Being an Account of Grief Inconsolable and of the Sorrowful Decline of the Ang-Shyu-Fhal Dynasty, written by the Esteemed Calligrapher-Beaurocrat Pyat-Nyar-Khun, in the Four Thousand and Thirty Second Year of the God-Emperors of the Eternal City.
I have chosen to commit my thoughts to paper at the suggestion of Hyo-Zhar-Hyo, my colleague of the Academy of Letters. This suggestion was meant as a slight, a subtle diminishing of the kind that Hyo-Zhar-Hyo is so adept, intended to draw attention to the smallness of my existence. However, I shall feel perverse pleasure by taking his mocking at face value and in perceiving what he could not: that in the great sweep of history even the words of a lowly official may attain value for Men of Letters not yet born.
This is especially true in such times as these. An archaic glyph from the war-torn Southern Provinces is brought to mind. It takes the marker for wishfulness, rendered with an Imperative, and the symbol derived from a scroll, typically signifying history. It is usually translated as a curse: May you live in interesting times.
The Barbarians have reached the outskirts of the Eternal City. Our own Ever-Victorious Army wins victory after victory under the command of the infallible General Lha-Lho. Yet somehow their Horde inches ever closer. The Summer Palaces, wonders of the Empire Without End, have been burned to the ground, and the Royal Court has retreated to the Winter Palaces and the Inner Court in the heart of the Eternal City. Those of a weaker disposition have begun to flee the City, I am ashamed to report. In His wisdom and benevolence His Worshipful Radiance the God-Emperor Ai has barred the gates and decreed that anyone caught fleeing will be named Traitor, to die a thousand deaths at the hands of the Imperial Inquisitors. The Inquisitors, needless to say, have no peer when it comes to baroque and imaginative torments.
And so, with His iron will and unshakeable conviction, the God-Emperor Ai lends his people the courage they lack. For it is unthinkable that any Barbarian should set foot in the Eternal City or that any foreign eye should behold the wonders of the Inner Court, fulcrum of the Empire Without End. All are agreed in this: the gutters will overflow with the blood of our people before this happens. It cannot be long now before the God-Emperor bestirs Himself, and when he rides forth to do battle the Barbarians will turn and run like dogs before the Sun.
Syu-Sha-Sol praised my brushwork today. He said it was perfect, a word not bandied about at the Academy of Letters. For a few moments I was elated... until he lavished praise on Kyu-Yah-Boh also, whose brushwork he described as beautiful. Is beautiful higher praise than perfect? It should not be. Something can be beautiful yet not perfect. And something that is perfect must also be beautiful. And yet... this is not what Syu-Sha-Sol’s words conveyed. My compliment withered into faint praise next to the effusion offered Kyu-Yah-Boh.
Now, as I write this, I ask myself why I should care what praise Syu-Sha-Sol bestows, or what words he might choose? After all, he is only an Aspirant, whereas I have been Confirmed these many long years. But of course I know why. It is because next to Syu-Sha-Sol all these words are rendered impotent—worthless scrawls, scratched by beggars in the dirt. The shape of his mouth exceeds any line that I, or even Kyu-Yah-Boh, might put to paper.
In actual fact Kyu-Yah-Boh’s brushwork is full of errors and imperfections. He often exaggerates the tails and accents in illiterate and infantile ways. He never mixes his ink properly or loads the brush as often as he should—whether from laziness or impatience I could not say. In consequence his Finials fragment and the strands of the brush are shamefully discernable. No two characters are ever the same. And yet somehow—inexplicably—despite all these flaws the entirety is improved. I cannot pretend otherwise, much as I would like to. His Curals remind me of the Great Master himself, the Poet-Calligrapher Nan-Soor, the true father of our craft: effortless, sweeping, and bold.
I hate Kyu-Yah-Boh with a cold intensity that shames me. In every personal interaction he is pleasant, even humble—unlike Hyo-Zhar-Hyo and his cronies, who hide their deficiencies behind unwarranted arrogance. Yet it is Kyu-Yah-Boh who torments me. It is Kyu-Yah-Boh whose humiliation and disgrace I devise in idle daydreams and trap in byzantine plots. It is Kyu-Yah-Boh’s face I dream of, smiling genially, my hands wrapped around his throat. I am ashamed to feel this way; I am a despicable human being.
At home, in our small house not far from the Square of Everlasting Joy, my Honourable Mother deteriorates daily. She shrinks before my eyes, even as the tumor in her side expands as though it will absorb her. When I picked her up for her servant to change the bed linen, she was as light as a child in my arms. I wept to see her withered hands; hands that once lifted me aloft now barely able to clasp a cup. The pain worsens. Each day she asks if she is dying, and each day I lie to her and say that in the Spring, when the Blossom returns, we will walk together in the Gardens of Peace and Symmetry. She nods, knowing it to be a lie. Yet she is comforted by it, I think, as am I.
Despite all my accomplishments I have disappointed her. I can list all my achievements; my great learning, gaining entrance to the Academy at a significantly young age, bringing her from our village to the Eternal City, giving her status and a servant. And yet despite all this I have remained a disappointment. This fact has vexed me for many years. But of course she never wanted any of these honours, and never asked for them. All she really wanted was a family to fuss over and grandchildren to spoil. And this of course was the one thing I could not give. She has never reproached me. Nevertheless I know I am the origin of all her dissatisfaction.
Last evening I stopped by the Garden of Pleasant Relaxation to sip rice wine and listen to the Court gossip. Hyo-Zhar-Hyo was there along with others from the Academy. He had drank too much, and because he likes the sound of his own voice he spoke loudly and unwisely. He maintained that the God-Emperor Ai is in thrall to His favourite Concubine, the Winter Orchid, who alone holds the secret of His erotic release. The Court has become a nest of vipers, as the Concubine and various factions of Advisors and Ministers plot and intrigue against one another. The God-Emperor himself is now so fat He cannot stand and is carried everywhere on a litter. As Hyo-Zhar-Hyo spoke all this, and many other calumnies besides, I listened and wondered who amongst those gathered was an Informer for the Imperial Guard. I saw no need to inform on Hyo-Zhar-Hyo myself, despite the satisfaction it might have brought.
Sure enough, he was not at work today. There is an archaic glyph from the Court of the Ninth God-Emperor, which is derived from the two characters for self-reproach and satisfaction and is translated as: Shameful joy at a rival’s despair.
General Lha-Lho and the Ever-Victorious Army have won another great victory against the Barbarians, driving back wave after wave, slaughtering countless and decimating their ranks. Unfortunately this has not stopped them advancing to the City Walls. Surely this is where they will meet their end. The seven concentric walls of the Eternal City have stood for ten thousand years and have never been breached. This tide of savages will break itself against the mighty stones, I have no doubt, as the sea crashes against the cliffs, full of rage and fury yet utterly impotent.
My Honourable Mother has expressed again her intention to be buried in the Catacombs beneath the Temple. Luckily I had bought the wood for a casket many years ago at a very reasonable price. However, finding a tradesman to effect its manufacture has proved more difficult. All the artisans are employed in the machinery of war. In the end I was able to find some, and they seem skilled enough. They complimented me on the quality and grain of the wood and informed me that to buy such at the present time would cost more than four times what I paid. Even in such troubled times, this comforted me not a little.
Rice has grown scarce and meat is so expensive only butchers and Emperors may afford it. With the city under siege nothing enters or leaves (except a trickle of cowards and malcontents). A Provender was lynched by a mob made up of the Lower Castes when a rumour spread he was hoarding bread and salt. Thankfully I had the foresight to lay a little extra aside so we are not reduced to eating millet just yet. Besides, Mother will only take broth now, and only a few spoons at a time. The Doctor called again and impressed on me it would not be long; a matter of days. He gave me the last of his Opium and told me to use it sparingly.
I had to remonstrate with the Artisans over the coffin. They wanted to apply only four layers of lacquer, arguing with great impudence that it would suffice. I informed them with no uncertain terms that, though the Barbarians were at the gate, this was no license to degenerate to the level of savages ourselves. Seven coats of lacquer should be considered a bare minimum, and for the quality of wood I have supplied and the cost of the preparations, some might consider seven coats sparing. I have started to regret engaging them.
Syu-Sha-Sol encountered an archaic form today, and knowing it to be my specialty he sought me out. It was a particular favourite of mine—a glyph from the Second Century of Provincial origin. It is derived from the ear of wheat that meant farming in those areas where rice had not displaced it, together with a derivation of the accent that means joyful singing. It can be loosely translated as: They shall come singing from the fields, for they have provided for their own.
It is one of those instances where the sentiment is as touching as the character is visually appealing. Syu-Sha-Sol was enthralled, as I was myself when I first encountered it. His hand brushed against mine. For a few blessed moments I shared that fortunate pocket of air, inhaling as he exhaled, drinking in sweat and perfume like a starving man sniffing a bowl of Gok-Sui. I can only hope I maintained my outward composure. How I live for these moments of joyful despair.
As I passed by the courtyard this morning I witnessed our neighbour standing with a bloody cleaver calling to his dog. The cur cowered—it could smell the blood and see the freshly butchered carcase of its companion. The man raised an insistent voice. I stopped, transfixed by the grisly tableaux. In the end the beast went to its master meekly, scraping its belly on the cobbles and whining. How could it do otherwise? I wanted to shout out and send it scampering away. Instead I stood paralysed as the cleaver was raised. I wonder if in those final moments the beast realized its true place in the world. That it was not, in the end, a member of the family but food.
Mother does not speak and cannot hear me. Each breath comes more fragile and ragged than the last, and the gap between them lengthens. Each time I think: This will be her last. She moans when the pain invades her dreams. That is when I know to take a few grains of opium and mix a tincture, which I trickle into her mouth from the small blue bottle. I wonder if I should use the last grains and hasten her to a dreamless sleep. Is that what a dutiful son would do? Would it be an end to suffering? Are her dreams peaceful and content, or nightmares of mute agony? I cannot know, and so I take the coward’s path and do nothing.
The coffin has received the first and second coat of lacquer. I was not impressed with its quality and was forced to complain to the Artisans again, demanding that they only use the highest quality for the remaining coats. I am wearied beyond words by their sullen indifference, so common in the Lower Castes. I should have made them scrape it off with their fingernails and start again.
At the Academy we are reduced to half our number. None can say what happened to our colleagues, and no one can ask or even draw attention to it. One can only speculate as to their fate. There is much anxiety about the drafting of Civil Servants into the Ever-Victorious Army, but our superiors have reassured us we are more valuable to the God-Emperor as Men of Letters and that the written word travels farther than the arrow, as the Proverbs have it. I have taken some small comfort in this, being singularly unsuited to the task of slaughter. This is despite the fact that my Venerable Father was a great soldier in the Ever-Victorious Army and his sword hangs accusingly on the wall in our house. This causes me no small amount of shame.
I am finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate on my work. When I was first tasked with transcribing the complete works of the Venerable Yai-Nn I was ecstatic and took it to be a great honour. He was the greatest historical scholar of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries. I have since updated my opinion of him. His plodding and detail-laden texts circle endlessly round the point, if in fact they ever reach it. Every sentence is a procrastination; every paragraph is constipated. I now grow physically sick as I approach my desk.
I inspected the third and fourth coat of lacquer and found it satisfactory. It is still not the quality that one would normally expect, but these are troubled times and I must be realistic. In any case I was too weary to remonstrate with the craftsmen again.
This morning I saw Syu-Sha-Sol talking quietly with Kyu-Yah-Boh. I can only hope they do nothing regrettable. I am ashamed to confess that for the rest of the day I contemplated informing on Kyu-Yah-Boh to the Imperial Guard before finally putting aside the idea. I have always considered myself to be an honorable person, but in my own way I am as mean-spirited as my former tormentor Hyo-Zhar-Hyo, whose name can no longer be uttered. Worse even, since I hide my vanities and petty jealousies beneath a veneer of pleasantries.
At the Garden of Pleasant Relaxation the talk was of the war, as always. The siege is soon to be lifted, there is no doubt. The Barbarians cannot maintain it for long. They are mindless brutes, all agreed. Their speech consists of grunts and barks. Many asserted that they have horns sprouting from their heads and the hair on their backs is as thick as a goat’s. Others have tails like lizards or forked tongues. It is also said they have a taste for eating babies and raping women... or possibly it was the other way round? They are not without a certain low cunning, it was allowed, and use dark sorceries to defeat their enemies. Many believe that the Infallible General Lha-Lho has enticed them to over-extend themselves. There was a long and tedious discussion concerning the speed that fully laden oxen can travel over mountainous terrain, which nevertheless developed into a heated argument. At one point a member of the Lower Caste was dragged from the street to serve as an Expert Witness in the matter, but the old man could only stare blankly at the animated questions until he was ejected with a great deal of irritation. In the end the consensus was unchanged: the Savages’ supply lines, being now too long, are prone to attack from a rear assault. I have no doubt the final stroke will come soon and wipe this plague of locusts from the sacred ground.
Today I passed a corpse on the way to the Academy. It was not a casualty of war, as I first surmised, but someone from the Beggar Caste, or an Indentured, who had died of natural causes. On my way home the body was still there, though it had been worried by dogs or rats. There is no one left to clear it, I realised.
Now that the Savages have infiltrated the outer two walls, the Infallible General Lha-Lho has devised a new stratagem. He has assembled a Children’s Army, not one soldier older than twelve. In his wisdom he saw that the ignorant Barbarians would baulk at the slaughter of innocents and reveal that they do not have the stomach for war. Though this philosophy runs counter to everything we have learned about the Barbarians thus far, I do not doubt the Infallible General Lha-Lho in his analysis. I watched from Mother’s window as the columns passed beneath—so many ragged boys, attempting to march in unison, with heads held high. I saw the tears on their faces, so joyful were they to be given the chance to lay down their lives for the protection of the Eternal City and the God-Emperor Himself. How proud their parents must be.
Alas, although the proud Children’s Army won a great victory, it was not enough to stem the flow of the Barbarian locusts that now swarm over the Third and Fourth Wall. It is said the children’s blood ran like rivers in the streets and the bodies piled up as though to shore up the Sacred Walls. The cunning and cruelty of the Savages cannot be underestimated, it seems.
From my window I can see columns of smoke.
The final coat of lacquer was applied to the casket today.
This morning I was summoned to the Inner Court. Due to the shameful loss of staff, the Chief Secretary Qyu-Hya-Wo needed a Calligrapher to record the God-Emperor’s Divine Audience. I made it clear to the Chief Secretary that I was not the fastest in the art, being rather known for my meticulous transcriptions. Nevertheless he was insistent, relaying that I had been recommended personally—no doubt by some secret enemy I have accrued. Of course it is a great honour to be invited to work for the Chief Secretary in this way—at any other time I would have been overjoyed—but the rumours surrounding the Court at the moment caused me rather more anxiety. Yet there was no way to graciously refuse so I followed the Chief Secretary out of the Academy. Syu-Sha-Sol watched with concern as I left. I wondered if that would be the last time I ever saw him.
We crossed the Academy’s Courtyard, with its fountains and intricate ceramic tiles, where Syu-Sha-Sol would often come to read and where I have spent many contemplative hours in happier times. We passed through gate after gate. All the while the Chief Secretary instructed me in the etiquette of the Inner Court: I was not to look the God-Emperor in the eye, nor say a single word to anyone unless personally addressed, for I was there to record only. Even in the unlikely event that I would be spoken to, I was to make sure to agree with everything, he asserted, as Great Men only want to hear their own words reflected back at them.
At last we passed through the Gate of Divine Imperiousness (the first time I had ever done so) and arrived at the Inner Court where the Winter Palaces, the Imperial Harems, and the Ministries of Court are found. I can now confirm with some authority that the Winter Palaces are indeed the most resplendent of the Seasonal Palaces, save for the gardens and pools of the Summer Palaces, which of course have now been utterly destroyed. They surpass the Spring Palaces, which offer only cloying over-abundance, and of course the Autumn Palaces are an abomination, as all know. The Winter Palaces are fashioned from a white stone transported to the Eternal City from many thousands of miles away. The decorations and ornamentations on the outer walls are breathtaking. Inside the effect is even more dramatic, the Master Masons having carved the stone as thin as porcelain in places, so that light is absorbed and scattered in every direction. The floor also is a polished white marble. The effect is of an immense ice cave, like those fashioned by the seal-hunting savages of the Far North. Accents of colour are provided by the rich tapestries and carpets and the antiquities of immeasurable value that adorn every surface and fill every nook.
We crossed many courtyards, each larger and more magnificent than the last. Some contained fountains of exuberant joyfulness, others tranquil pools of Giant Carp and water lilies, one a shady copse of winter birch. Another courtyard contained an intricate model of the Winter Palace itself, complete with living miniature trees. As we passed it I caught a glimpse of the very courtyards we were hurrying through, though I failed to note whether the model was reproduced within itself.
Finally we came to the Chamber of Divine Audience. Here was assembled the entirety of the Inner Court and the Imperial Retinue, including all manner of officials and servants and hangers-on. I noted also the Chorus of Sycophants whose job it was to murmur agreement with those currently in favour or mutter sarcastically as those out of favour were speaking. Also assembled were a good number of Dignitaries and Ministers, many of whom I did not know. However, I was able to recognise General Lha-Lho, dusty from battle, as well as the Minister of Truth, Jho-Vyar; the Minister of Peace, Yai-Phal; and the Minister of Coin, Zhu-Kyo. Each of these had their own Retinue of course, including their own Sycophants. These were already engaged in elevating their Master’s private conversations, so that a low murmuring echoed around the chamber, with ripples of admiring mirth breaking out after some witticism was offered. I was led to a small desk and cushion near the front where I was able to set out my tools and prepare. After an excruciating wait, I was at last rewarded by the entrance of the God-Emperor Ai Himself.
When I was a barefoot child, no more than four or five, a Shadow Play came to our village to enact the great cycles of myth. When the great Dragon Sool appeared breathing fire and smoke I ran wailing to Mother, believing it would devour me along with the hapless hero Fun-Shal. Afterwards, when I was led behind the curtain and saw the toothless old man with his sticks and candles and cymbals I felt very foolish, of course, but also sad—as though the world had been diminished somehow. A long forgotten character from the Far Eastern Provinces takes the sign for wisdom but places it within the Codex of the Pejorative Class. It has been translated as: Disappointment on discovering the true nature of things.
The Worshipful God-Emperor Ai was carried on a litter, supported by twelve huge Eunuchs. He was grossly fat, it couldn’t be denied, a vast whale of pink quivering flesh—but it must be a symptom of His illness, which has been widely discussed, and is no doubt exacerbated by His confinement. How noble, I thought, that He still persists in the day-to-day business; how He must love His people. He was accompanied on the litter by at least half a dozen concubines, both male and female. However, it was difficult to be sure of their exact number as their bodies were entwined and constantly writhing. I averted my eyes in shame when I realized that some were in the act of congress, though I could not prevent the gasps and moans of pleasure from reaching my ears, nor the various smells from reaching my nostrils. There was semen and fecal matter, and something else I could not place that had the salty earthiness of sweat and yet was not sweat. Looking around, however, I noted that none of the Divine Audience seemed in any way perturbed, so I surmised this spectacle was not out of the ordinary. Not wanting to appear prudish I composed myself accordingly. The God-Emperor is not a normal man, I reasoned, and so normal standards of decorum do not apply. Not for the first time I chastised my provincial sensibilities—who was I, after all, to censor the Divine with rustic notions of modesty?
As I raised my eyes again, I was greeted with a sight that will stay with me always: the Winter Orchid herself, rising from the nest of cushions beside the God-Emperor, unfurling as a cobra raises its head. She was undoubtedly the most beautiful woman I had ever laid eyes upon, even when surrounded by the most nubile courtesans. Her face was innocent and bewitching, her eyes were wide and dark, her painted lips mocking and insolent. Yet it was her body—half naked, half glimpsed beneath transparent wisps of silk—that seemed to exude erotic promise, with wide hips and full breasts and skin as white as the walls of the Winter Palace. Though I have never looked on a woman with carnal interest, I was nevertheless greatly impressed by her presence. In the same way as one may admire a great statue, I could not fail to appreciate the artistry with which the Gods had composed the wantonness of her flesh. Her eyes alighted on each in turn—many could not hold her gaze, others stared with open malevolence. When at last those flashing eyes came to rest on me, I met her stare and held it. After a few moments she seemed to realise her seductive charge was wasted on me. She did not seem perturbed; rather she seemed to make a mental note of the fact and moved on.
The God-Emperor Ai Himself, though magnificent in every respect, seemed half asleep, no doubt exhausted from His illness or its treatments. His eyes wandered around the room, half closed. He spoke so softly that only the Winter Orchid could hear Him, so that she acted as His translator, and all His council passed through her.
I would not have time to relate all that I heard in the Chamber of Divine Audience, though it caused me no small amount of anxiety. At one point, the Infallible General Lha-Lho announced that the Barbarians had been driven back to the Outer Walls. I knew this to be untrue—they were now at the Seventh and Innermost Wall, and if that were breached there would be nothing between their Horde and the Inner Court itself. The Infallible General’s new stratagem was to release the animals from the Imperial Menagerie, so that the tigers and wolves and bears would strike fear into the Barbarian’s primitive hearts. This was applauded by all—even the General’s most bitter enemies were forced to concede approval, followed closely by their murmuring Sycophants. Though it seemed to me that wild animals loosed in such a way were as like to attack the Ever-Victorious Army as the Barbarians. The Chief Secretary noticed my hesitation and impressed on me with his expression that this was no concern of mine. I held my tongue.
The Minister of Peace urged total war, arguing that every citizen of the Eternal City would rise up and fight to protect their beloved Emperor. The Minister of Coin argued that with enough gold the Barbarians could be persuaded to return to whatever God-forsaken wilderness they came from—though it seemed this had already been tried multiple times. The Minister of Truth urged the God-Emperor to flee, something I found so shocking that a gasp escaped my lips, though thankfully no one heard it over the muttering of the Sycophants behind. The God-Emperor, or at least the Winter Orchid, was equally appalled; for at this point she descended from the litter in all her extravagance to scream obscenities into the face of the Minister of Truth, questioning his manhood with spiteful eloquence. Only the mewling of the God-Emperor Himself drew her back up to the litter, having become visibly upset when He realised she had left His side, thus saving the Minister from further inflections.
At one point the God-Emperor seemed to stir and roll slightly. I thought for a few glorious moments that He would at last arise, sweep aside the bickering advisors, and call for the Armour of His Ancestors. At last, I thought, He will take up the Sword and Spear of the Warrior Kings of Antiquity and ride out to battle the Barbarians Himself. However, my optimism was wholly misplaced. It became clear that the contortions of the Concubines had aroused Him in other ways. The Winter Orchid was obliged to interrupt the heated discussions in order to caress the God-Emperor intimately, at His insistence. To her credit, The Winter Orchid was able to continue the Audience undiminished in between pleasuring Him with her mouth. The scene reminded me of an irritated mother trying to eat a bowl of rice and breastfeed at the same time.
However, I must put my misgivings to one side and trust in the methods of our beneficent rulers, however opaque they might appear. In fact, it gladdens me to know that the God-Emperor is well cared for in these turbulent times, for He bears an immense burden for all of us and suffers it with great dignity.
My Honourable Mother has passed into sleep everlasting. So agonizing and prolonged was her end that I find I have no more tears to shed. The casket looked pristine as it was brought into the courtyard, and I laid a few gifts beside her before they closed the lid: her tortoise-shell comb, a silhouette of my venerable and long departed Father, a lock of fine black hair from the daughter—my sister—that was lost in infancy before I was born. For myself I placed a small watercolour I had painted in my youth, depicting the view of mountains from our village, which she had hung on her wall for many years. The Acolytes from the Temple performed the necessary rites with the utmost serenity, even as the sound of battle drifted overhead. The fighting was no more than a few streets away by then, perhaps at the Inner Wall itself, though the reports insisted that the Barbarians had been pushed back. The procession to the Temple was limited to a few hours only, and there was not the usual gathering of friends and neighbours. Though I understand that there are more pressing matters at hand, nevertheless their absence was humiliating and the offenders have been noted.
The trip down into the Catacombs could not be circumscribed, however, as the ways are narrow and hard to navigate with any dignity. The Catacombs are a mirror image of the City, stretching for miles in each direction. There are main thoroughfares where the wealthy are laid, lit with torches and decorated with frescos. Many of the Mercantile families have entire galleries dedicated to them and large mausoleums carved from the rock. Some are in good repair, others have fallen into ruin, as dynastic fortunes have waxed and waned through the ages. Still, there is a place for all—these spaces give way in turn to warrens of narrow, low-ceilinged corridors, where the bones of the Lower Castes are packed like salted herring; crowded together in death as in life.
Our destination was the far end of a recently opened gallery, where a newly carved shelf had been prepared. I noted grimly there was space above it for myself, which I had purchased at the same time. A prime spot, and not inexpensive. The casket was raised into place, and then the hole was filled in with the plain red earthenware tiles on which I had painted the details of her life, not trusting the Tilemakers in this task. It was not my finest work, I am ashamed to report. My hand had shook, and I had struggled to find the words—the irony of which did not escape me. In the end, I had been reduced to bare facts, so unequal to the enormity of a life: a name, an age, a date, a marriage, a son. Reading again my sparse and insufficient words as the Acolytes murmured the Final Liturgies, I felt a wave of nausea and had to steady myself against the rough rock wall.
Syu-Sha-Sol approached me at the Garden of Pleasant Relaxation, visibly relieved to see me alive and well and not disappeared. Of course I was unable to tell him the nature of my new assignment, though I assured him that it was a great honour and I hoped I would return to the Academy when the Barbarians were at last brought low. He had heard of my Mother and offered his condolences, at which point I was barely able to retain my composure. He was drinking rice wine, which was not his usual habit, and his hand was shaking.
Finally I discovered the reason. He confessed that he was planning to flee the Eternal City that night, together with Kyu-Yah-Boh and some members of their families. Though the gates were barred, there were tunnels and escape routes operated by vagabonds and scoundrels, who profited from the enterprise by no small degree. If I could raise a small sum, he said, then I would be able to accompany them. So it seemed my earlier suspicions were not unfounded, though I was not ignorant of the fact that he was taking a great risk in talking to me.
At this point he took something from his sleeve and passed it beneath the table. I reached forward, feeling his shaking hands groping for mine; upon finding them, he deposited something in my palm and pressed my hands around it: a small note, folded over many times. I unfurled it in my lap with some trepidation. It had been written hurriedly on cheap rice paper—tissue-thin and waxy. Though the technique was not up to his usual standard, I could not fail to recognize Syu-Sha-Sol’s own hand. It consisted of a single character, an archaic form that few would recognise, being much out of fashion. It was used most often by the poets of the Coastal Provinces. It takes the form of the encircling symbol which can mean hands but also prayer, and the simple runic signifier for soul, or love, which are considered equivalent. It is the votive offering to the Beloved, the object of longing: I have laid my heart in your hands.
The meaning was clear to me. For half a heartbeat I allowed myself to believe, and though it was night the sun flared bright in my eyes, all the world was washed in colours, and a life of simple happiness stretched out before me. But all too soon the mocking voice of reason intruded. It was a trap, I realised. An obvious and clumsy attempt to test my loyalties by the Chief Secretary or the Imperial Guard, perhaps due to my recent elevation to the Inner Circle.
Syu-Sha-Sol’s eyes were fixed on me, wet with tears, no doubt yearning for me to see through the plot. No doubt he had been coerced into this entrapment and would feel lifelong shame if it were to bring me down. Still, I had to proceed cautiously. Of course, only a traitor of the highest degree would flee the Eternal City in its most desperate hour; there was no question of accepting the offer. However, I perceived a subtler snare—that out of my friendship for Syu-Sha-Sol I might neglect to inform the proper channels. I realised that the only way to prove myself was to go straight to the Imperial Guard. This is what a true son of the Eternal City would do. And of course, I reminded myself, I wouldn’t actually be informing on Syu-Shal-Sol because there was no actual escape—it was all a fabrication designed to ensnare me. The more I thought on it, the more sure I became.
I excused myself politely, saying to Syu-Sha-Sol that I would think long and hard on what he said. Afterwards I went directly to the Inner Court—fearing that any delay would be interpreted as indecision—and recounted everything in full. After several hours I was allowed home. I woke some time before dawn, wet with terror, having dreamt of that wretched dog, scraping its belly across the cobblestones to its end.
The unthinkable has come to pass. The Eternal City has fallen. The Barbarians have overrun the Inner Court. The Infallible General Lho-Lhar was killed heroically defending the Inner Wall, and the Ever-Victorious Army has been destroyed. It is said they fought to the last man, though I saw with my own eyes a great number of them running through the streets tearing off their uniforms and casting down their swords. The Winter Palaces were burned to the ground. From the window of Mother’s room I saw myself the great black cloud. Thankfully the wind was from the West and the smoke was carried away.
The Barbarians themselves turned out to be disappointingly ordinary and marched down the streets in well-disciplined lockstep with neither tails nor horns. They look much like us, in truth, though their armour is plain. The last remnants of the population looked on with the sullen indifference so common in the Lower Castes. There was no great battle in the streets. The gutters did not, in the end, overflow with our blood as had been promised. This is a shame and humiliation on a scale beyond all imagining.
It is claimed that His Worshipful Radiance the God-Emperor Ai was captured by the Barbarian’s encircling army as He tried to flee the Eternal City, though I think this is spiteful propaganda. When the populace was called to the Square of Everlasting Joy, the assumption was that He was to be executed, along with His Ministers and even the Winter Orchid herself. There was a great deal of speculation and unpatriotic curiosity as to the methods of torment that would be employed by the Barbarians. We underestimated them again, it seems, for in the end they had something far worse in mind. He was given a speech to read. This He did, though with great difficulty from his litter (now free of concubines, I was thankful to observe). Though his voice was soft and child-like and did not carry far, He proclaimed that He was not in fact divine but rather a man like any other. He bore the humiliation with great serenity, though I saw many faces in the crowds wet with tears and suffering for Him.
The General of the Barbarians spoke afterwards, not in barks and grunts but in passable dialect, of liberation not conquest. The Ang-Shyu-Fhal Dynasty is at an end, it was proclaimed. The Ever-Victorious Army will never march again, nor bring tyranny to neighbouring lands. The Empire Without End will be broken up into its many Provinces, each with their own rulers and forms of government. The Eternal City and its environs are to be governed by a Council of Scholars and Bureaucrats. Trade, long resisted by the Ang-Shyu-Fhal, is to be opened up with the rest of the world. In time it is expected that the Indentured would be lifted out of their appalling poverty and the Lower Castes would rise with the tide of wealth. On and on it went, each phrase measured and reasonable. Rather that we had all been slaughtered then and there.
I have returned to the Academy to continue my work, though I have had to set aside the transcription of the Venerable Yai-Nn for there are a great many changes, and Proclamations and Edicts are published daily.
The note lies before me as I write, creased and prematurely aged through much folding and unfolding, as I have folded and unfolded my memories of that night. And with each folding and unfolding, my heart grows as thin as the cheap rice paper on which it is written. I have not seen or heard of Syu-Sha-Sol since that night in the Garden of Pleasant Relaxation, which leads me to an inescapable and harrowing conclusion.
There is a sigil employed often by the Poet-Philosophers of the Jai-Jo Prefecture, who were fond of Tragedies and sexual transgression. It takes the familiar Root for soul, or maybe will, but adds short Invectives that can mean “opportune” or “timely” and combines it with a long forgotten Abstract, meaning static or frozen. It could be rendered as: Paralysis of the soul at the moment of rapture.
I remember puzzling over it at the time, thinking it mere euphemism for sexual impotence. Unfortunately I am now able to grasp its full unhappy resonance.
A door was left open for me, that evening in the Garden of Pleasant Relaxation, as a scrap of paper was passed beneath the table and pressed into my unworthy hands. That door stood ajar, shafts of sunlight spilling through, with sounds of birdsong and the breath of wind-stirred leaves. It was so simple—such a small thing!—to reach out and step through... but at that final moment of rapture my recreant heart deserted me.
The Doctor has visited several times. He fears I am falling into the grip of Melancholia. Today he brought his daughter with him, a plump moon-faced girl who could not lift her eyes from the ground. The Doctor proclaimed: What this house needs is children. The laughter of children is better than any medicine. He grinned at me expectantly.
I smiled painfully back and said nothing. What I thought was: If that is your honest medical opinion I shall have to engage another Doctor. I have always found the laughter of children grating and irritating beyond endurance. It was only later that I realised what he was proposing—no doubt I am entirely illiterate in these matters. I confess I even considered it, at least for a few moments. In the end however, I could not in all conscience condemn another to join me in this cell, despite the comfort and companionship it might offer. No doubt this will be interpreted as a slight. No act of kindness ever goes unpunished, as the Proverbs have it.
I am ashamed to confess that last night I stood upon the Bridge of Sighs and gazed unblinking at the churning waters below, as have countless others on that dismal spot, contemplating self-slaughter. The meanness of impending years stretched out before me, the days of quiet turmoil followed by the inevitable and humiliating degeneration of the body. And who would there be to spoon broth into my mouth? Or trickle a tincture of opium onto my lips? And in my extremities I could not even curse the Gods, since they are innocent in this, if little else; all my agonies are self-wrought.
I am not sure what turned me away in the end; perhaps that final act demands some small degree of courage that is beyond me. I have heard also the accounts of those unfortunates who stepped out into the void yet changed their minds on the way down, which seems too appalling to contemplate.
Rice and salt flow once more into the City. A great many who fled have now returned, and with them the voices in the street, the vulgar sound of commerce and industry. Prices have normalised and in fact are now lower than in living memory.
Today I walked in the Gardens of Peace and Tranquility, as in happier times. To my astonishment, though Spring is many months away, some Winter-blossoming trees were already budding. My mood was lifted, imagining the impending burst of colour. No matter what befalls us, the world continues, oblivious. The ivy that climbs the wall, the moss that furs the stone, the breeze that stirs the grass, the trees that turn their leaves to the pitiless sun and send their roots feeling blindly through the clotted wormy earth: these things are unburdened by the rise and fall of Empires or the torments of a solitary man. I take some small comfort in this.
Afterwards I visited the Temple, and made my way through the Catacombs, and wept freely at the shrine of my Honourable Mother, and begged forgiveness for this most undutiful son. I gazed unhappily at the empty space that lay above her, waiting to be filled. What brief and callous epitaph would be written there, I wondered, and by what indifferent hand? No doubt some barely literate Tilemaker’s Apprentice rushing through the afternoon’s work. I resolved to take the matter in hand myself and have already ordered the tiles, which I will inscribe when they arrive.
I have in mind a simple inscription, originally written for me in the Garden of Pleasant Relaxation, on a scrap of paper as thin as skin, creased from much folding and unfolding: