Mt. Tonglu opens, and the Brocade Immortal decorates the road to becoming a supreme with corpses. Mt. Tonglu closes over Ling Wen’s form, and silence rules the empty plains. Mt. Tonglu is opened, and all the world trembles with knowledge of the new supreme.
The first announcement is the earthquake. The solid earth grows furious and unsteady. Fissures open beneath graveyards and old roads, revealing old bones to the merciless light. Buildings shake and shatter, and in the Heavenly Capital the former palace of Ling Wen shudders and sinks and vanishes, leaving behind nothing but a pool of strange ink. After the earthquake, a terrible breathless silence, and then the second announcement begins.
It comes as cold wind, a sharp wind, a wind that whispers in the languages of the dead. The wind scatters people and gods above and below, and then the letters begin. The final announcement is written, and it blows in with the whirlwind on torn pages, every character written in Ling Wen’s hand and signed by the newest supreme. Xie Lian catches a letter, but the calligraphy burns and twists in nonsense characters, refusing to be read. Hua Cheng catches a letter, and the paper burns away to nothing in his hands. Pei Ming catches a letter, and the writing of Xu Li appears before him for the first time in centuries.
Below on the earth, those who dare are reading the strange letters, and blood is streaming like ink from their eyes. Below on the earth, cultivators and priests are tearing down notices from their temples, and morning will find their dead bodies decorating the rafters. Below on the earth, the people are flocking in fear to the shrines and temples and in the temples and shrines the blessings are melting away.
Pei Ming reads the letter, and as he reads he can hear his friend’s voice speaking in his ear. Ling Wen Zhen Jun is dead, she writes. The fourth devastation has emerged from Mt. Tonglu with the murdered immortal Bai Jing at her side, and all of heaven owes her a reckoning. Four characters undersign the letter.
Black Commands Shake Earth.
The next day, Pei Ming sets out for an audience with the new supreme.
A distance-shortening array takes him to the borders of ancient Xu Li. He picks his way along narrow roads and through quiet villages, until at last the path yields to forest and he walks alone. There are no directions to the place he is going, no people left alive to remember the splendid promenades where he was once cheered, but he knows the way. Year after year, triumph after triumph, he returned to this place with his spoils and riches and presented them with his head bowed. This place made him in the same way it made Ling Wen, but he does not regret its passing.
Neither he nor Ling Wen nor Shi Wu Du were ever inclined towards nostalgia, and yet here Pei Ming is, on his way to bet his life on the sentimentality of an old friend. He picks his way over tree roots and hacks through vines and bamboo, well aware that he’s being watched. The wind has begun to blow with whispered curses. The ground bleeds in ink, and the ink clings to his boots like tar. A paper blows against the back of his right calf and shudders there for a few moments before tearing loose. He catches a glimpse of Rong Guang’s signature and then the paper is gone. More papers blow in to replace it, and soon Pei Ming is surrounded by old love letters, old orders and old promises. He knows better than to reach for any of them. The thing that was Ling Wen is near.
The wind grows thick with paper, and the world shrinks down to parchment and ink, the words twisted and warped, smeared beyond recognition. Pei Ming can feel a gaze on him, heavy and cold. Finally, when he can’t tell up from down or left from right, he stops. He gets down on one knee, and he waits.
“Noble Jie,” he says, and nothing more, and in an instant the air is clear.
He finds himself kneeling at the far edge of a dimly lit hall that stretches upwards into crushing darkness. There are no windows and no paintings, but the walls are scrawled with an endless malevolent litany of grievances that makes his head swim if he looks for too long. Still, he lifts his head and gazes bravely into the dark, and at the other end of the hall he finds the Fourth Supreme seated on her throne, her deathless beloved standing at her side. Her eyes are like blots of ink on an executioner's orders.
“Pei Ming,” she greets. “Have you come to ask a favor?”
I: empty robes
Clay is fashioned to make a vessel;
grasp the nothingness at the center to get the use of the vessel.
Ling Wen makes arrangements for her own death before departing from Heaven. Her paperwork is sorted and sent away: this pile is records, and this pile is trash, and this pile needs to be sent out. Her attendants turn away the gods who come bearing more work, for the palace of Ling Wen is closed now, and it may never open again. The lamps are dimmed and the mirrors covered, and one by one the attendants are excused, until Ling Wen is alone in the gutted shell of her own palace.
One torch is left burning, and when she glances behind her she can see the shadow of Bai Jing intermingled with her own, though her hands touch only empty robes. The Brocade Immortal shivers in her arms, sliding away from her female form, and she speaks to it sternly.
“Bai Jing, don’t be like this,” Ling Wen says. But the robe refuses to slide on. It clings stubbornly to her arms, and Ling Wen’s strength cannot force it over her head. She lowers her arms with a sigh. One last time, she allows her features to lapse into the form everyone thinks she should have had. It doesn’t feel different, being a man, and that’s what burns most of all. So many honors denied, and for what? A few inches of flesh.
“It’s still me, you know,” she says as the robe slides over her head. The Brocade Immortal settles around her like an embrace, the closest thing she has to intimacy, but it doesn’t answer. It can’t. Bai Jing is dead, and the Brocade Immortal is not a person so much as the imprint of a person, the shape left behind after the corpse rotted and all that was left was a tangle of rage and devotion. Ling Wen snuffs out the final lamp and goes to stitch together what her rage has torn apart.
Ling Wen encounters only three real obstacles on the path to Mt. Tonglu. First, Xie Lian. He walks with her on the long road that winds between sickness and death, and says nothing at all of interest for the first thousand steps. Ling Wen lets him speak until he reaches his point.
“If you wanted to bring your friend back to life, there are other ways,” he says at last.
“Soul-nurturing lanterns, a trip to the land of the dead, plant bodies, the holy mausoleum,” Ling Wen says, and has the pleasure of Xie Lian’s silence for a few steps. She doesn’t dislike him, but she doesn’t like him either. He’s very kind, and he works hard and understands what it’s like to work for a living, and if they both live to the end of time kind, petty Xie Lian will never understand Ling Wen’s heart.
“Why Mt. Tonglu, then?” Xie Lian asks after a pause.
“Because I want to,” Ling Wen says, and the words tumble from her lips like a curse. The rhythm of Xie Lian’s steps besides her falters for the first time since he joined her on the road, and he slows and then hurries to catch up with her.
“I’d wish you good luck, but I don’t think luck has anything to do with Mt. Tonglu,” he says earnestly. “Either you can make it out, or you can’t. I don’t know if you can. But if you know, that’s all that matters.”
With that strange benediction, he peels away and leaves her at last to the silence of the long road.
After Xie Lian, Hua Cheng.
Crimson Rain Sought Flower comes to her on the silent battlefield. He finds her soaked in hot blood, piled in corpses upon corpses, the ground around her scarred and pitted by her rage. A thousand demons lie in ashes around her, scorched by the hot light of Bai Jing’s murdered divinity. Ling Wen’s body is heavy with exhaustion, every movement a terrible ache, but she does not acknowledge Hua Cheng. She lets him stand. She walks on. When she set out for Mt. Tonglu she promised herself that she was finished with answering to men’s whims.
Hua Cheng follows in silence, his gaze a hot glare on the back of his neck, and after a little while his butterflies begins to swarm the path in front of her. Their little lights accumulate until they are blinding, and still Hua Cheng watches, and still Ling Wen walks. Her eyes blur with hot tears from the many lights. She closes them. The butterflies swarm her robes, and every little set of wings adds what feels like a thousand taels of weight. Her body threatens to deform under the strain, and yet she walks on, lips shut, refusing to beg, the ground her only ally against the dizzying swarm.
Through the storm of wings, she feels a sword slide against the delicate exposed skin of her neck, and then Hua Cheng laughs, and it sounds like a judgement. All at once, the terrible press of power vanishes, and Ling Wen opens her eyes and finds herself utterly alone. The desolate plains lie behind, and in front of her Mt. Tonglu rises like a challenge towards the heavens. Her heart is pounding, her limbs heavy, every breath begging for her to stop, to rest, to give up-
She walks on.
The last obstacle is Jun Wu.
Jun Wu lies imprisoned in Mt. Tonglu, wrists bound in chains, his little priest tending to him day and night. His body lies submerged in lava to the waist, but his anger burns hotter, his resentment too potent to dissolve. His gaze catches Ling Wen like a hook.
“Shoe-seller,” he says. “Liar, murderer. Patient enough to endure anything, ruthless enough to undo anyone. This is no place for sensible heartless girls who keep their head bowed.”
Ling Wen thinks of holding her silence. She thinks of years of service, of the long habit of avoiding Jun Wu’s gaze, of all the secrets she’s kept- and she raises her head and looks him in the eye.
“You never mattered enough for me to fight you,” she says, and holds that hot gaze with her own. “Not then. Not now.” There’s blood in her teeth. It overflows her chin and drips into her robes. Head held high, Ling Wen walks past Jun Wu into the heart of Mt. Tonglu, and darkness closes over her like a shroud.
II: Rewards and Punishments
Sophistry and cleverness are an aid to lawlessness; rites and music are symptoms of dissipation and licence; kindness and benevolence are the foster-mother of transgressions; employment and promotion are opportunities for the rapacity of the wicked.
Nangong Jie, heartless daughter of unassuming merchants, runs away to the capital of Xu Li at the tender age of sixteen and becomes a shoe-seller. It's a carefully planned rebellion. No one in her family was aware of her unhappiness; no one cared enough to know. Nangong Jie was not the kind of girl to complain about work. She was tall and prettyish, serious and quiet in a way carefully calculated to draw the minimum of attention. No one knows what she’s done and until she’s vanished with half the family’s savings, and by then it’s too late.
Her first job is as a shoe seller, her second as a scribe. Nangong Jie's writing is beautiful, her strokes fluid, the style careful and elegant. She sells it as a man's work, pretending to be the secretary for an absent brother. People buy. People praise the style, and Nangong Jie discards the praise, but she keeps the money.
It's a bad time to move to the capital of Xu Li, a good time to keep your mouth shut. The emperor is a drunkard, concerned only with his harem and his games, and the capital is a festering mess of disappointed ambitions. Nangong Jie's first summer is marked by riots, and she watches from her window as the rioters raid the stores and the guards execute the rioters. She sells shoes under the shadow of the scaffold, unmoved by the corpses that sway in the breeze, and learns about glory, and justice, and the things that happen to a body if it's left to hang for too long.
Everyone is talking about rebellion, about what’s owed to the emperor and what’s owed to the country, about the will of heaven- but Nangong Jie doesn’t talk. She doesn’t believe in it. Better to work. Nangoing Jie is a girl utterly without the desire to be understood, and she views the obligation to explain herself as the highest intrusion of tyranny into her life. It’s her heart. What right does anyone else have to know what’s in it?
A year into her time in the capital, when the riots are worse than ever and the dogs are eating bodies in the street, the emperor sponsors a contest. Nangong Jie doesn’t enter. The words she sends in are anonymous, submitted by no one. She doesn’t expect them to be read. She doesn’t expect them to be the match that ignites the powder keg of Xu Li, doesn’t expect to hear her words repeated over and over in the teahouses and at the market and in secret meetings late in the night.
In her eighteenth year, Nangong Jie learns the dangers of being honest, however briefly, when the soldiers find her at the market. She wasn’t expecting to be found. Nangong Jie, who’s been overlooked her whole life- she wasn’t expecting to be interrogated or sentences. She’s not prepared when they break her fingers. But she doesn't cry.
Nangong Jie's eighteenth winter finds her in prison, huddled up against the wall in a tiny cell, surrounded by all the other people who said the wrong thing. Some of them don't believe she wrote the letter. Some of them blame her for what they've said. Some of them won't stop calling her a whore, to the point that it's starting to sound like wishful thinking.
The man in the cell next to her spits on her, and Nangong Jie tries to shuffle away. She hasn’t got far to go. There’s only the next set of bamboo lattices and the wall. Her fingers are stiff and swollen, and she curls around them in an attempt to look smaller. She ducks her head, and lets her shoulders shake, and does not cry.
Late at night when the world is nothing but darkness and filth and the spitter in the next cell is unconscious, Nangong Jie slides her hands through the loose bamboo slats and rolls her tormentor into the blood and muck. She holds him there, though her fingers scream with pain. She doesn’t cry out. The man is old and half-asleep, and Nangong Jie is young and furious. Pain won’t stop her. When at last the man’s struggles die away to nothing and he lies flat in the mud, she spits on his corpse.
The next morning the unconcerned guards take the body away, and a new man inherits the cell next to her. He’s tall and handsome, a fellow political prisoner, a soldier by the name of Bai Jing. He leans up against the bars, all smiles, and Nangong Jie leans away. There’s not a bastard in this world who deserves to be trusted, least of all tall, handsome men who have no business sharing the same noxious air as Nangong Jie.
“You wrote that seditious essay, didn’t you?” he asks.
“Allegedly,” Nangong Jie snaps. “You killed the ringleader of a bandit group even though he’s the duke’s bastard son.”
“Allegedly,” Bai Jing says. Bastard. He’s got a gentle smile, but his eyes are too intent, as serious as if he’s never seen a woman before. He leans in closer to the fence, and speaks to Nangong Jie in a low murmur.
“Why’d you kill him?” he asks, and Nangong Jie jerks away. She surveys his face, but he’s not threatening her.
“I did no such thing,” she stammers out, and Bai Jing laughs.
“I don’t mind,” he says. “He was rude, and no friend of mine.” His face is stuck in the same dumb smile, warm with something she doesn’t understand. “I’ll set your fingers,” he offers.
Nangong Jie scowls at him through the bars and clutches her hands close.
“Why would you do that?” she demands.
“They’ll heal wrong if you don’t set them properly,” Bai Jing says, and he smiles. It’s very gentle. Nangong Jie doesn’t trust it, but- she thinks he might be right about the fingers. “I’m in the army,” Bai Jing continues, his voice gentle. He talks at her for a little bit, a lot of nonsense about the right way to treat wounds and sensible ways to critique people in power, and after a while Nangong Jie gives in and allows him to take her hand through the bamboo lattice. There’s still blood under her nails.
“This will hurt,” he warns her.
“Everything here hurts,” she says.
(It does hurt, bad enough that she nearly bites through her lower lip. But a week later, when’s she’s up in heaven with all her wounds healed and her clothes replaced with something new and beautiful, when she hears the other attendants call her a whore behind her back as she’s beginning her daily chores- that hurts worse.
She thought that Heaven would be different.)
III: ling wen
I can suffer calamity only because I have a body.
It’s another century after Jun Wu is toppled before Mt. Tonglu opens again, and Ling Wen spends the intermediate time in paperwork and administration and implacable patience. The Heavenly Capital changes after Jun Wu is banished, and it doesn’t. Xie Lian is a kinder master than Jun Wu was and a more absent one. The throne sits empty while Xie Lian gets fucked by his ghostly lover, and no one dares to fill it. The capital is ruled by bickering and factions, and Ling Wen endures as always, secure in the knowledge that no one in the Heavens is as irreplaceable as she is.
Heaven is different, and it’s the same. People still call her a slut behind her back and plead her help to her face, and though the buildings are different, the ground is the same. Martial gods live and die in splendor, and Ling Wen’s palace has the paperwork for every birth and every death. Someone’s got to dig the graves. The new world is worse without Shi Wu Du in it, but Ling Wen and Pei Ming make do. They find new hot springs to visit and new restaurants to eat at, and when the new Earth Master arrives at last they are grateful to have a third.
It’s not that Ling Wen doesn’t like Pei Ming’s company, but when they go out together there is a third that walk invisibly beside them, a shadow without limbs that watches without eyes.
It’s a small life, a life lived silently in the shadow of power, an immortality that could last forever if Ling Wen chose not to disturb it. Gods live and die and fade and vanish, but Ling Wen’s paperwork is eternal, and there are always students desperate to pass exams. There is more stability in the quiet toil of women and servants than in all the grandeur in heaven. When the news comes that Mt. Tonglu has opened, Ling Wen dismisses her attendants and sits back and takes stock.
The Palace of Ling Wen is prosperous now, the clerks well-trained and respectful, the walls decorated with enough money to intimidate. Ling Wen remembers when she had to wipe tables, but not everyone does. She sits and looks at everything she has built, and thinks of the roads outside, the buildings that she built with her invoices and her plans and her sleepless nights of work, and she thinks that no one except for maybe Jun Wu has done more than her to shape the current state of Heaven.
It’s enough, and it’s not. It’s a golden bowl, the exact thing for the woman who Ling Wen pretends to be, but it’s not enough for Ling Wen. Now, after all these decades of prosperity and goodwill, now that she’s racked up enough goodwill for the petty scum to shut their lying mouths in her presence- she can acknowledge that she wants something more.
She wants. She wants. She wants.
Ling Wen makes her funeral preparations and departs for Mt. Tonglu.
The kiln closes over Ling Wen, and the world plunges into darkness absolute. Eyes closed or open, the view is the same, the world formless, and colorless, monotone in every direction. The Brocade Immortal is tight around her like an embrace, like a promise. Ling Wen lifts it over her head and holds it in her hands, the fabric warm from the heat of her body. Here in the dark like this, she can almost pretend that it’s a person.
“Are you going to do anything?” she asks, and the only reply is the echo of her voice. Bai Jing is not Bai Jing; Bai Jing is a faded memory, and Ling Wen is alone.
She sits with the dark for a few minutes, and feels the earth pressing in on her like a shroud. It feels as if she’s been buried, as if her beating heart is an affront to this place. Resentment has soaked into the ground here: spite is in every pebble and every stone. It feels like coming home.
Ling Wen unfastens the long knife she keeps strapped to her belt. She lays the Brocade Immortal down on the ground one last time and runs her fingers over the familiar stitches. Bai Jing never cared about his body; it was enough for him to be a shield to protect Ling Wen, an item in her collection. But it’s not enough for Ling Wen. Ling Wen has lived her life pressed up against the bars of her form, suffocated and judged and weighed down by the flesh that Bai Jing lacks. Her looks, her voice, her clothes, her stature: there’s isn’t a detail of her form that hasn’t been used against her.
Today Ling Wen sheds her skin.
She unclips her belt and sets it aside. She kicks off her shoes. She unwraps her clothes by touch and throws them aside, clothed in a greater darkness then her black robes. All that is left is the knife. She holds it against her ribcage.
It’s not complicated, what she intends to do. It’s old magic, older than rituals, older than cultivators, older than language. It’s an exchange. A life for a life, a heart for a heart. Ling Wen isn’t obligated; obligation would not be enough. What Ling Wen wants is deeper than obligation, deeper than love; it is a wordless craving that runs through the heart of her, an endless well of spite and more than spite. Ling Wen wants.
The knife plunges into her ribcage and a hot bloom of shock shudders through Ling Wen’s body. She cuts blindly, both object and subject, every twitch of her hands intimately felt through the point of the knife. The first rib gives way. Ling Wen lifts the knife out. Ling Wen pushes the knife in. Ling Wen unpeels her own traitorous body, until emptiness blooms in the new hollow of her chest and she is able to cut loose her pulsing heart and lay it on Bai Jing’s shroud.
“Live,” she commands him, and feels life blossom beneath her hands like a bonfire roaring to life. Bai Jing was always obedient. The knife drops from her nerveless fingers. Her lap is drenched with blood, soaked from thigh to ankle, her body fully unwound. Ling Wen dies.
Mt. Tonglu trembles, and Ling Wen is reborn.
IV: Bai Jing
Something like a genuine heart is made to be trampled.
The day before Bai Jing’s death, Ling Wen is informed of his imminent ascension. She’s not told, of course. No one would waste their words on an errand girl. But she’s in the palace when it’s mentioned, and Jing Wen orders her to send around the cups to toast to the new arrival. How fortunate it is that they’ll soon have another countryman in heaven, Jing Wen proclaims, and Ling Wen is forced to smile and nod along.
She’s got to pretend that she’s grateful to be here. The toasts go on and on, and everyone talks insufferably about how kind Jing Wen is to other people from Xu Li, and how beautiful it is in heaven and how Bai Jing will fit right in and every word feels like a hot coal down Ling Wen’s throat. She slips away as soon as she can and finds a storage room to hide in, her arms clutches to her sides, inexplicably on the verge of tears.
Bai Jing is her friend. More than her friend, Bai Jing is the only refuge she’s got from these jackals in heaven. When she can’t bear a moment more of wiping tables and shining shoes and sweeping floors, she slips away to his tent down on the battlefield. If Bai Jing comes to heaven he’ll have his own splendid palace and attendants and he’ll see that Ling Wen’s divinity is nothing more than another noose around her neck.
Ling Wen’s face is hot, and when she lifts her shaking hands to her face she finds that there are furious tears in her eyes. It’s too much. Everything else, Ling Wen has endured, but she won’t let Jing Wen take a single inch more from her. She refuses.
She goes to her room and retrieves the shapeless sack she’s been sewing as a gift from Bai Jing, then hops down to earth. Jing Wen will be angry. Ling Wen doesn’t care. She hops into Bai Jing’s tent and the world reorients itself. Here: Bai Jing sitting on his bed roll, reading a missive in the dim light of a lamp.
The campaign hasn’t been going well. Ling Wen saw the writing on the wall months ago, but Bai Jing’s been stubbornly holding on. A rebellion has begun, but the emperor refuses to commit the resources to put it down, and Bai Jing’s been holding the army together by sheer virtue of charm and skill. He glances at her in the dim firelight, and he’s so very handsome. If this were the kind of book that men like to write, Ling Wen would throw her inhibitions aside and take one final night with him, but this isn’t a man’s story.
Ling Wen has no intention of being ruined by love. If she gave her heart away, what would she get? Happiness? Her chance at yet another obedience, another set of tasks to fulfill? Better to be cold. It’s bad enough that she comes here on her own. If Bai Jing goes to heaven, there will be so many other women, so many beautiful and stupid and sweet flowers, and Ling Wen will still be Ling Wen-
“What’s wrong?” Bai Jing asks. “You seem unhappy.”
“You,” Ling Wen whispers, and the words catch in her throat. You’re going to ascend, she thinks. “You’re going to die,” she says.
“Not that much of a surprise at this point,” Bai Jing says, and pats the bedroll next to him. Ling Wen goes and sits. She's known the campaign is going badly. She hadn't realized that he knew.
“You don’t seem upset,” she whispers, and Bai Jing smiles at her.
“I’m a soldier, it was going to happen sooner or later.” A little smile crosses his weary face. “Besides, Noble Jie has come to visit me, and so it’s not so bad.” Ling Wen doesn’t understand him at all. She doesn’t understand why he continues to try on behalf of an emperor who has abandoned him and all his men to die; she doesn’t understand why he treats her so respectfully. He’s a spark in the palm of her hand, inexplicable as a miracle, and Ling Wen wants to close her fist over him and never open it.
“You won’t die well,” Ling Wen says quietly. Her hands fist in the sack that she brought, and she’s not sure why she brought it. She’s not bad at sewing. But this garment has been started and restarted over and over, her thoughts as tangled as the thread, and right now it’s not even fit to be worn.
“I’ll die a penniless idiot,” Bai Jing agrees cheerfully. If only Ling Wen were a martial god, to be able to strangle him with her bare hands.
“That emperor doesn’t deserve you,” Ling Wen says instead. It’s the argument they’ve been having since she first appeared to him in Jing Wen’s temple months ago, and it ends the same way every time. But tonight, Bai Jing doesn’t offer his usual rebuttal. He ducks his head and looks at the floor, and speaks with a slight quaver in his voice.
“I could die for you instead,” Bai Jing says, and it’s the closest he’s ever come to declaring his affections. Ling Wen knows, of course. Bai Jing is shy but he’s not subtle. To have him say these words to her tonight, of all nights, before she loses him to Heaven forever...
“Liar,” Ling Wen whispers.
“I’m not lying,” Bai Jing declares firmly. It’s too much. The ascension, the moment, the words, the person. This morning Jing Wen pinched her ass, and Ling Wen doesn’t know how to explain to Bai Jing that he doesn’t love her and he’s not going to be true to her, that no one ever has and no one ever will. She throws her knitting into his lap and stands.
“You could sooner fit in this garment then love me,” she says, and leaves.
She finds his body the next morning.
The shocked prayers of the doomed troops are streaming up to heaven when Ling Wen descends to his tent and finds it stinking of blood. The thing on the ground barely resembles a human being, the legs hacked away to stumps, one arm lying on the ground, the other not fully removed. It’s difficult to cut off a limb, difficult to move when you’ve lost so much blood. Ling Wen’s ears are ringing. It’s a long time before she realizes that the dirty sack lying stained with blood on the floor is the garment she stitched. Outside the tent, the rebellion is growing closer and closer, and the screams of dying soldier rings through the camp, the ground shaking with hoofbeats, but inside-
Ling Wen touches shaking fingers to the blood stained cloth, and feels the stir of something inhuman. It’s not Bai Jing. Bai Jing is in pieces on the floor, but there’s something left behind, a hot slice of light too powerful to fade. The robe stirs, and Ling Wen thinks of Bai Jing alone in his tent on the last night of his life. She does not cry. Outside the soldiers are dying, and she is fiercely glad of it.
This rotten world, these rotten rulers, these stupid men.. What did all their stupid devotions get them? Nothing, and less than nothing.
When the enemy soldiers overrun the camp at last, they find nothing but an empty tent, a dead body and a letter written in blood, addressed to a name no one knows.
IV: faded commands shake the earth
Words murder without form; I’ve been much nicer responding with blatant violence.
A week after Bai Jing’s death, Ling Wen goes to the palace of Pei Ming. She doesn’t have an invitation. She doesn’t need one. With a stack of papers in her hands she’s lower than the floor tiles, a thing to step over.
She finds Pei Ming at his desk and enters, then closes the door behind her. Pei Ming peers at her over her stack of papers, and she puts them down on his desk and then sits across from him.
“Xu Li is going up in smoke,” she says. Pei Ming peers at her. They’re not friends, though Pei Ming is friendly enough to her in the bland way that he’s friendly with most women. Ling Wen is uninterested in his smiles: it’s his sword-arm that she wants.
“We’re not supposed to interfere in that kind of thing,” he says, and Ling Wen crumples up a piece of paper and tosses it at him.
“Save the platitudes,” she says. “I don’t care and neither do you. I have a proposition to make.” Pei Ming tosses the paper back.
“You know, this isn’t how it usually goes when someone propositions me,” he says, but it’s not a no. He leans back in his chair with all the idle confidence of a lion, and his lazy bearing invites her to amuse him.
“There are rumors that Jing Wen’s temple is losing power,” she says. “The country he claims to love is burning, and now- they say he lost a writing contest to a shoe-seller.”
“And so you want me to help him?”
“I want you to burn his temples,” Ling Wen says. To his credit, Pei Ming doesn’t look surprised. For all his playfulness, the man was a general, and one that never lost on the battlefield. He considers a long moment before speaking.
“You have a lot of nerve asking me to stage a coup.”
“I’m not asking you to be king,” Ling Wen says.
“What’s in it for me, then?”
“You get to do what you do best: win. Plunder. Outsmart the enemy. And when I’m the head literature official, things will run better for you in heaven.”
Ling Wen’s best argument for this coup is Jing Wen himself; he’s arrogant and lazy, preferring to delegate his responsibilities to others. He’s always sneering at the martial gods, calling them brutes and animals and misplacing their paperwork, and though he and Pei Ming drink together they don’t like each other. Ling Wen is sure of that.
“Head literature official,” Pei Ming repeats. “That’s a fancy title.” A fancy title for her, he means. A fancy title for a shoe-seller, for the woman who shines the tabletops of Jing Wen’s beautiful palace and hasn’t been allowed near a pen since the moment she reached heaven. The only letters she’s seen are the terrible love poetry Bai Jing wrote and no- she won’t think about him now.
“Words are words. Power is power. I was better than Jing Wen Zhen Jin when I was a shoe-seller, but no one will know it without the right titles after my name.”
Pei Ming laughs.
“You’re a cold one, Ling Wen,” he says. “Why pick me?”
“You know how to win,” Ling Wen says. “To smash so many temples in one move will require skill.”
“Do you know how to win, Ling Wen?”
“What do you think?” Ling Wen asks, steadily meeting his gaze, and at last Pei Ming smiles.
“I hope you don’t expect a signed contract,” he says.
“Of course not,” Ling Wen says, and lays her long knife out on the table. Her expression doesn’t change as she cuts a long slice in her palm. Pei Ming mirrors the action and they clasp hands, blood to blood.
“I’ll bring you a souvenir,” Pei Ming says, grinning.
“No need,” Ling Wen says. “Burn it all.”
It’s silent in the old halls of Xu Li, Pei Ming still down on one knee, Ling Wen high on her throne. Death has not added any beauty to Ling Wen, but Ling Wen was never interested in being beautiful. Her new form is blurred at the edges, the inky darkness of her hair and robes blurred into the surroundings like blood in water. The details of her slip away, and only her expression lingers. She has the eyes of a judge who has heard humanity’s case and is not convinced. Pei Ming speaks.
“The Heavenly Capital is in chaos. It’s worse than an overturned anthill.” The thing that was Ling Wen smiles. The man that was the Brocade Immortal does not. Pei Ming has never met Bai Jing before, but he’s felt the sharp edge of the man’s jealousy. He feels it now. Bai Jing carries a halberd in his left hand, and his eyes are sharp on Pei Ming’s neck, as if he’s measuring him for the noose.
“Why does that bring you here?” Ling Wen asks. “We both know you’re not so worried about heaven.” It’s true, he’s not. Ling Wen’s earthquake spared his palace, and the madness of her papers spared his priests. Where other treasuries sit empty, silver and jade replaced by piles of invoices, Pei Ming’s treasures are unharmed. He received only one missive from the new Supreme: a simple letter bearing only one line.
In payment of services rendered, she wrote, and nothing else.
No, Pei Ming doesn’t care about heaven. He doesn’t want to avenge the assholes up in the capital who have been crying about how they always knew Ling Wen was treacherous, as if they weren’t cozying up to her the weeks before. He doesn’t want to fight; there’s no glory in fighting a friend.
“I wanted to see how you were,” Pei Ming answers, and it’s the truth. “I’ll make up something to tell the others, but that’s why I’m here.”
A smile crosses Ling Wen’s face, and then she starts to laugh. In all their years together, Pei Ming has rarely seen Ling Wen laugh- smile, yes, a tight-lipped smile, a smirk- but rarely a laugh. She laughs now, and the ground trembles. It shakes, the walls trembling in tune to Ling Wen’s laughter, and then the laughter fades away.
“Ol’ Pei,” she says, and it’s fond. Bai Jing’s knuckles are white on his halberd. Ling Wen leans over and casually smacks Bai Jing’s stomach, and Bai Jing’s burning gaze drops from Pei Ming to Ling Wen. The corners of Ling Wen’s mouth turn up, and that’s the grim smile Pei Ming recognizes. But the look she gives Bai jing is something else entirely, something unrecognizable. It’s almost soft.
“He’s a friend,” she says, and the tenderness in her voice alarms Pei Ming more than anything else he’s heard.
“What am I?” Bai Jing asks.
“You’re mine,” Ling Wen responds. She stands and steps in front of Bai Jing, and he frames her like a crown. He’s alive now somehow, alive and blistering with power, and all that power is nothing more than a throne for Ling Wen to recline on.
“I’ll save you some trouble,” she says, and beckons. Pei Ming steps closer, but not too close. Ling Wen’s form is warped and faded at the edges like the sun during an eclipse. She traces a character in the air with one finger, and in a moment they’re standing in the center of the Heavenly Capital. Ling Wen puts her fingers to her temples, the old familiar gestures. Pei Ming doesn’t hear her words, but he sees the result. All traffic, all movement, all the tumult in heaven-
The Heavenly Capital is utterly silent.
“Listen,” Ling Wen commands, and in the distance the horizon is beginning to waver as the earthquake approaches.