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The Last Tree

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Xiang Yu rested his head against his horse’s nose, enjoying the animal’s simple loyalty, hoped the stallion would understand his decision.
Yu had occasionally joked that he had loved his horses as much as he did her. She had laughed at Xiang’s verbal responses, while she accepted the close bond between rider and steed, and also the loyalty between him and his soldiers – he hoped those he had parted company from would survive and settle into reasonable lives.
Xiang patted the animal’s neck, encouraged him to go off: used to being allowed to roam and feed the horse did so. Hopefully he would find a new owner who would care for him.
Briefly Xiang mourned what he had lost: he accepted Yu’s choice, even as he felt regret.

****

It felt strange to be a foot soldier again, and without companions, but Xiang knew he had done the right thing.
He approached where Liu Bang’s encampment was. This was where the Gods, his actions and, he admitted, his nature, had brought him… and fighting to his last breath had always been an option.
Xiang saw a single, possibly dead, tree as alone as he was – that would be a suitable place for what was going to happen, and the tree would care not why people came to gaze on the spot. He was at ease with himself, accepting the likely course of events. He would not betray Yu or his honour.
There was a flurry of attention as he made his way – his presence had been observed. A few moments after he took his position Xiang was encircled by soldiers, who wished for his death and what they might gain from it. His last stand would be memorable and remembered – enough detail of what was going to happen now would survive, and the tales would spread. Those surrounding him were presently not quite certain what to do.
There was a stir in the distance. Xiang looked at the source of the noise: Liu Bang on a chariot – possibly the injuries that he had had made it preferable – or his dignity. He stopped outside the circle, and Xiang caught his gaze. It was very clear that Liu wanted Xiang dead, was urging on the soldiers.
If our positions had been reversed, I would have come and then fought you, honourably, hand to hand, until the bitter end – and you know that. What would happen if they were to both die in such a duel?
Then there was fighting, death but not his own – and still Liu did nothing, waiting for the outcome. He did not have the honour, the respect, or the courage to approach for the death. There was more than just Xiang’s aristocratic attitudes in the assessment.
The soldiers encircling him seemed as numerous as ever, and unwilling to bring things to an end, whatever Liu wished them to do. Xiang could sense their understandable wish to survive, also respect at his courage, and his survival so far, for who he was, which he appreciated: they were soldiers all, and so understood.
Xiang had to pause for a moment to consider his next actions: growing physical exhaustion and present injuries were having an effect, while his superficial wounds were paining him.
He recognised his current opponent, a soldier once in the Chu army. Xiang managed a brief non-exchange, could understand why the soldier had gone to the other army for expediency, and why he would want the reward for the killing, might have done so himself if he had been in the same situation. Xiang tried to get him to react, while stating that yielding up his sword in surrender was not an option.
Death in battle had, so far, eluded him, and there were few options left. He could fight to the bitter end, whether it was seen as ignominious or heroic defiance… or the last, honourable, option, taken by his grandfather, which he had always accepted as a theoretical possibility and was now the only thing to do.
What he was about to do was a last act of defiance, perhaps aimed at the inhabitant of the emperor’s carriage Xiang and his uncle had once observed, and which had set him on this path here, as much as at the emperor-to-be in front of him. Still, Xiang knew, he had done much in those few intervening years, might well be remembered in the tales, and he had encountered his beloved Yu, who had chosen to share his path and to use his sword to dance, and to die honourably.
He was now calm as he held his sword by his shoulder, mentally preparing for his next action. Whether those surrounding him would defile his body or bury him, simply or honourably, was of no concern to him – Xiang knew what he was about to do now would haunt those around him, a last victory that the emperor-to-be could not take away.
Liu Bang subtly acknowledged that Xiang had taken control of the situation, possibly understanding what would now happen.
Xiang grinned as he called out to Liu giving him the future of the world with his own death, passing the honour and future of Chu and the world to him: there was a brief flicker of acknowledgement, and the soldiers had heard what had been said.
The blade he drew across his throat was blunted slightly from its use, but it was still a clean cut and effective: he had retained his honour. Blood was trickling down his arm and sword, and as he started to collapse, and between scattered memories of the past flickering through his mind Xiang saw Liu Bang’s expression as he realised too late what the cost to him might be.
Then Xiang was following Yu to whatever would come next.