Lu Ziqi wanted to hate the present Emperor, but could not.
The actions of Liu Bang had to some extent created the situations which had led to the deaths of Ziqi’s sister Ji and Xiang Yu – there had been enough retellings of the latter’s death for Ziqi to know the broad course of events. He had admired his brother-in-law’s actions and decision, of a piece with his previous life and attitudes, and also his sister’s, choosing the honourable option. He would have had them live, with some success, however small, but the fates had planned differently, this lifetime.
Ziqi had initially wanted to take revenge, regardless of the consequences in this life and beyond, but with the passage of time the sentiment had faded. “Doing something” to the Emperor would now be meaningless, and, given the ages of Liu Bang’s sons, would probably lead to more conflict across the world – not a legacy Xiang would have wanted – nor Ziqi himself.
Besides, Ziqi was prepared to admit, the Emperor had made some improvements to the lives of the general populace – though there were fewer opportunities for soldiers of the former kingdoms and military groupings to find new employment as such. Given what he had achieved with Xiang he was no longer suited to being an ordinary soldier, but did not wish to settle down as a farmer or somesuch occupation yet.
Being an escort with military training for scholars, merchants and others, suited him, for the present, and he was acquiring some money for the future. There were times when he could tell those he worked for something about Xiang and the others, known and encountered, not that he would admit the actual closeness to most.
‘The Emperor will be passing this way in the next couple of days,’ said the village headman to Ziqi and his current employer, a merchant on a trading journey.
‘We should see him as the opportunity has arisen – are there any restrictions?’ the merchant asked.
‘Keep a respectable distance, behave in a reputable manner and the rest of it, like all such persons in authority passing through. There’s usually a distribution – and we decide afterwards what to do with it.’ An obvious hint to the merchant, as the latter would be aware: if asked Ziqi could advise appropriately.
The merchant had already decided to witness the event – it would be a future discussion topic for him as for the villagers, as well as a spectacle. Ziqi managed to control his reaction – he had not mentioned his history in much detail on this occasion and did not know whether Liu Bang would recognise him.
Xiang had occasionally told the story of seeing the old Emperor’s carriage and how it had led him to aim for power, so there was a link – but now Ziqi would leave the rebelling to someone else.
The cavalcade was splendid enough and would be long discussed in this village – as, no doubt, similar events were elsewhere.
The Emperor was sitting in an open carriage rather than riding a horse. Ziqi’s close study of the Emperor would not be considered strange in the context – though the why would be, if it had been known about.
Liu Bang had aged considerably since Ziqi had last seen him, and when he looked around his expression and stance was the one of someone often in constant pain from injuries sustained during battles. Ziqi became aware of his own healed war wounds – usually he suffered no more than the occasional twinge when he was not sufficiently careful. Rather than his former anger with its element of justification he now sympathised with, even pitied the other man, so obviously ill and tired. So much power, and you are mortal like the rest of us – and Xiang and Ji would not have wished what you are feeling now on you. Is the price of victory worth it for you?
‘You feeling alright?’ the merchant whispered.
‘My military injuries sympathise with what he, as a sometime general, is feeling.’ Ziqi knew he could not explain further to a civilian, who would not have the experience. The merchant nodded sympathetically, in vague understanding.
The Emperor heard the sound, looked at Ziqi and there was a faint half-recognition: but he would have known many soldiers in his time. Ziqi controlled his instinct to bolt, and bowed his head in respect.
Liu Bang gave something to a soldier, said a few words, and pointed at Ziqi. The soldier brought over a ring – somewhat more splendid than the sort used as a gift for a minor service done, favour given or an indication of friendship or similar: Ziqi gave a soldier’s greeting in response, the other man responded appropriately, and returned to his post. When Ziqi looked at Liu Bang to acknowledge the gift the Emperor smiled and made a gesture. You do know who I am, and I understand your action.
Fortunately, the merchant was sufficiently impressed by the incident, even if he did not understand the detail, to make a contribution to the villagers’ funds for them not to ask questions that Ziqi would find it hard to explain. There was also a welcome bonus at the end of the trip. Having had an escort who had been honoured by the Emperor would add to the merchant’s status.
Ziqi decided it was time, finally, to go and visit Xiang’s tomb. He had long intended doing so but knew it would mean acknowledging the end of his old role, and what had happened to his sister and his friend the general.
Ziqi knew he had done the right thing coming here to Xiang’s tomb –but did not now know what to do next. He had left the ring as an offering – Xiang and Liu Bang both would have understood and accepted the action and the intent.
Two people, a man and a woman, obviously siblings, came to tend to the tomb – from Xiang’s clan by the looks of things.
They observed Ziqi’s presence, came over.
‘What reason has brought you here?’ Friendly curiosity, and Ziqi decided to be somewhat open. The speech pattern reminded him of Xiang’s, and there was a physical resemblance.
‘I was in his army, and I admired him.’ The honest truth: Ziqi was glad he had told Xiang that on occasion in the old days: the sentiment had been returned.
The woman looked at her brother, her expression indicating a question. The brother nodded – perhaps they had been discussing something before.
‘Is it true that our relative gave up everything for love?’ she asked with a smile – Ziqi was reminded more strongly of Xiang.
Ziqi considered his words. ‘He was ambitious, honourable, and brave, but sometimes reckless – and he did love a woman very deeply, and she loved him so too.’ The pair would have agreed with the statement.
‘Would you care to come with us for a while and tell us about him? We have met so few of his army.’
‘I would be glad to, but it may take time to tell the full tale – and I will provide any service I can render when required.’ Ziqi was being honourable: he did not wish to be a dependent, living off charity. ‘I have been an escort and travelling companion to merchants and others.’
The man considered the statements. ‘You are our guest for now – but we can discuss such things in due course.’ He obviously understood the niceties of the situation, and accepted that such things were best acknowledged at the start. ‘I am a scholar and we,’ indicating his sister, ‘wish to record such history before it becomes lost or forgotten.’ One reason, no doubt, why they came here, in case others did.
Ziqi decided that he would, eventually, tell these two everything he could, however long it took – and knew that Ji and Xiang Yu, and the others he had known and would tell about – would have approved of his present intent.
‘Come – let us go home and talk.’
“Home” was a good word.