, food of many kinds was brought out in courses by the Emperor's servants. We all ate amazing delicacies from many different lands. After a few plates, Lo stood and cleared his throat to begin his toast. 

 

“As some of you may know, I’m not like the rest of you,” a ripple of laughter went through the crowd. "You all took in a wayward soul when he had no place else to go, and gave him new purpose. You are brave and noble people with good hearts. Wen is a warrior that knows no equal. Xiao Ping is a strong woman who quit crying long ago. I wish only the best to you both."

 

Sandru followed this with a long and winding toast, and the jewel in his turban glittered. 

 

I danced with Wen and then Lo and Sandru and Aki and Dipaka and all the other people there. I had the time of my life. Pang Mei sang a soaring aria and had us all in the stalls.

 

Wen and I went back to our house to have our wedding night. I broke a shoe on the way, and Wen carried me for a few blocks. A clump of the more drunken guests followed us home.

 

Wen carried me across the threshold and then set me down and kissed me hard.

 

We went into the wedding room and saw the bed. It was covered with nuts and fruits and flower petals laid out by Cairn. Wen brushed all of it onto the floor.

 

Wen slowly took off my clothes. I could hear muffled comments and laughter through the paper-thin walls. I didn’t care. I wanted Wen. I had waited all my life for this. I grabbed him and pulled him down onto me. We kissed for a long time before he took me. 

 

Later, we were lying in each other's arms in a state of bliss when we were shaken violently by a loud explosion. I had a terrible feeling. We had destroyed the trebuchet; how could they hit us again?

 

We got out of bed and rushed outside and I saw that Pang Mei’s house was gone. Flames were shooting up fifty feet into the air. Pang Mei was standing blackened and her eyes were wet and red. She was shivering and bleeding. I ran to her side.

 

"What happened?" I asked, practically yelling over the raging and crackling inferno.

 

“I went outside to get some air, when I came back…the whole house exploded,” she sobbed, “They're all dead!” she was beyond wracked with grief and we sank together to the street. Sandru, the Jade Archer, and the Fortune Teller had been inside the house.

 

“The Seal!” Pang Mei cried, “It was in there too! We can't bring them back to life!" She choked. "There is no way to reclaim my Empire now!” she wailed and hid her face.

 

This explosion had not been caused by a trebuchet projectile. Someone had planted a bomb in Pang Mei's house while we were all at the wedding ceremony. It was someone who knew about the wedding, and knew us very well. This smelled of the Frozen Shadows, but they had been all wiped out. We had destroyed a Chinese arm of a large and spidery organization, but it appeared that it was not entirely gone. I thought about the Ninja Pang Mei had said vanished in a puff of smoke.

 

We discovered later that during the ceremony another incident had taken place. Two rough men with a large cart had tried to make an unscheduled delivery to the Imperial Palace and were detained. It was rumored that they had hidden a large trebuchet projectile under a tarp and some goods. Someone was after the Emperor as well.

 

"In the face of this act of cowardice, I would not leave for Japan my Lady, I would stay here in China and help fight these Mongols! You cannot claim the throne now anyway!" Lo thundered.

 

Lo's words made sense. 

 

"Well," Marco said, "That's not exactly true. You can still claim the Throne." He put his backpack down on the ground and opened it up. The Warding Box was inside. 

 

I ran over and hugged Marco. "Thank you Marco! You saved it!"

 

"Well, sure, I wouldn't let you down," Marco said, smiling. 


The Forbidden City

We used the Seal to resurrect the Jade Archer. Her hair was luxurious even after being brought back from the dead. She made me sick.

 

After being used to resurrect the Spiritfolk, the Seal was inert for a month. Sandru and the Fortune Teller would have to remain dead until we could resurrect them.

 

In April, winter broke and it is was safe to travel again. The Sapporo Wind arrived in port. As we were getting ready to leave for Japan, I heard rumors that Maffeo wanted to talk to us.

 

Before talking to Maffeo, I invited Marco to have sake with Xia and I. We were having a good time, and Marco was talking a lot and trying to impress Xia. I asked Marco if his uncle had something secret, would he tell us what it was.

 

"Yeah, I know everything," he said, "before we came to the Orient we made a stop in Rome, you know, where my uncle Maffeo spoke with the Cardinal at the Temple of Jupiter. He gave us something to take to the Kublai Khan."

 

"What could be so important?" I asked.

 

"I don't know," Marco said.

 

"Do you know where it is? Do you have it?" I asked.

 

"No, I don't have it," Marco laughed.

 

"Why don't you have it?" I wondered.

 

"Because my Uncle has it. I saw him lock it in a coffer. I can't pick the lock, I already tried."

 

We drank some more and went home.

 

Maffeo called a meeting with us the next day. He stood up on a crate for his speech.

 

"I need you to go to Beijing with us. I went with you. Now you have to go with us." Maffeo said.

 

"We can't go sailing up the Grand Canal to Beijing through Mongol territory!" I cried. "We'd never make it. Not even twenty miles up the canal."

 

"The Mongols are not an unreasonable people. We just need to tell them that we have a message from our leader and they will let us go through. They might even give us an escort." Maffeo said.

 

"Why do you have to go to see the Khan? You want us to sail up the canal all the way through Mongol enemy territory to Beijing just to say "Hello" to the Kublai Khan?"  I asked.

 

"Ok, I'll tell you. I am carrying a delicate writing from the Pontifus Maximus of the Holy Roman Empire. This could mean peace for Italy and the rest of Europe."

 

"I don't think so Maffeo, it's way too dangerous. We can ill afford to get the Seal that close to a mad Mongol Emperor."

 

"But the Khan will welcome us with open arms!" Maffeo said. "We need you guys, you know, in case the Mongols get cranky."

 

"It sounds like you are a bit worried about the Mongol reception to me," I said.

 

Maffeo frowned. "My nephew Marco has saved your precious Seal twice now. You owe us."

 

Damn. He was right about that. It was true that Marco had saved the Amatatsu Seal several times.

 

"The only way we'll go with you is if we get to see this artifact," I said.

 

Maffeo scowled, but went to get the coffer. When he returned he opened it and showed us a fat and ornate scroll. I could tell it was a Holy scroll of incredible power. I could feel the Holy magic radiating from it. I could only guess what prayer was on it.

 

"Very well, we will sell the Caravan and take the Sapporo Wind along the Grand Canal north to Beijing," Pang Mei said.

 

My sister looked at me. "Why don't you send a message to Ochir and ask him to come," Pang Mei asked.

 

I used my mirror again to scry on Ochir. There was a chance that if I cast the spell just right, I could send a message through. I got lucky.

 

"Polos have secret artifact... stop. Heading north to Beijing aboard Sapporo Wind... stop. Join us at once... stop. Bring your girlfriend Chaka... stop."

 

Ochir asked Chaka to come with us. He told her that we were not her enemies.

 

"I know, I don't think they are my enemies, but I'll need you to vouch for my safety." Ochir told her that he could not vouch for her safety. "Very well, I will bring my henchmen along," she said.

 

On the day we were to set sail on the Grand Canal, there were four Gnomes standing at the bottom of the gangplank.

 

"Ochir, what is your purpose here?" Wen asked.

 

"The same as you, I'm here to escort the Polos to Beijing." Ochir said.

 

Maffeo came to the rescue. "Yes indeed. Ochir is my employee. And his Gnomes. All aboard."

 

Ochir made a rude Mongolian gesture to Wen's horse and walked right by him.

 

We went north along the Grand Canal aboard the Sapporo Wind. The Captain was a dry wisp of a man bent on being alone. He stank of booze and sweat. Every hundred miles or so, a town would appear. Its population would be half-and-half humans and goblinoids. There were Ogres working the canal locks. They were slaves, cogs in the Mongol war machine. There were pig farms that spewed feces and waste into the canal. The smell was atrocious.

 

There was no banditry on the bleak canal, but it was run by slavers as far as I was concerned. No one stopped us for any reason. It was too foul.

 

It was May when we arrived in Beijing. The Capital City was home to almost a million people. We were placed under heavy guard when we arrived. We had waited a week for an audience when we were at last led from our rooms. 

 

The Khan had returned from a hunt with only about one hundred of his men. They had killed and brought back a Dire Rhinoceros. 

 

We were admitted to see not the Khan, but Chabui Qatun, the Khan's wife.

 

Chabui was the Khan's second wife and was said to be quite savvy. She was an older woman, in her seventies, I guessed. She was very petite and seemed like she might blow away. She had an old woman's twinkle in her eye. Here was the gentle wife of the fierce Khan. She had a glowing nimbus like Dipaka. Her halo glowed just as brightly as Dipaka’s. Dipaka regarded her with awe and wonder.

 

"It is an honor to be in each other's presence,” she said to Dipaka. Dipaka nodded wordlessly. He had not expected a devout Holy woman.

 

“So Dipaka, what brings you and your friends to Beijing?" Chabui asked.

 

"My purpose is to heal the World. When I travel with these people, I get to do that on a regular basis," he answered.

 

"Who will speak for your group?" Chabui asked.

 

“I will,” I said. 

 

Dipaka's mouth dropped open when I spoke out of turn. Instead of appearing insulted, Chabui smiled.

 

"My wife will speak for us," Wen said, quickly. 

 

I was nervous, but I tried to steady my voice.

 

"We have escorted the Polo family here to seek an audience with the Kublai Khan," I said. 

 

I should have stopped right there, but instead I kept on talking. 

 

"Mayhap someday our countries will be friends,” I went on. "Perhaps you will allow me to regale you sometime with tales of our adventures. We have many Bards in our group, who can sing our tales to you if you like,” I babbled.

 

Chabui’s face was stern. "Look at me child, if Buddha is kind, I am you thirty years from now. Maybe even twenty," she said, her eyes twinkling. "I have heard too many tales."

 

Ochir impatiently cleared his throat, and stepped forward. "If you'll excuse me, the important thing here is that the Polo family has an important message for Kublai Khan," he said. "Allow me to introduce Maffeo Polo."

 

Maffeo stepped up. "I come from Italy with a message from the Pontifus Maximus of the Holy Roman Empire. We are here to present the great Khan with a special gift to elicit peace between our peoples."

 

Maffeo waved his hand, and Marco stepped forward, dropped to one knee, and held out the coffer. Maffeo unlocked it with a special key that hung on a golden chain around his neck. Chabui's eyes widened when she saw what was inside the box. She didn’t speak for a long time.

 

"I will show you to the Khan,” she finally said. I thought I could hear a sadness in her voice.

 

She walked out of the chamber and we followed her. We went down several long tiled hallways and through majestic parlors lined with paintings and sculptures. Curling gilded dragons leered at us, crouching everywhere and on top of everything. We moved out of the interior and into an open aired section of the Palace. I could now smell horse shit and hear dogs barking and growling. We saw an arch and there were guards on either side.  

 

“You must leave your weapons here to go beyond,” Chabui said. I handed my spear Win Ju to Lo. Havarak handed him Snick, Snack, and Thrack. Wen handed Lo his sword, and said, “Here’s your old katana back.” and snickered. Lo grunted and added Wen’s weapon to the growing collection. “Am I the only one staying here?” Lo asked.

 

“No, Xia’s staying with you,” I said. 

 

We were led into an arena where the great Kublai Khan was riding in a circle on his horse. We were allowed to come up to the fence to see the Khan like we were small children. He ignored us completely.

 

“Stop riding for a minute, great Khan,” Chabui said. “There is someone here to see you.”

 

The Khan ignored his wife and continued to ride. He was sunburned and red. His mustache was flecked with gray. His eyes were dead coals.

 

"We have brought a message from the Pope," Maffeo called out and the Khan stopped. He rode his horse over to the rail and looked at Maffeo. 

 

Marco bowed and held the coffer out again while Maffeo opened it to display the scroll. The Khan blinked and looked at Chabui.

 

"Go ahead, my wife," the Khan said.

 

Chabui closed her eyes and creased her brow and concentrated on the scroll. When she looked up, she said, "It is a scroll of True Resurrection, as you demanded, my Husband."

 

“Very good,” Kublai Khan said. "I will withdraw my troops from Europe." 

 

He looked down at Maffeo. "You and your group will stay in the Forbidden City until I say otherwise,” he said, and rode away. I got the feeling the Khan would never concern himself with us again.

 

We remained in the Forbidden City for three months. The city had once served as the capital of the Jin Dynasty, but it was burned down in 1215 by the Mongols. In 1264, Kublai Khan decided to rebuild the city as his new capital. He had remained in Xanadu during the construction. The original architect and planner of the Khan's new city was Liu Bingzhong. The construction of the walls of the city began in the same year, along with the Imperial Palace. The design of the new city followed the Confucian classic Zhouli, in that the rules of “nine vertical axes, nine horizontal axes”, “palaces in the front, and markets in the rear”, “left ancestral worship, and right god worship” were taken into consideration. It was actually called Dadu, but because no one could enter or leave without the Khan's permission, it was referred to as the Forbidden City.

 

Marco was allowed with the Polos to leave for a while with the Khan to visit Xanadu. I asked him to write me and tell me of what he saw there.  

 

He told me when he got back of a wondrous Cane Palace, which could be moved around inside of an enormous walled Park inside Xanadu. Of Xanadu itself, he had written: 

 

Dear Xiao Ping,


When you have ridden three days from Beijing, between northeast and north, you will come unto Xanadu, which was of course built by Kublai Khan. There is at this place a very fine marble Palace, the rooms of which are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts and birds, and with a variety of trees and flowers, all executed with such exquisite art that you would regard them with delight and astonishment. Around this Palace, a wall is built, enclosing a compass of sixteen miles. Inside the Park there are fountains and rivers and brooks, and beautiful meadows, with all kinds of wild animals (excluding such as are of ferocious nature), which the Khan has procured and placed there to supply food for his Dire Falcons and Dire Hawks, which he keeps there in mew. Of these, there are more than two hundred Dire Falcons alone. The Khan himself goes every week to see his birds sitting in mew, and sometimes he rides through the park with his Dire Dogs behind him. If he sees any animal that takes his fancy, he slips his dogs at it, and the game when taken is chopped up to feed the hawks in mew. This he does for diversion! 


Marco


We were given access to the Khan’s magical libraries and magical stores. Xia and I studied as much as we could, but eventually I grew weary of poring over the same easy spells, and grew frustrated with not being able to understand the harder ones any better.

 

Ochir bought a two thousand Jin Mongol warhorse that was slightly Direish. The horse was well suited to cold climate and long-distance riding. The horse came with chain barding that still bore the blood of its last rider. Ochir scrubbed that off. "The horse always survives; the rider, not so much. I shall call my horse Baderhu,” he said.

 

Dipaka spent time with Chabui visiting hospitals in Beijing and spending time with the sick, the wounded, amputees, and people that were in hospice. Chabui gave away the Khan's money to help those in need.

 

One day Hubidai was summoned to the Capital. He came into the city with great fanfare and then disappeared. The general impression was that Kublai Khan had demoted him and relieved him of command of the Southern Armies. It was said that he was sent on a secret mission.

 

One day Chabui called us to the Imperial Palace. "You have been ordered by the Khan to remain within the confines of the Forbidden City,” she said, as she poured herself some water from a priceless jade decanter.

 

“I have found a way for you to get out, if you wish,” she said.

 

“We’re listening," I said.

 

"There is only one reason that Hubidai relinquished command of the Southern Armies.”

 

She sipped the water from an ornate glass before she went on.

 

“He has been given the Khan’s blessing to find the Tomb of Temujin.”

 

We were all silent for a moment. 

 

“He’s going to resurrect Genghis Khan!” Ochir postulated. “Alright!” he cried, smiling from ear to ear. “Do you know what this means?”

 

Chabui nodded, but she did not look happy like Ochir did.

 

“What do you want us to do?” I asked.

 

Chabui looked directly at Dipaka. Her eyes bored into him, and her halo grew bright.

 

“You must stop Hubidai from doing this. Your destiny lies that way, Dipaka. As a man of Peace, you cannot allow this to happen. Genghis Khan was the Stallion that Mounted the World. He was the worst scourge that ever visited the Earth. There is no telling what Temujin would be like born anew. He was bad enough the first time around."

 

"I need to excuse myself," Ochir said angrily, and got up to leave. "I doubt that this is what the Kublai Khan wants."

 

Chabui straightened and a fire appeared in her eyes.

 

"Ochir! I am the Empress of the Mongol Empire am I not?” she asked in an angry voice. Her face had turned red, and her normally kind appearance was now contorted and terrible to behold.

 

Ochir stopped. 

 

“I order you Ochir, for the good of the Empire, to not let this happen, by any means necessary! This must not come to pass! I charge you with stopping it!" Chabui screamed.

 

"I just don't want to go against your husband’s wishes, and that’s my bottom line. You’re saying this is what the Khan wants?" Ochir asked. 

 

Chabui visibly cooled. "Yes. This was Hubidai's idea, not my husband’s; I know this as his wife. Do not doubt this. My husband had to grant a worthy quest to Hubidai. He had to satisfy what was left of Hubidai's honor. My husband will now personally assume command of the Southern Armies and crush the Song Empire! Do not worry about that, Ochir. My husband also is aware that it is a mistake to disturb the resting place of the Dead. They are our ancestors and they are with us always. They surround us. They protect us. You know that disturbing the dead in Mongolia is frowned upon."

 

Ochir looked down at his feet and then finally shrugged. Chabui bent again and smiled at Ochir. She turned next to Wen. "If you do this for me I can arrange that the Mongol soldiers be merciful to your people," Chabui said. 

 

In the face of the inevitable, I guess she promised all she could. I knew Wen felt that the fall of the Song Empire was coming. He said nothing, but I knew that if Chabui were evil at heart, he would know.

 

"So, if we can prevent Genghis Khan from being brought back from the dead, we will be granted permission to leave the Forbidden City?" I asked.

 

"Yes,” Chabui said, “and you will go with the Khan's blessing on your way to Japan." 

 

"All we need to do is destroy the sthcroll," Cairn said.

 

"You will find him with Aju and Livikus Al-Tatar in the Gobi Desert where the dam holds back the River." Chabui said. 

 

Something was telling me this one wasn’t going to be so easy.

 

Hubidai’s group had a week’s head start already, so we set out the very next day. We had to all ride horses this time or we would never be able to catch them. I made Lo ride on Mayor. He grumbled but got on when ordered to.

 

We had been traveling a few days when Ochir looked up frowning from the track. 

 

"They are getting out ahead of us," he said. "Mayor is just too slow with Lo on him."

 

There was nothing we could do.

 

Cairn came forward. "I can fix this," she said. She went over to Mayor and gave him a berry and whispered in his ear. After that, Mayor didn't mind carrying Lo and kept up a good pace. Cairn reaffirmed Mayor every six hours or so with another berry.

 

Cairn saved us again on another occasion. We saw a gigantic Dire Tiger waiting for us up ahead. It was hungry, and we could see it's ribs beginning to poke through it flanks.

 

"Wait a minute," Cairn said, and walked out in front of the group. She held out her hand in front of the Tiger. The Tiger walked up to her and growled. As it got closer it looked like it would probably eat Cairn. Instead, Cairn began talking like a Tiger, and it sat down and licked her face. She gave it a goodberry. The huge beast then ate the entire contents of Cairn's goodberry pouch. The Tiger seemed happy enough when done, and walked away.

 

I had been scared to death; I had wasted a fly spell on Xia to get her out of there. A Tiger like that could grab someone and take them away and eat them. There would have been nothing we could have done.

 

"You may have been dropped on your head as a baby,Cairn, but you're beginning to come out of your shell," Ochir said.

 

Cairn smiled, she was a Druid in a Druid's element. "You're not in my Pack, Ochir," she said.


Prince Wen Tian Xiang

Wen Hung-Lo, a journal of a Servant of the Heavens

 

By Bahamut’s Bidding

 

First Month 1, 3967 Year of the Fire Snake

 

New Years Day, they say that how and with whom you start this day will determine your fortune for the rest of the year. I start in the pre-dawn hours with my bride, my General, my horse, and my friends. We are in Hangzhou, the Capital of my country, China--the Middle Kingdom, the center of the Earth.

 

The city is besieged by a merciless and mighty horde, the Mongols with their goblinoid and Ogre slaves. I aim to break their strangle hold on my land. The enemy has a new weapon, a trebuchet that can hurl exploding bombs into the city from across the Yangtze River. This weapon must be destroyed or the Capital will fall.

 

I have been given this task.

 

General Dan assigns to me a squad of eight hardened veterans of the Song army as well as two clerics for support. I ask Lo-Saki, the Goliath, to take part in this attack. He agrees with a smile. He is my best man. With us is Aki, the unflinching silent monk. Havarak, the half Jurchen ranger adds his bow and axes. Dipaka offers his wisdom and remarkable healing powers. Cairn, a Gnome Druid comes along as well; she can assume the form of an eagle and will serve as our eyes and to my surprise so much more. Xia, my bride’s apprentice, reports for the raid. I fear she is not ready. Of course, my Aiko, who is a Wu Jen and a spitfire of a woman. 

 

The dawn breaks with the north wind. It is a harsh day with a cold stinging hail. Heavy clouds hang over the river. Mist clings to its water. It will be a day I won’t soon forget.

 

The Legendary Brotherhood starts the offensive down river across the twin Bridges of Blood and Tears. They are so named because thousands have died upon them in this damn war. The Mongols pour forth from their camps to fight the Brotherhood on the bridges. The battle rages for hours.

 

The Yellow army of the Song crosses the river in hundreds of boats. They make it to the other shore and face the bug-eyed humanoids in battle. The hobgoblins are no match for brave men in a fair fight, but Ogres and Mongol reinforcements have contained the beachhead.

 

It is noon, although the sun is nowhere in sight when Cairn the Eagle dips her wings twice and General Dan gives the order.

 

My bride cast her fly spell on my steed and Chi Hai leaps off the wall of the city. She carries Aiko and me into the wind and across the river. Our friends use their rings of flying to follow on either side. The rings were gifts given for the rescue of the jeweler’s daughter. Was it only six months ago? My men fly by precious potions reserved for the royal family if the need ever should arise. We fly fighting the wind in a crescent formation, each brave soul thirty feet apart. 

 

My love and I upon the bonded mount; we are riders on the storm. Into this house we’re born. Into this world we’re thrown. Like a dog without a bone. At least we’re not alone.

 

It takes us perhaps only two minutes to reach the other side. Through the wind, I can scarcely hear the din of the battle up and down the river. Then a great crash of metal fills my ears as the counter weight of the Trebuchet is dropped. A heartbeat later, a whip snap of tension releasing wood sent my tea bag into full retreat. I see a wicked spiked iron ball two feet across with a lit fuse is headed right toward us. I pray to the Dragon. Wen is not so Hung-Lo right now. Chi Hai banks left and the bomb passes us to the right. The bomb is so close I can hear the fuse crackling. It never explodes and falls harmlessly in to the river. I thank the Dragon, and for good measure, Gnomish engineering.

 

Defending the weapon is a guard hut, a block bunker and a dozen Persians, ten Ogres of the sour milk tribe and four meaner Ogres of the rotting eggs variety. The Mongol cavalry has left to fight somewhere else.

 

We hit the far bank of the Yangtze with fire and lightning, the former from Aiko, and the latter from Cairn.  I thought Persians smelled bad until I smelled a burning one. I think I will drag one of their hairy carcasses back with me to keep away Havarak’s giant skunk. 

 

We fight like tigers. Lo is chopping away, body parts are flying everywhere; I think he is making a mixed humanoid salad. Aki is literally kicking ass. He covers the rear as a couple of Ogre brutes try to flank us. Havarak just loves to fight. The girls keep up a furious barrage of magic. Aiko fires lighting from a wand. Cairn as an eagle calls real lightning from the clouds. They strike the Trebuchet over and over. Xia picks off the wounded Ogres with magic missiles. My men surround lone ogres and cut them down, one by one.

 

Drums from the bunker keep the enemy morale up in the face of our furious onslaught. I see the Zhuru Ochir. He put three of his pint size arrows into Chi Hai’s withers. What kind of Mongol shoots a horse? Then he taunts me while hiding in the bunker. I fall for his distraction. An Ogre hits me so hard in the head that he knocks my helmet forty feet.  Let this be a lesson, always keep your helmet on your head when riding a horse, flying in bad weather, or fighting Ogres. I am stunned; my mind is reeling and unable to act.

 

The Ogre grabs me and runs for the bunker. Dipaka saves me again. He enters the fray. The mayhem around him ceases. The Ogre stops. Arrows from Havarak and magic missiles from Xia bring him down. Chi Hai comes and scoops me into her saddle.

 

I regain my senses and see Gnomes. I see one directing the Trebuchet crew. I see another one with nose plugs, safety goggles and earmuffs riding a tough Ogre. The Ogre is loading the weapon with another bomb. The Gnome has a box of tinder twigs that he is shaking like maracas. He is keeping beat with the drummer in the bunker. I see her through the narrow window shaking her hips. Aiko tells me that she is Ochir’s lover.


And here I thought Gnomes sprang from toadstools that had been sprinkled with faerie dust. Of course, I see Ochir. He squirms out of the bunker and is flying around with his ring pretending he is in charge. He sees me and puts an arrow right between my legs.  Luckily, the arrow strikes the saddle horn. This was supposed to be my wedding day! 

 

Chi Hai can take it no more. She flies up to the Gnome and awaits the command to stomp him back under the rock he crawled out of. I swat the bow from his hands instead.  He is fighting with his people. He helped rescue me once. One day he will answer for his crimes. I bet he has a Jewish cousin that lawyers it all down to misdemeanors.

 

Meanwhile the Zhuru that is cutting the fuse for the bomb winks at me. Gnomes!

 

We dispatch the Ogres and Persians as if they’re last year news. The fuse is lit but the bomb is not launched. Cairn’s lightning has crippled the weapon. The bomb blows up in its hammock. The contraption is utterly destroyed. 

 

Xia gives us the warning. Aju and his company of Mongols are riding hard back this way.  Our flying tricks won’t last much longer. The mission is a success. We took no casualty.  I order a retreat. The Mongols arrive too late. They shake their fists at us as we fly across the Yangtze. If I were not a Captain in the Brotherhood I would order the men to give them the full lunar show on this New Year.

 

First Month 2
We are to see the Emperor today.  Lizong is in the eleventh year of his reign. He receives us at the Imperial Palace. General Dan introduces me and I in turn introduce every one else. Aiko, my princess. Lo, her champion. Aki, her monk. Dipaka, our healer and Cairn, our special friend.

 

Absent at this momentous event and unmentioned to the Emperor but not far from my thoughts are Allegro, Havarak, and Ochir. Allegro has a sweetheart in Blue Silk Village.  Havarak does not like people, cities, palaces, or emperors. He is probably training his wolf and skunk. Ochir is a Mongol.

 

We make a good impression. The Emperor will bless our marriage and reward us with magical rings. He gives everyone else a fabulous wondrous item.

 

I must say the Emperor is generous, but he is a politician and exacts a promise to return to China with a Japanese army when my bride’s family claims the throne of Japan. I can’t determine where his heart lies. Is it with the land and its people, or is it with the power of the throne? I dare not look too close. It is not my place. General Dan has given fealty to Lizong. That is good enough for me.

 

First Month 16
Today is my wedding day. Dipaka performs the ceremony. It is a traditional Chinese affair.  I have feelings these past months all coming to a climax today.  I can write pages about battles and horses.

 

Today I get married to Princess Aiko Kajitsu. 

 

The Emperor gives me a new name. I am now Prince Wen Tian Xiang. I’d rather just be a captain, a husband, and a father. I still have to bring a Japanese army back to help fight the Mongols.

I got laid for the first time. It was quick. 

 

First Month 17
My bliss is short lived. A bomb explodes and destroys Ameiko’s house next door. My sister-in-law lives, but Sandru, the Jade Archer, and Jou Lu, the old prophetess are killed. No one saw the bomb fly over the walls. Even in the dark, the bomb would have had a lit fuse. This is Ninja’s work.

 

The Seal is safe. Marco, that rascal, has the real one in his knap sack. He gets to work making another fake box and seal. The Jade Archer is resurrected by the power of the Amatatsu Seal.

 

Apricot Blossoms 17
Sandru is resurrected by the power of the Amatatsu Seal. We’re still in Hangzhou. I see ninjas around every corner and in every shadow. They did not even give us one night’s peace. By Bahamut’s Bidding they will pay.

 

There has been much debate this past month about what to do next. Lo wants to fight Mongols. Aiko wants to sail to Japan. If only the Mongols had conquered Japan then we could fight the Mongols in Japan. That may yet happen.

 

The Polos have a crazier notion. They want to sail up the Grand Canal through the Mongol Empire and go to Beijing and give Kublai Khan a gift from their Pope. They pull out all the stops, call in all the favors, cash all the chips to convince us to go. Ameiko stalls for time saying that she has to wait until Jou Lu is resurrected before we can go anywhere.

 

Peach Blossoms 1
It is my birthday. I am nineteen years old. I receive a gift from my wife that I hope comes more than once a year. 

 

Peach Blossoms 17
Jou Lu does not come back to the mortal realm. The Kami of the Amatatsu gives us the feeling that she has passed beyond. I think she has joined her ancestors but Sandru says that her spirit has been reincarnated to a new life. Ameiko says Jou Lu’s last words to her were not to take the sea to Japan. Last time I looked at a map Japan is made up of islands.

 

Peach Blossoms 19
General Dan says the decision is up to me. I can continue on as a Paladin or I can join the Fists of Bahamut. As a Paladin, Chi Hai will grow in power as my faith grows. As a Fist I will exude a circle of protection that will protect Lo’s mind from being controlled by Witches and Oni’s. So, it is either my best man or my best horse. The General says that as a Servant of the Heavens I will know what to do when the time comes. The best part of having faith is not having to worry about making tough decisions. The Dragon will choose.

 

Peach Blossoms 20
We board the Sapporo Wind, the ship loaned to us by the Minister of Maritime Trade back in Guangzhou. We are headed to Beijing. The Polos were quite persuasive. We are to travel by the Grand Canal through the heart of Mongol territory.

 

Ochir shows up with his entourage. There is a big hipped she-Gnome named Chaka. There are also two nosy little fellas named Guchugur and Guchuluk. Maffeo Polo says it is all arranged and they come by his invitation. All four are to come with us. I look hard at all of them. There must be Gnomish-masking magic of some type because I sense no evil in them, not even Ochir. I will keep an eye on them and so will Chi Hai.

 

Plum Ripens 20
The land of the Mongols is oppressive and cruel. Factories spew dark smoke befouling the air. Huge pig farms drain their refuse into the canal befouling the water. Goblinoids and men walk stooped shoulder side by side. The only laughter came from the Zhurus. They are the monkeys that pick the fleas from the elephant.

 

Plum Ripens 23
We arrive in Beijing, the capital of the Mongol empire. This city is grander than any in China, and thus the world. I don’t see how my country could ever defeat them. The eyes of the Mongol people are hard; they are without conscience and their sins are buried deep in their souls. This nation was built on the back of innocents. We are ushered into the Forbidden Palace, our weapons taken. We are prisoners.

 

Plum Ripens 30
We meet the Khan’s favorite wife, Chabui Qatun. She is elderly perhaps sixty with a kind face and sharp eyes. She wears a simple gown down to her ankles. She has a beaded necklace.  Her teeth are stained with the juices of the JuJu leaf.  She has a nimbus of light that radiates from her head just like Dipaka. To look at her is to look at Holiness. I offer to rescue her even though I don’t know how to begin.

 

She says she is exactly where she needs to be.

 

Pomegranate Blossoms 7
We meet the Khan. He is like an old saddle, worn but comfortable in his own skin. He looks like he has ridden around the world and has seen it all. He is old and small. It is hard to believe that he rules half the world. He accepts the Polo’s gift from their Pope. He says he will make peace with the Holy Roman Empire. Everybody with three villages claims to be an empire. The Mongols have a real one. 

 

Lotus Blossoms 7
We are still prisoners. We are fed well and have the run of the Forbidden City. I decide to speak to Chabui to find out why she is here. How can someone so good be here?  From this city, the orders to kill thousands are issued daily.

 

She agrees to speak with me to share her knowledge and wisdom and to receive mine. 


I tell her of the Platinum Dragon, King of Dragons. He is very stern and disapproving of evil. He accepts no excuses for foul deeds. On the other hand, he is very compassionate, and has boundless empathy for the weak and downtrodden. He urges his followers to promote good, but to let people fight their own battles when they can, providing healing, information, or temporary safe refuge rather than fighting alongside those who can fight for themselves.

 

He often travels in the guise of an old man accompanied by seven gold dragons in the form of canaries.

 

I then ask her about her deity.

 

Chabui asks if Bahamut sometimes dress as an old woman as seven nightingales fly in from her balcony and serenade us.

 

I ask her to stop ducking with me.

 

We both have a laugh.

 

She clears her throat and spits her JuJu juice into a spittoon with practiced marksmanship.

 

She solemnly says, “I believe in the Four Noble Truths.”

 

I’ve heard of those. It is the religion of pacifists and beggars. I don’t say this.

 

I say that they believe in all the gods so they really worship none.

 

She says what Bahamut teaches can already be found in everyone if they look for it. You do not need the divine to tell you how to be good or to punish you if you are evil. By looking inward, we can find peace and happiness. If I point at the moon, you look at the moon, not the finger.

 

I think I’m not going to do well in this battle but I don’t know how to retreat so I press on.  Your husband and your people are responsible for so much suffering.

 

The First Noble Truth is that life is suffering. Life includes pain, getting old, disease, and ultimately death. This cannot be denied. Religion has caused more suffering then the Mongols could ever have. The First Truth teaches us how to begin to avoid the suffering that can be avoided.

 

 Religion is like a blind man looking for a black cat in a dark room. To that end I have aided my husband to spread his power across the continent. We have allowed all religions and forbid any bloodshed in its name. Suffering is actually less under Mongol rule. 

 

“Is that my wife calling me? I beg your pardon, your Highness but I must go.”

 

I make a hasty exit before I trade my armor for robes and my sword for a tambourine.

 

By Bahamut, I have to stop talking to women.

 

Orchid Blossoms 7
We are still prisoners in the Forbidden City. The summer is rolling by. I smacked Aiko’s bottom a little too hard last night. I have to smite something evil soon.

 

Orchid Blossoms 8
There is a plan to follow Hubidai Khan to the tomb of Genghis Khan and to stop him from resurrecting that insane barbarian. It means we can finally leave and I can smite something evil!  I hope that it will be Hubidai’s hard head! Let’s get the duck out of here!

 

 

 

 
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