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The River Serpent

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The river is foul.

Even six months after the Mandate of Heaven fell upon another, the river runs foul all its length, no matter how they dredge it for corpses, or poison.

Those who drink from it die; those who cook with it fall sick. Soldiers of the invasion who touch its waters go to sleep without waking.

The Mandate of Heaven, say the scholars, requires justice and honor from the ruler.

Have I not been just? inquires the new Emperor, hair wild and his tongue sharp on the Son of Heaven's throne. I kill those who resist my rule.

It is agreed by the nervously nodding scholars that punishing treachery is indeed a just act.


The official histories will state that eighty thousand corpses were thrown into the river, though later scholars will dispute this number.

One of the corpses was a girl. Not that there were not others, but they weren't this one.

She had dressed in her father's armor and gone to war, but, discovered, was slain by her commanding officer. A good man, most likely, an honorable one, a stickler for rules. It was a just execution.

(Staring at her narrow shoulders and small breasts, thrust naked before the troops, he had felt shame for her, and shame for exposing her: she had been a good soldier, perhaps the best of a bad lot. He had lain his cloak over her as she knelt in the snow, and said, Had you been a man, you would have served me well, though the words lingered foul on his tongue, and then he had cut off her head.)

There was a river nearby. The corpse was not left there, but rather, the dragon of the river rose from the banks, and took up her body and head, and bore them to the river, where it set her down in the silt and mud of the rushing depths.


When the new Emperor took the throne, the river began to run black. Not all at once, of course, but from its source the darkness flowed down its length, going first grey and then black. Still the consistency of water, smooth and sparkling, but black.

At first, it is only drinking water and cooking water, and the people dig wells, and it is enough.

And then spring and the snowmelt comes, and the rice paddies fill with darkness.


There is a naked girl in the streets of the Forbidden City.

She has small breasts, short hair, wide hips. She says nothing, and her face is pale as the moon.

Over her shoulders, down her arms, spilling down her back, is a tattoo of a dragon. It is done in vivid red and gold, with fierce eyes and teeth, and it has no pearl to hold.

She walks through the city, and though guards try to stop her, she does not halt, and does not answer.

The next month, she returns, outside the gate. Naked, tattooed, terrifying. She opens the gate to the Forbidden City.

The guards, valiant loyal troops of the Emperor, fire upon her. The arrows pierce her flesh, and do no more.

She does not even bleed.

Halfway through the darkness of the night, she ceases to walk, and returns to the gate. She steps through its boundary just as the sun crests over the horizon, and she is gone.


The rice in the paddies does not grow. The farmers in the fields, standing in the blackened water, grow red bright swollen rashes on their legs and hands from the water. The rice crop begins to die.

The scholars say to the Emperor, We must have water, or your people will all die, and you will have no empire of which to be Emperor.

The man on the throne does not smile. Find the cause, and you will live long enough to see the famine you tell me is coming.


The third time the girl appears in the Forbidden City, she is already inside the gate, which opens behind her as though a thousand men were tearing at its inner workings, and she walks towards the throne. She carries a sword, this time, and when the men with swords come to cut her unbleeding body to pieces, she blocks, and blocks again, her movements sharp and empty as a winter wind, and she leaves corpses in her wake.

Three-quarters of the way to the throne room she stops, and turns, and returns. Not fully to the gate, which is set open now. Fused with the stone of the road beneath it.

Many of the guards, though loyal, die with the rising of the sun.


The sea along the coasts begins to blacken. It begins where the river opens into the sea, and spreads. The waters of barbarian kingdoms are clear and full of fish, but all of China's water is beginning to run grey, and the fish float dead upon the surface.

In the cities, the people begin to speak of not corpses in the river, but of a bastard son of Heaven put back in his place.


The girl returns. She carries a sword, still, and remains naked and bloodless, moon-pale and terrifying. The guards do not try to stop her, and she walks to the throne room, where the Emperor is not, for it is night, and he lies with his concubines.

She mounts the dais to stand before the throne, then turns, facing all the world. She does not sit, instead extending her arm, and the dragon tattoo crawls from her skin, gaining substance and life as it slithers out. All teeth and claws and blood-shaded scales.

The dragon curls around the throne, red and yellow, the moon's light flickering bright as stars off its horns and teeth, and they stand there, waiting, until the sun rises, and they do not disappear.

The man who sits in the throne comes then, to stand before her. Below her, for she is on the dais.

"Shan Yu," she says, "You are no Son of Heaven, meant to rule." Though she is dead, her voice is sweet.

"I came with my wolves, and took it fairly," he says in his foreign tongue.

"Had it been just," she says, "The dragon would not have taken me into its waters," and she steps forward then, and again, descending the stairs of the dais, and the Emperor stands as though frozen.

She stabs him through the chest with her sword. The dragon uncurls from around the throne, winding again around her arm once she pulls the blade from the corpse's chest.

"Bring me the concubine called Summer Star," says the girl, and so they do.


Summer Star is not young, but is perhaps the cleverest of the old Emperor's women, and when she sees the ghost standing before the throne, she bows, if slightly.

"The child you bore in secret is Emperor now," says the dead girl, holding out the bloody sword for the concubine to take. "But he will not live to take the name in truth if you do not rule in his stead."

"I am only a woman," says Summer Star.

"And China has always been ruled by wise men?" asks the dead girl, reaching down, and opens Summer Star's hand to accept the hilt of the blade.


Summer Star kneels beside the pond in the Forbidden City, and sees the water running clear.