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Xiao-Jie, or, A Stalemate in Four Moves

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You know this, feel the certainty deep in the marrow of your bones, would call upon the heavens to witness the surety of your mind - it has to be done.

You watch your husband weigh the bundle of food in his labour-roughened hands, a bottle gourd slung carelessly across his back. You remember the exact shape of his eyes, the slight crinkle at the corners, the smattering of freckles right below on his cheeks, because he always forgets to wear the straw hat you weave for him every winter. He grins at you, impish. “All this, to sustain me for a day’s journey?” He teases, because he knows you hate to be parted from him. He heaves the pack onto a sturdy length of bamboo, and tries to embrace you, in full view of the neighbours and the narrow pounded dirt path that runs into town.

You dance away from him, deftly avoiding the chickens in the front yard. “Maybe when you come back from market, with a batting of cotton for our blankets,” you say, “the leaves are already turning, and we will need the warmth in the nights.”

Your husband throws his head back to laugh, still the loud, brash boy he was so many years ago. “If your mother could see you now, the perfect farmwife for a lowborn lout.”

“Blame the fortuneteller for her hostility,” you say, “he’s the one who said our eight characters of birth would bring forth disaster together.”

Still chuckling, your husband shifts his shoulders, the phantom weight of bow and arrows heavy still, and darts in for one last kiss, bristly and smacking against your cheek. “Fare thee well, my beloved,” he says, mimicking the formal speech patterns of your childhood, and saunters away on the path, whistling jauntily as he walks. You place a hand on your stinging cheek, shy even after all these years of marriage.

Despite your promises to yourself, you spend half the morning sitting at the kitchen table, staring at the way the sunlight dapples across the waxed paper windows, wondering if you were right to choose this man of all your many suitors, when your happiness has been paid by others with some terrible, invisible price.

You look up at last when the bead curtain of your bedroom rattles, a discordant warning. It’s afternoon still, hours before your husband will return, and the sunlight feels suddenly cold upon your body, your arms prickling with apprehension. A cleaver in one hand, you take the few silent steps to the small hallway, and you see him - the young apothecary, newly appointed, and still an apprentice to the whole village, eyes bright with excitement.

“Is it true?” He breathes, overjoyed. “Did my master gift ever-lasting life to your honoured husband?”

You know, then, what has to be done.

You remember the sickening rush as you throw the heavy knife at him and run to the clay pickling crocks lined up against the back wall of the farmhouse, scrambling for a small pill wrapped in a twist of butcher’s paper, the man advancing upon you, and he is shouting at you now, shouting that he deserves to know the secrets of his master, that he has been a good student, that he is tired of waiting. You wonder if he had said these words when he killed his master - for no one else could have, you realize now.

You see, cornered against the low walls of the back garden, that he has prised the cleaver from his shoulder and will be upon you any second now -

- so you take a step to the side -

- and you swallow the pellet, its bitterness spreading in your mouth -

- and then, a rush of dry sweetness -

- but no, you think, that’s not quite right.

You open your eyes, and the golden silks of your canopy sway gently as your - his - servants fan steadily at the wet summer heat. What is it this time, you think to yourself wearily, has he tumbled another unwilling maidservant or executed an official for speaking his mind; has he buried another hundred labourers in the foundations of his temple, is he levying taxes to build yet more pleasure gardens.

“Ah,” your husband says, sitting on the edge of your bed. “My queen awakens.” He strokes one finger down the planes of your face, from forehead to lips, a casual reminder of possession, and you try not to think about the careless way he has with his toys, his unpredictable temper. You turn your head to face him, a smile already in place, and you blink once, twice, slowly as if still half-asleep.

He pinches your chin between thumb and forefinger, playful. “Oh, but you have a crease on your fair cheek,” he murmurs, bending down to kiss you right where the embroidery threads of your pillow had pressed in your sleep. Then he straightens, summoning the seneschal with one look.

You close your eyes, because you know, you know - “Have the seamstress flogged and thrown out of the palace,” your husband says. “We find her work to be deficient.”

“My king,” the seneschal murmurs, bowing and walking backwards with the peculiar gait born of a crushed foot, remnants of an injury from before you married into the palace.

“Fairest, my beloved,” your husband says, “I am so glad you are returned to me. Tomorrow you will see me ascend the thrones of the gods themselves, and become immortal. Then none shall part us again.”

You let yourself smile again, shifting languidly against the cool linens, and draws him down toward you. “Well then,” you whisper, “I have some ideas on how to pass the time.” You hear him laugh into the curve of your collarbone, heavy robes of state already half undone, and it isn’t different than all the other nights, not really -

- and when he lies sleeping next to you, you think that there is only one way to save this kingdom, and yourself -

- the brew fills your mouth and burns its path down your body, but the pain will be worth it.

Your knife clatters to the floor, blood still dripping from its blade, and then, there is no king nor queen in the palace.

- it can’t be, you cry, flinging the nightmare off like covers on a hot summer night, its gauzy sheerness shredding with the force of your revulsion -

- like a child, you think, furious with your own naiveté. How utterly stupid to be taken in by a well-decorated box, the thin veneer of expensive wood cracking in your grip as every particle of your being rebels against the inexorable lift, an invisible hand come to take you from home by force and you -

- were bored -

- you wanted immortality.

And you damn well got it.

- or something of the sort, anyway.

Then you realise that you haven’t drawn a breath in all this while, and that your face rests on something soft that, upon closer inspection, seems to be particularly fine-grained sand, of a paleness you have never seen before.

“I am dead,” you say to yourself, sounding the words out in the echoing stillness of the fog. This isn’t the gate to the underworld you had expected, no sentinels jealously guarding the boundaries between the dead and the living.

“Not quite,” someone answers you, and suddenly you find yourself pulled up from the splintered wreckage - and yes, you see now that it truly is a wreckage - and seated on a slab of something solid and cold, cold as the altar of the gods you prayed to, so long ago. Overhead, the roof of the pavilion has been painted with vivid blues and vermillion, ochres and white and pine green all mixed, like the five-coloured rocks of the snake goddess. You close your eyes. The colours are seared into your eyelids, so vibrant you can almost taste the bitter salt of the blue seas and the iron-hard tang of blood.

“Look,” she says, and you cannot yet resist the command of a goddess, so you open your eyes once more.

The table before you bears a simple cross-grid of nineteen lines, each intersection empty of stones, a realm of liberties under your hands. Two bowls heaped full of stones lay by it, the black pieces on your far side.

You reach into the gold-veined bowl closest to yourself, curious. The white jade stones are softly polished, almost glowing against the demure celadon. When you touch the topmost piece, for a moment, you can feel nothing else; you think you would feel the ringing in your bones until the end of time, the frosted white jade stone perfectly still against your index finger.

You aren’t sure, but you think you see a smile tucked away in the corners of your opponent’s mouth, secret and curling ever so sweetly.

“Who,” you ask carefully, “am I playing for?”

She settles onto the marble bench across from you, and where she places her feet, small tongues of frost steal over the tiled floor. “This is a human game,” she responds, “with human rules. The board has yet to be set.”

“Black opens,” you tell her, while you try to remember if the goddess of frost has any interest in human affairs. You fail to recall anything beyond dead black hydrangea stalks, the blooms still large upon their stems.

She nods, a concession that she has given herself the advantage of the game, and asks, “Do you remember a time when there were ten suns in the sky?”

You understand the words, individually, but put together they make no sense at all. You cannot imagine living with ten suns constantly overhead, the heat beating down on the world, the suffering of the living and the reluctant endurance of the dead. She looks at you, mouth tightening, and the black jade stones rattle with her anger, shifting inside their bowl. “An archer shot them down, all but one.” She says, slowly.

It isn’t - you read a book, long ago, about the snake goddess repairing the heavens, the dragons taming the seas, but it isn’t the same, to hear such things discussed so cooly and with such certainty. “But they say the sunbirds were the sons of heaven.” You reply, remembering at least this much.

Her arm jerks, involuntarily, and you wonder what was so remarkable - “Heaven does not easily forgive trespasses against itself,” you recite, a lesson learned at your mother’s knee, but that seems improbable to you, because mother was always more preoccupied with getting you out of the book room and into her weaving room. You learned this from somewhere else.

From someone else.

Your husband, who had always claimed that he was a god living amongst mortals, who told you outlandish tales of beasts that he had slew, who you had met while seeking an errant river god.

And you remember this - that heaven has a long memory and all of eternity to enact its vengeance.

A lifetime and another lifetime ago, you gave up your immortality for the man you loved. You feel now, the lightness returning to your limbs, a sense of the eddies and currents in the air that had been closed to you. You did not ask for it back, and you are not thankful to heaven, now, because you know, stretching desperately again and again, that your beloved is dead and lost to you forever, that your hand was the one that killed him, in all the ways that mattered.

The goddess sits across from you, watches you with steady eyes and awaits.

“Once, I was known and loved,” you say, because there is nothing else to say, no other way to sketch the breadth and depth of your losses, such as they are, carved into the still-bleeding flesh of your heart.

“Even if you play, you may still lose,” she acknowledges what you do not say. “But you do agree that a slim chance is better than no chance at all?”

“To be confined in a cold, airless palace with no companionship and eternity ahead of me.” To you, there is no difference; you would rather go to the underworld and await your husband as a mortal woman, if you could. Hundreds of years ago, you thought you had already made the choice.

“He isn’t there,” she tells you, as if your thoughts are written in your face - and perhaps they are. The news doesn’t surprise you; you’ve had centuries of hearing tales of the powers of heaven, of their full, unrelenting wrath in the face of defiance from lesser beings - and what is a minor god of the hunt to that?

“Houyi erred on too large a scale to escape destruction,” she continues, eyes flickering to your face and the board, and back again. “However, the moon remains empty, and intercessions from several dragon kings have worn the emperor down. You would be subject to certain restrictions, of course, but then so are we all.”

“What does heaven care with the disposal of its pawns?” You ask, because you can’t imagine your grandfather or any of his fellow kings risking their lives for a pittance of a life. “My purpose has been fulfilled, and a useless tool is better stored out of sight.”

You want to face the emperor and say, how dare you use me. You want to grab the bowls and scatter the jade stones across the floor in front of him, ground them under your heel for the presumption that you would just accept the scraps of condescension thrown your way.

You want to say, give my life back to me.

Indifferent to the roiling in the clouds behind you, or perhaps uninterested, the goddess of frost continues. “We are all pieces of one sort or another,” she replies, “the difference lies in playing our own game as well as theirs.”

You hear the words, smoothly recited, but your attention is elsewhere. The board lies empty before you, unchanged despite the frost and clouds that flow around its base, as you contemplate the possibility of territories and multiple formations on simultaneous fronts. It is your favourite game, and you cannot imagine that the emperor of heaven would give you the upper hand willingly.

The goddess of frost smiles again, a small, wry curl of the lips. “I learned that from someone else.”

She looks somehow softer as she says this, and you wonder when you become so adept at deciphering her expressions.

“I cannot remember,” you say slowly. “Were we friends?”

“We shall see,” and with a delicate click, she places a black stone near a corner intersection.

You straighten up, remembering your mother’s admonitions to behave as a proper lady would, a short lifetime of matches against your grandfather, feeling something settle in the base of your spine. Across from you, rimes of frost still crawling across the table in vines and ribbons, she looks at you, dark eyes steady, a hand poised above the bowl of black stones.

You smile, a jade piece already held between index and middle fingers, and place your first stone.