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Of Ashes

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The whip in Wu Zixu's hand drags a clotted trail upon the flagstones when he turns. King Helü of Wu glances at it as he approaches; gore stains the braided hide black, encrusts every crevice and overlap of the cords. Behind Wu Zixu are his soldiers. Two push the sarcophagus back through the gaping hole of broken masonry and collapsed dirt as the others gather rubble in baskets. The sarcophagus lid has been slid back into place, Helü notes, before darkness swallows it from his view.

“Your Highness,” Wu Zixu greets, meticulously wiping spatters of congealed red-black from his hands. “I had not expected you so soon.”

“Oh, I think I came too late,” Helü says. “I missed the show, see. You've even swept up the stage.”

“It would not have been to your taste, Your Highness. Living bodies and running blood offer you better entertainment.”

Helü laughs. “They do, but I fear we've run out of the two at the palace.” He waves a hand in the direction of the distant flames, then sets it heavily upon Wu Zixu's armored shoulder. “Come, it's late. Walk with me back to camp.”

Wu Zixu obeys without any sign of discomposure at the intrusion, and that makes it harder for Helü to take amusement from his shockingly disheveled state. His white hair clings in strands at his temples, still damp from drying perspiration, but the eyes it frames are cool and unreadable. They reflect with grace the red-gold of fire, the red-gold of sunset, but whatever lies underneath may as well be written on the back of a mirror.

“So,” Helü begins, gesturing at the whip still trailing alongside Wu Zixu. “Two hundred? Three hundred?”

“Three hundred and seven.” It may be a trick of the light, but Helü can swear Wu Zixu averts his eyes a little.

“Got carried away?” Helü can't help but laugh at the idea of him, of all people, getting carried away. “Well, the historians like neat numbers. They'll only record the three hundred, never fear. More importantly, you'll need a new horsewhip for the rest of the campaign.” As they walk, the scent of riper and more royal decay is drawing flies away from the corpses piled by the roadside; Helü idly flicks his own whip, cutting them out of the air. “I'm sure we can take a worthy replacement from somewhere.”

“If you wish, Your Highness.” Wu Zixu says, his voice without inflection even as the whip cracks perhaps a little too close to his head. Helü is torn between amusement and annoyance. He settles for reaching out and wiping a little gobbet of red-black from Wu Zixu's cheek. On impulse, he licks his fingers clean.

It tastes vile, of course. But Helü is rewarded with what could almost be called an expression of discomfort from Wu Zixu.

“I'm surprised at you, dear minister,” Helü says in mock seriousness. “You know I've just returned from doing far worse things to the living members of this lineage, but I didn't even get a blink from you until now.”

Sunset and fire glint red in Wu Zixu's eyes as he inclines his head minutely. “Those living should not concern me.”

“Oh? Should not,” Helü asks softly, “instead of do not?”

“If you reached them before I whipped King Ping of Chu three hundred times, they qualify as collateral, much like the rest.”

“And if I hadn't?” They've both stopped walking now.

Wu Zixu slowly meets his eyes, and the answer is in them, in shadow. “I had wanted to bring my vengeance to a... conclusion. I was not so idealistic to expect a resolution, but at least I could... conclude. Cleanly. So I thought.”

The sun has set, and the twilight winds carry ghosts of screams from the city that was once, but is no longer, not even now, Wu Zixu's. Helü looks into the abyss beyond Wu Zixu's eyes. He does not shiver.

“Come,” Helü sighs. “Come, it's late.” He holds out his hand. “I think we've left a few masons and carpenters alive in the city. I'll send them to the tomb, if you want.”

Wu Zixu's whip falls to the ground. He stands there, looking at his own hand, then Helü's.

“My informants say that the Chu remnants have gone west for aid. If they persuade the Duke of Qin, we won't have much choice besides retreating. It's back to Wu for us.” Helü lowers his hand. “Come with me,” he says simply.

This time, Wu Zixu follows. The campfires of Wu await ahead of them.