Liu Bang felt old; though he was younger than various of the scholars who advised him – not always consistently amongst themselves. But they merely advised, rather than ruled, and they had not fought and been wounded in battles… there was a constantly flickering shadow of pain from the arrows that had almost killed him, and his other injuries.
He was also dreaming more, of the people he had known in the past, family, friends, enemies, acquaintances. They were sometimes more real than the waking world … and power was gradually transferring to the Crown Prince, now of sufficient age to take on such activities. Besides, the Crown Prince had been brought up in the expectation of becoming the Emperor, while Liu Bang – he never thought of himself by his Emperor-name – was still at heart the village official who had set out on the journey that had brought him here.
When he had been merely that official he had been directly involved with the people – now there were so many administrators and documents, and he could rarely see whether the reforms he had initiated were having an effect. He knew, though, that the legislation which had driven him and his companions directly to rebel in the first place had been changed – though there would always be occasions when the ordinary people would find reasons to protest.
He was thinking particularly often of Xiang Yu again lately: back in the time when they had been friends and sworn brothers, rather than the last battles and the other man’s death.
Occasionally he wondered if they could have somehow divided the world between them – two kingdoms rather than the several of the time before the wars. But, he knew, they had both been too ambitious for that to have been a long-term solution. He accepted the regret that things had worked out as they did – and had acknowledged, as he had watched Xiang’s last defiant stand that he did not have the other man’s courage and bravado. He had paid for Xiang’s tomb and treated his family well – as he was partly responsible for what had come to pass, and had things turned out differently the other man might have become emperor. It had taken him a while to understand what Xiang had, on one level, requested through his final words.
The courtier had brought the merchant to the Emperor, to discuss the items that had come all the way from “the lands of the setting sun”, possibly in the expectation of an expedition to conquer it. That Liu would leave to his sons and descendants – the barbarians with their strange names seemingly lived beyond India and the Silk Roads, and the items were barbaric, the scripts not ones he could recognise. They looked crude, and the symbols too few and repetitive – how could complex ideas be so recorded?
Now he was sitting and thinking of the lands he would never see. He knew he was drinking too much in the evenings, to dull the pain and the shadows.
‘Hey, old man,’ an almost familiar voice said, and Liu looked up.
Xiang Yu, in all his proud swaggering splendour, cheerful, and unmarked. Yu Ji was not with him – from what people had said they had been devoted to each other.
‘What brings you here?’ Liu asked. Had he fallen into a waking dream? He decided to enjoy it, as his pains were fading. Somehow his surroundings seemed different.
‘Aren’t you going to go a-conquering? I heard tell the people of the far west, had an emperor who also set out to conquer the world – Ski-ander perhaps.’
‘I have had enough of wars – the commoners should enjoy peace.’ There were other ways of exerting authority throughout the world, and keeping control over the kings he had made.
Xiang nodded. ‘Time to go exploring then – you wish to come with me?’ His expression was of friendly curiosity and amusement.
Liu was realising why Xiang had come, was not quite certain as to his choice… yet. But ... I was waiting for you.
‘You forgive me for what happened at the end?’
‘By then what other choice was there for both of us to make?’ Xiang looked at him with continued curiosity. ‘I made a request of you before I died. Did you pursue the peace of the world?’
‘Yes.’ Liu smiled; the pain and discomfort were gone, and he felt more clear-headed than he had been before this dream or encounter began… for some time even. ‘I did – for both of us. I regret it ended that way… and we should have made peace, between us and for the world.’
‘Peace between us wouldn’t have lasted – not even as a game of strategy… and I chose my fate.’ That was what Xiang was proud of – and Liu could understand the motivation.
‘Tell me – what became of your Yu Ji?’ Liu had ordered searches for her, but she had not been found. He would have had her installed in the … palace if she had been.
Xiang’s expression became sorrowful. ‘I tried to get her to leave to a place of safety, but she would not; I asked her to dance, and she did so, beautifully, and I knew why I loved her. She took my sword and danced with it… I knew what she was going to do, but let her, as I had the same intention and I did not have the heart to stop her. When I followed her … it was clear we would not be reincarnated together.’ He could not control his sudden reaction and distress: perhaps this was the first time he was in a position to do so, as his and Liu’s realities overlapped. Liu rose and went to comfort him – Xiang was a physical presence and this did not seem strange. Were you my son the last time I comforted you like this? They were helping each other on their journeys, had done so before and would do again – and with others, as paths crossed. Xiang spoke after a little while, the sadness still present, but less. ‘I ... really hoped we would be reincarnated together.’
‘That will happen.’ Liu knew that now, somehow: the veil between the present, past, and future seemed particularly thin. ‘You two will meet up again… many of us involved in those events will often do so over time, our lives are so entwined.’ Though there would be times when they went their separate ways – the way fate took them. ‘And you will have a longer time together next time, and elsewhen, afterwards.’ Truth, he somehow knew, not mere comfort.
Xiang, nodded, managed a smile. His gratitude was palpable, and Liu was pleased to have helped him, feeling an emotional closeness to the other man. ‘I know… but it pains me not to be with her. During our last days together we came across a beautiful valley, dreamed of living there and having children.’
Liu was glad that Xiang had had that interlude.
‘I have had that dream as well – but our spirits are too fiery and active to enjoy that life for long.’
Xiang’s nod was more vigorous now. ‘You may be right – but it can be a pleasant dream when the situation demands it.’
Liang remembered something he had been told. ‘We faced some tribes from the west a few years ago. Some expressed the belief that there will be an infant of their folk born with a clot of blood in his hand who will eventually rule the world – not just their lands. That is the dream you will return to, given your nature.’
Xiang considered the idea and laughed in enjoyment of the possibility. ‘That would be a glorious achievement to look forward to – and to have Yu Ji with me then. And then will you come and take the world from me?’
Liu remembered a phrase he had used … recently: his memory faded at times. For the moment his past seemed as if it belonged to someone else. ‘Who knows – I might be your son or grandson,’ he said with a chuckle.
‘Might be interesting. Will I be as reckless then as I was?’
‘Will you have gained the sense and wisdom to know recklessness from the wild courage that gains everything?’ Liu could see Xiang making the gamble – and wondered what he could achieve if he did.
‘I may well then have learned.’
‘If the Gods allow I will join you then and go with you.’
Xiang nodded. ‘I would like that.’ He went to the door and looked back at Liu. ‘Will you come with me now? We can discuss it on the journey.’
Liu was still slightly hesitant, regretted only the last goodbyes, and was returning to the world that he had been inhabiting before Xiang came – one of pain and alcohol and always more documents and decisions. He breathed deeply as he accepted the situation and the reasons for his hesitation, looked around the room and then at Xiang. ‘If I stay it won’t be you next time will it?’ He still had the freedom to choose even now.
‘I think probably not. And I don’t know when that would be.’ Xiang now held out a hand in open invitation.
Liu now had no regrets about this, his last decision, smiled and relaxed, his last gift to his family: and was wholly in Xiang’s world. He went the few paces to the door, touched Xiang's hand, and they were sworn brothers, and friends, again.
They went through the door and walked companionably together in the early evening sunshine, going towards the main gate. Nobody was paying them any attention, while there were birds darting and singing above them, the sound of horses in the distance, the plants moving in the breeze, and the scents of the coming season on the air. This, Liu realised, would be a memory that he would retain from this life, whatever happened. He paused to enjoy these last few sweet moments of this present – as did Xiang.
As they left the palace grounds, Liu was not yet certain where to, there was a sudden stir from within the buildings. Liu knew what was happening: changes were afoot, and the Emperor lived again. He turned slightly at the noise.
‘Don’t look back,’ Xiang said softly, with a gentle smile, and indicated the sky with the beginnings of a sunset that was lighting the wisps of clouds. There was …yes, it was an eagle, in the distance.
‘I just wished them well before we leave. Where shall we go roving to now, who shall we return as, my friend?’
‘Wherever the Gods send us – or shall we defy them and seek our own path?’