from the papers of Gao Zhen Xi
Chang'an, last year of Houyuan
Today in the Nine Markets I came across a new stall, operated by a foreigner evidently, selling all manner of birds and animals in cages. I had thought perhaps to purchase a songbird or some such, the better to test my growing knowledge of herbology, but my eye was caught by a brown rat in one particular cage, who looked at me with a very direct, quite intelligent gaze. The rat had a decided green spot on the tip of one ear, and it was not afraid of me. When I rested my finger against the wooden bar of the cage near its nose, it looked right back without cowering. In fact, I could swear that the rat winked at me.
The merchant grinned at me; his beard was not so thick that I could not make note of his striking lack of teeth. "It's dye," he explained, in a very thick accent. I am not sure where he came from; there are so many foreigners in the Nine Markets that it is impossible to sort them out. Perhaps he was Persian. "The rat is quite healthy, I assure you."
It might have been better to purchase a sick rat, upon further consideration, but I had already decided that this was the rat I wanted, and he knew it. We haggled energetically, and eventually we sealed the bargain with a silver coin. I directed him to have the rat delivered to the Gao house in the district north of the palace, and made my way to the stall of a Persian alchemist of my acquaintance, who had sent me a message claiming to have obtained new Egyptian scrolls on magic. I wanted to see whether he was telling the truth.
The first thing I did when the merchant's boy delivered the rat to my house was to open her cage and let her out onto my worktable (I had already removed the stray papers that usually clutter it up). The rat took her time exploring the table, sniffing enthusiastically, while I explained some of my work to her.
"My name is Gao Zhen Xi," I began, placing a dish of wheat and berries on the table. "Welcome to my house--what shall I call you?"
The rat paused in its investigation (how thorough! All scholars should aspire to be so methodical) and looked up at me, whiskers twitching. The green spot on her ear stood out even in the lamplight, the color of imperial jade. "Jade," I said slowly, thinking it over. "The spot on your ear is the color of jade. I shall call you, with your permission, Jade Rat."
Jade Rat nodded her head, as if she could understand me and were agreeing. I spared a thought for the Confucian disciples, who would surely chastise me for thinking that a rat could understand human speech (and for my lack of filial piety in remaining unmarried). Their worldview is so…limited; they have no means to grasp the wonders that I and my friends, the magicians and the alchemists and the herbologists, know well exist, and in plenty.
But there are no Confucians in my house; my parents did not entertain them, and I have followed my parents' example since my mother's death.
"So, you are Jade Rat, and I am Gao Zhen Xi. Please don't be alarmed when I tell you that I am a scholar who is interested in some…unusual branches of study." Jade Rat nibbled on a berry, regarding me measuringly. "To be specific, I have studied alchemy, herbology, and magic, trying to find a way to manipulate Spirit in a way that does not violate the law of the cycles. Do you know the law of the cycles?" I asked suddenly, remembering that most people have never heard of the Three Realms, or the law of the cycles, and that even many of those who have do not believe it. My family have always been unorthodox thinkers.
Jade Rat shook her head. "Well, I shall have to explain to you about Spirit, and the law of the cycles, and the Three Realms," I said, "but for now the point is that I am interested in learning to do what foxes do, without being a fox: transformation and transferring Spirit. You do know about foxes, I hope."
Jade Rat flicked her ear at me, as if to tell me that I was being ridiculous. Everyone knows about foxes; you don't become the most notorious trickster in the universe without making a name for yourself. "Excellent," I said. "In any event, as part of my study I have become interested in health, the flow of energy through the body, and how one might prolong one's lifespan, either by diet or by magic. I have taken you into my home in the hopes of applying what I have learned to you."
At that Jade Rat looked frightened for the first time since I had met her, dropping the berry and hunching down against the cage. "I won't harm you!" I said hastily, suddenly realizing just how sinister I had sounded. "Truly, please don't be frightened. I would never be so cruel. I've already made certain of my techniques in mice."
We stared at each other, Jade Rat looking skeptical. I stared back, and after a long minute Jade Rat's eyes narrowed. "Will you swear to that?" a voice asked. The voice was hoarse, and a little deep--for a rat, for it was undeniable that Jade Rat had spoken. I blinked. Oh, if only the Confucians could see this, and believe.
Still, even I was surprised. "You can talk," I said, stupidly.
"Yes, I can talk," Jade Rat replied, and I thought I saw a flash of humor in the set of her whiskers. "And the spot on my ear is not dye."
"Oh," I said. "That is, I see. In that case, Jade Rat, I truly am pleased to make your acquaintance. And yes, I will swear to you, by the Three Realms and the law of the cycles, that I mean you no harm. "
But Jade Rat shook her head. "Swear to me on something else," she told me. "Something personal."
My heart seized within my chest. "Very well," I said, swallowing past the dryness in my mouth. "I swear to you on my parents' mortuary tablets, as well."
Jade Rat flicked her whiskers forward. "Then I am pleased to make your acquaintance as well, Gao Zhen Xi."
First year of Jianyuan
Soon after the new young Emperor announced the first new era of his reign, he also announced that he would hold a public imperial examination of 100 scholars, with the aim of strengthening the empire by discovering the strongest possible foundation for learning and education.
My dear friend Gao Zhen Xi, for so she had become in the months we had spent together, received news of her preferment into the examination the day after the emperor's proclamation had been read out around the city. Her father, she told me over tea later that afternoon, had been an intimate of one of the former emperor's court secretaries, upon whom it seemed the new Emperor Wu had come to heavily rely.
"I am surprised that Secretary Zhang has recommended me," she had confessed, getting up from the table and turning to stare at her racks of scrolls. "I had not expected to be so honored."
"Perhaps Emperor Wu truly does desire to set scholarship on the firmest possible foundation," I suggested from my place on the table. "Your place in the examinations augurs well for him being open-minded."
But Gao Zhen Xi shook her head, still looking at her scrolls. "Emperor Wu is only sixteen, Jade Rat. The Grand Empress Dowager and the Empress Dowager are the ones who are truly in charge of the government."
I nibbled the piece of fruit Gao Zhen Xi had set before me, unable to think of anything to say.
"Don't look like that, Jade Rat," Gao Zhen Xi told me gently when she turned around, arms full of scrolls, to place them on the far end of the table. "You know I will do my best in the examinations, no matter what."
I looked up at her, and hunched my whiskers in embarrassment. "Of course you will," I muttered. "But it doesn't seem fair, that you must participate under the burden of knowing you will probably be ignored."
Gao Zhen Xi shrugged, and took her seat at the table again, putting her hand on it palm-up. I took the hint, and ran up her arm and onto her shoulder, tucking myself into my customary position between the collar of her tunic and her neck, just under her ear. "It makes little difference to me whether people in this world are made to believe in the truth of the Three Realms or not, Jade Rat," Gao Zhen Xi told me quietly, sipping her tea. She tells me it is medicinal, and I have gotten used to the taste. "They will come to it in the end, anyway, as we all must do. And I myself care little for power or politics."
I rubbed the side of my head against the skin of her neck. Gao Zhen Xi has never asked, but I believe she knows that I have the faculty of human speech not because I am an extraordinary rat (although I am) but because I was once human. The magician who transformed me did so because of politics, and I could not think how to warn my friend that even those who do not care for politics or power must beware of them.
I am glad Gao Zhen Xi has never asked me about that particular truth. I do not want to be transformed back, for my being human again would render our companionship impossible. I value her too highly.
Three weeks later Gao Zhen Xi came back from the imperial examination, angry and defeated as I had never seen her, slumped shoulders shaking.
"What's wrong?" I asked as soon as she entered her workshop, running to the end of the table and sitting up on my hindpaws to look up at her.
Gao Zhen Xi shook her head, for once inarticulate, and then mutely held out a hand to me. I ran up her arm immediately, glad to feel her fingetips scratching between my ears when I setlled in my place against her neck.
"You were right, Jade Rat," she said at last, letting out an unsteady breath. I felt the tremors in her flesh steadying beneath my paws. "This imperial examination must have been Emperor Wu's idea after all. If he supports the Confucians over other schools, he can find a way to oppose the Grand Empress Dowager."
"Was the emperor present?" I asked, surprised. "And how do Confucians help him against his grandmother?"
"He was," Gao Zhen Xi confirmed. "And his grandmother is a fervent Daoist. If he can elevate the position of Confucianism above Daoism, he can discredit her in the eyes of the people and the court."
Gao Zhen Xi sighed. I knew that she herself had studied with a Daoist master, and had great respect for the skill of Daoist wizards. "I believe--I think I should have chosen a different topic for my essay, Jade Rat. I do not think I should stay in Chang'an, at least not for the near future."
"Do you really think it's that bad?" I asked. It was not the first question that had popped into my mind: that was I'm coming with you, aren't I?
"I don't know," Gao Zhen Xi admitted. "It's probable that I'm over-reacting. But I have been thinking for a while that I have reached the limits of what I can learn in Chang'an. I think I would like to go west, to Egypt, or south, to Nan-yue. There is plenty left to be learned in the world."
The journey to Egypt takes a year or longer, and not everyone who goes comes back; going to Nan-yue is little more certain. Still, the thought filled me, not with apprehension, but with excitement.
"What is it, Jade Rat?" Gao Zhen Xi asked, chuckling. "I can feel your whiskers quivering."
I took a deep breath. "Gao Zhen Xi, I'm coming with you."
She drew me into her palm and held me in her hands and looked at me, the crease of a frown appearing between her dark eyebrows. Gao Zhen Xi is neither ugly nor handsome; she is simply fiercely intelligent, and beautiful in her own way. I looked back at her, and she shook her head. "Of course you are, you silly Jade Rat," she told me, and we regarded each other happily. Now, as well as friends, we were fellow adventurers.
Chang'an, fifth year of Yuanguang
We were gone from Chang'an for nearly ten years, though on that journey we never did reach Egypt, and when we returned at last to the capital we found it largely unchanged. It was the empire around us that had altered; ongoing border skirmishes with Xiongnu had hampered our journey, though merchants in the inns along our route told us that trade continued almost unabated.
Jade Rat stirred sleepily from her place against my neck when we passed through the Xuanping gate into the city proper, her whiskers twitching. My oldest friend was growing older by the day, and I knew that my skills in herbology were already insufficient to keep the effects of her age at bay. Her brown fur was a mottled sand color now, though her green spot remained as brilliant as ever.
It was one of the reasons we had returned to Chang'an at last; I would have been just as happy to stay away forever, and I think Jade Rat knew it. But she had not asked me whether I had any ideas about how to preserve her life. In her place, I would not been scared of my answer.
As it happened, I did.
We resettled into my family's home in the northern district without much fanfare. Most of my parent's friends had passed on or were greatly aged, and many of the magicians and scholars of the weird with whom I had spent most of my time before my departure had moved on too.
Still, word must have gotten around about my return, for one night in the summer I heard a great knocking at my gate. "Gao Zhen Xi! Is the illustrious Gao Zhen Xi at home?" a voice cried from over the walls.
Jade Rat, asleep on her bed by the fire in my workroom, did not stir, but my servants and I rushed out to the courtyard. "Who goes there?" one of my servants called.
After a minute, the voice called, "Liu Che!" and all of us paled. The Emperor himself, coming incognito to my house in the dead of night!
My servant looked back at me, and I made an impatient gesture. "Let him in!"
The Emperor, when he did enter my courtyard, proved to be a tall, athletic young man, with the unruffled confidence of a man who had finally come into his own power and had the will and the wit to use it.
My servants and I all immediately went to our knees to make our obeisance, but one of the men standing around the Emperor, who was dressed finely but not ostentatiously in dark robes, hissed at us, "Get up! This is not the Emperor! This is the honorable Liu Che!"
Everyone knew the Emperor's personal name, though no one dared use it. "My apologies," I said, regaining my feet. "I am Gao Zhen Xi, and it is my great honor to welcome the honorable Liu Che to my home." I made do by bowing, keeping my eyes on the Emperor's boots.
"Thank you, Gao Zhen Xi," the Emperor told me, and I had to look up at him. It was hard to tell in the light of our servants' lanterns, but the glint in his dark eyes seemed amused. "I am told that you are the same Gao Zhen Xi who sat the imperial examination ten years ago, in the first year of Jianyuan. Is that true?"
"It is," I answered carefully.
"Excellent," the Emperor said, evidently satisfied. "Will you permit me entrance to your home, Gao Zhen Xi? I wish to hear your knowledge of the subject of immortality."
In the end, I was able to use the Emperor's interest for my own ends: the purchase of a small block of the finest imperial jade, and the tools to carve it, on the grounds that it was vital for an experiment which could prove whether I could work with Spirit the way alchemists work with metal. What I told him was true enough, though I already knew that the kind of immortality he desired was not possible under the law of the cycles. It had only taken one conversation with him for me to realize that Emperor Wu would not be satisfied with that answer, and I intended to delay giving it to him as long as possible.
In the meantime, I had a very difficult farewell to say.
Jade Rat was now plainly running out of time, and both of us knew it. She was blind in one eye, and her once-proud whiskers drooped all the time. Her sense of smell, she told me, was much weaker than it had once been.
The day the jade was delivered I took it to my workroom and began the spell of preparation that I had devised immediately, stopping only to drink a little tea around dinnertime. It was halfway into the hour of the dog by the time I finished, and went to the kitchen to eat something. I would need my full strength for the hour of the rat, and what I had to do then.
I passed the time until the hour of the rat restlessly. At last, a few minutes before the hour, I roused Jade Rat, who blinked at me sleepily. "Gao Zhen Xi?" she asked, and I had to swallow past a lump in my throat.
"Yes, Jade Rat, it's me," I said roughly, taking her furry body into my hands. "Jade Rat, I am afraid it is time for us to part. You are old, dear friend, and your body is failing you. With your permission, I would like to transfer your Spirit into this block of jade that I have prepared."
"Block of jade?" Jade Rat repeated faintly, her body trembling. "And what will I do then, when I am a block of jade?"
"I will carve you into a pendant, of a rat," I explained. "You will be able to change into a rat, albeit a green one; I've bespelled the jade. And we need not be parted, ever."
There was a short silence, and then Jade Rat sighed. "I have trusted you this far, dear friend. Let us begin."
"Oh, Jade Rat," I whispered, blinking back unexpected tears. I brought my dear friend up to my face and pressed my nose into her furry body, breathing deeply of her simple rat-scent.
"Don't cry, Gao Zhen Xi," she whispered back to me. "We'll be reunited in no time."
"You're right," I said after a moment, taking a deep breath, and dried my eyes on my sleeve before I set Jade Rat on the table.
"Will it hurt?" she whispered as I took up my brush and dipped it into the ink I had prepared, writing characters onto her fur.
"No," I lied firmly; the truth was that I did not know.
The ritual I had concocted was mercifully brief, and at the end of it my oldest friend's body lay cooling on my worktable next to a block of jade that now pulsed at its heart with a dull green light.
"Jade Rat," I murmured, taking her body into my hands again, for the last time. For the first time in ten years, she did not answer me.
The jade block glowed softly on the worktable as I left the room, taking the lamp with me. I had work to do.
But first, I had to give my friend's mortal form the honor she deserved.
First year of Taishi
My old friend Gao Zhen Xi never did manage to obtain the immortality the Emperor wanted, though we had a grand time journeying to Egypt on his coin not long after Gao Zhen Xi revived me in this form of emerald stone that I wear now. When we finally came back, the size of the empire had very nearly doubled, and the Confucians had been given full control of the education of the bureaucracy.
Our return to Chang'an could not be concealed, of course, but though the Emperor's agents must have reported that we had come back to him, Emperor Wu never once summoned us to an audience, or came in secret himself.
As for Gao Zhen Xi and I, we filled my friend's declining years with advancing the study of the Three Realms and the law of the cycles, gathering as much of the lore of Half World as existed in this Realm as we could. I grew to enjoy my jade form, and to admire the emerald color of my fur when I did avail myself of my availability to change back into a living, breathing animal. I was glad to still be able to put my whiskers against her nose, to feel her fingers stroking my fur, though I could not maintain my animal form indefinitely.
Neither of us were expecting, decades later, the knock at the gate.
I do not know, nor do I particularly care, what turned the Emperor into a harsh, paranoid man in his later years, from a believer in the potential of magic to a man who ordered witchcraft investigations after a nightmare about an assassin. Chang'an in those days was a city rife with magicians, and it is true that the Emperor's nets did ensnare a number of practitioners, though most if not all of them were innocent of anything but irritating the aging Emperor.
Certainly Gao Zhen Xi had never used her art or learning to harm anyone.
This time it was I who awoke at the pounding, while Gao Zhen Xi slept on. "Gao Zhen Xi!" I hissed, turning myself to rat form to poke her on the nose with my paw. "Gao Zhen Xi, someone is at the gate!"
In fact, they were already in the house. "In the name of the Emperor!" I heard a man shouting, and with a sudden spike of fear I turned back into pendant form just as Gao Zhen Xi woke up.
"Jade Rat, what is it?"
"The Emperor's men are here!" I hissed from my place at her throat. "Gao Zhen Xi, you must run!"
But Gao Zhen Xi shook her head. "Jade Rat, I am old, and there is no time for me to run. Besides, where would I go?"
I was stone, but I swear I felt my blood run cold at her words. "Gao Zhen Xi, you must--"
"Jade Rat," she interrupted me, taking a breath, "I would like to try an experiment, if we have the time. Are you willing?"
"Of course, but what--"
I never finished my question. Gao Zhen Xi removed my pendant from around her neck and held it in both hands, muttering something under her breath that I could not understand. But I felt it in her hands, saw it glowing from her fingers: Spirit.
She was attempting to transfer a bit of her Spirit into my pendant, I realized, and as soon as I realized that I knew why: so that we would be able to find each other again, beyond the Half-World.
But to detach part of one's Spirit was not something one did lightly. That must mean that Gao Zhen Xi thought--
"Jade Rat," Gao Zhen Xi said urgently, into her hands around me, "in Half World, or after it--"
The door to Gao Zhen Xi's bedchamber burst open, and the harsh light of several lanterns accompanied a half-dozen men in armor and the imperial colors strode in. Two of them seized Gao Zhen Xi by the arms and dragged her from the bed, knocking my pendant out her hands and into the bedclothes. They forced her to kneel on the floor, head bowed, while their commander read from a scroll, the light gleaming from his armor.
"Gao Zhen Xi, in the name of His Imperial Majesty the Emperor Wu of Han, you are hereby arrested for the practice of witchcraft, the evidence against you being letters written to His Imperial Majesty averring your skills in your own hand. You are hereby--"
The soldier never finished his sentence. Gao Zhen Xi cried out, once, and her entire body went limp, her eyes rolling up in the back of her head. The soldiers immediately lowered her to the floor and turned her over, her eyes staring sightlessly up to the ceiling.
"Gao Zhen Xi," I whispered, but no one heard me. I wanted to scream; I wanted to weep; I could do neither, and for the first time in half a century, I wished to be human again, so that I might.
"Dead, sir," one of the soldiers said, checking her pulse. "She was very old; the shock must have been too great."
"Very well," the commander sighed, rolling up the scroll. "Let the servants know. We must inform the Emperor immediately; he took a personal interest in this case."
The soldiers departed, leaving the wreckage of the bedchamber and Gao Zhen Xi's cooling body behind on the floor. Heedless of the risk or my own flagging strength, I changed into my rat form and scrambled down the trailing bedclothes to her side, putting my nose against her face, unable to believe that she was truly gone. Certainly Gao Zhen Xi had been old, but she had never been frail, her mind never any less sharp. It was not fair, I thought, over and over; it wasn't fair.
It felt like I spent hours nestled in her white hair, lost in my own anguish and grief, but it could not have been more than ten minutes before the servants came with lights and shouting and surprised exclamations. I turned back into a pendant just in time. One of them placed me carefully on the side table before helping to carry Gao Zhen Xi out of the room.
Left alone in the dark, I suddenly had a horrible thought: what if Gao Zhen Xi had not had enough time? What if she had not put enough of her Spirit into my stone, so that we could not find each other again?
Calm down, Jade Rat, I thought to myself, and I could almost hear Gao Zhen Xi saying it. I took a deep breath, and as I did so I realized that, whereas before my jade form had always felt--cool--to my mind, I now felt, somewhere in my middle, around my heart, a very distinct warmth.
I concentrated on that warmth, looking inward with all the focus that I possessed. It was nearly an hour before I was satisfied, but when I did open my eyes again, the sun just peeking over the horizon, I was certain: Gao Zhen Xi.
My friend had succeeded in her task, despite the short time she had had. A part of her was inside me, and we would see each other again. All I had to do was make sure that her work would be waiting for her intact when we did see each other again, after however many years.
Canada, 2009 C.E.
It would be idiotic to say that I realized at the time that I would have to build and maintain a scholarly family and their records for more than two millennia across two continents to be reunited with Gao Zhen Xi once more, but I am nothing if not persistent.
A good thing too, because otherwise I would have given up when the Realms were sundered, and this Tamaki girl is going to need my help if both of us are to fulfill our quests.
Luckily, as I said, I am an extraordinary rat.