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A Change of Season

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I. Spring

"Hurry." Su-long pulled Wan-er's arm. "She wants to see you -- now."

"She who?" Wan-er said.

"SHE," Su-long said with that emphasis that meant only one person. The Empress.

Wan-er took a deep breath as Su-long tugged her down the passage. The Empress who'd executed Wan-er's father and grandfather, the chancellor, for plotting to demote her. Who'd relegated Wan-er and her mother to the consort's palace as household slaves.

What had she -- ? How did -- ? Why -- ? Words crowded Wan-er, stumbling over each other. She could think of no reason for the Empress to summon a palace slave to her presence. No good reason.

Empress Consort Wu was in a smaller chamber of her personal residence, seated on a richly decorated chair in opulent but comfortable robes. A handful of attendants sat along a side wall and two ladies-in-waiting stood behind her. Su-long joined the ranks of the former. There was, of course, no chair before the empress -- not for a slave.

Wan-er stopped several paces away, knelt down, and bowed till her forehead rested on the floor. She drew a ragged breath, as quietly as possible.

"You are Shangguan Wan-er?" the Empress said.

"Yes, your majesty." There was no other possible answer.

"You may rise."

Wan-er raised her head but kept it bowed, watching the older woman from beneath her brows.

The Empress gestured, and a lady-in-waiting stepped forward. "I believe this is yours," the Empress said, and the lady placed a paper on the floor between them. On it was a poem in Wan-er's handwriting.

One of her own poems.

"This was in the Crown Prince's chamber. Have you any explanation?"

This --

Words deserted Wan-er -- the words that usually flowed so easily choked in her chest, in her heavy stomach. Danger rose around her, a surging flood.

She bowed low again, forehead to floor. "No, your majesty, I do not."

A rustle of paper. "Also in his chambers was this one." Wan-er dared not move. Another rustle. "And this one." A pause. A soft sound of clothes as the handmaiden withdrew to the side. "One might almost think you were corresponding with the Crown Prince."

A slave of the consort's palace and a prince? -- as lovers? The flood of danger rose higher.

Wan-er tried once to swallow, then succeeded. At thirteen, she'd been slave long enough to say what the powerful wanted to hear. Still bowed, she echoed, "One might."

But then as if the Empress's words were power, her own returned. Wan-er knew what she must do. If the flood was so bad that groveling would not save her, and it wouldn't, she'd go out riding bravely.

She straightened up. "One might, but one would be wrong."

The Empress's eyes narrowed. "Would one," she said dryly.

"This unworthy one sometimes, to entertain others, writes down poor excuses for verse. Some have claimed they have a little beauty, and pass them around." Even some ladies-in-waiting had Wan-er write poems in their name. Including that first poem.

The Empress shifted slightly. "Do they indeed."

"So this unworthy one is told, your majesty."

The Empress considered Wan-er a moment that lengthened into three. Suddenly: "Complete this couplet: Accompanying my Emperor, I tour the restricted garden."

A contest of matching lines -- with the Empress who ran the empire in the name of her incapacitated husband. No matter, this was an easy one. Words with matching tones and meanings rolled off her tongue: "Granted this favor to leave the fragrant chambers."

The Empress sniffed. "Clouds recline, enshrouding mountain peaks."

The restricted garden and mountain peaks must mean an imperial visit to a Buddhist temple. That meant, first, guards and, second, mists. "Rosy mists descend, speared by waves of banners."

"Sun Palace leads to a scene of stream-side dwellings."

Sun Palace -- wasn't that at Shaolin? What other buildings had Su-long mentioned from her journey last year -- ? "Moon Hall opens to a view of cliff-perched homes."

The Empress nodded. "Not bad. How's your prose?"

Wait, and not complete the poem? "Er, this unworthy one cannot judge." A platitude, but an appropriate one.

"Paper and ink."

One attendant, Mei-lin, set a low writing table before Wan-er -- with a sour look when the Empress could not see her face. The same Mei-lin who had, just a few days ago, begged Wan-er for a poem to her lover. Wan-er bowed her thanks and began rubbing inkstick on stone.

"Write an essay on the superiority of spring over the other seasons."

Servants shifted, whispered. An essay -- like one written for the imperial examinations. By men only.

But then, this Empress held power over men.

Wan-er bowed over her table. She knew plenty of quotes from the classics praising spring. This task, this she could do.

She began to write as if her life depended on it.

II. Summer

"Hurry." Su-long pulled Wan-er's arm. "She wants to see you -- now."

"She who?" Wan-er said, with a feeling of unreality.

"SHE," Su-long said. Meaning the Empress.

Recognition hit Wan-er like a bolting mare. The same corridor, the same urgency -- the same words as -- as twelve years ago, when the Empress summoned her and, for the impudence of her flowing brush, made her both a minor imperial concubine and palace scribe.

Same urgency and danger, perhaps, but she was no longer a slave girl. She shook off Su-long's hand.

"No need to arrive sweaty. Not when it's this hot."

Su-long swallowed, but nodded and slowed to Wan-er's mere urgent walk.

That first summons had changed her -- for the better. That concubines were expected to have accomplishments gave Wan-er access to the learning needed to give her lines weight, to not just echo others. That few scribes, mostly eunuchs, had access to the inner recesses of the imperial women's quarters meant Wan-er's brush was an important one.

This moment might have danger, the same danger even, but even more benefit -- if Wan-er had wit and words. She'd learned much from her patroness, and was an experienced woman of the palace.

Empress Wu again sat in a smaller chamber of her personal residence, seated in rich but light summer robes. Again, a clutch of attendants lined one wall, but only a eunuch with a fan stood behind her, and a low writing table was before her, brush and inkstone ready.

So something scribal. Wan-er felt her shoulders relax slightly and stiffened them as she bowed, the obeisance of minor concubine to ruler -- for she ran the empire as regent to her nominal-adult son, the emperor.

"I hear you are more accomplished than ever as a poet." The Empress was not known for wasting time.

"Some have claimed my lines have some beauty." And if Wan-er believed the Empress hadn't read them herself, she was still a girl of thirteen.

"Then you can assist me." A quick gesture to the desk. "I wish to send a poem to my lover."

One of her lovers, Wan-er silently translated as she seated herself.

The Empress continued, "However, I'm having trouble weaving my thoughts together gracefully. It is a poem of longing, centered on the image of red turning to green."

Interesting image -- the opposite of autumn. But how to apply -- ? "Perhaps," Wan-er said, letting the words come forth, "While red turns green, my thoughts tangled and scattered." Then she corrected herself, "No, Watching red turn to green."

The Empress nodded and smiled, in a way that was almost encouraging. "Much better. I am disheveled --" she prompted.

"-- and torn by my longing for you, my lord." Even an empress reigning in her own right would surely call her lovers lord. That's how the game was played.

"My tears are constant -- no -- If you don't believe that my tears --"

The standard protestation, and the clincher of the evidence. Wan-er quickly wrote the final words, improving them as she went:

Watching red turn to green, my thoughts entangled and scattered,
I am disheveled and torn from my longing for you, my lord.
If you fail to believe that of late I have constantly shed tears,
Open the chest and look for the skirt of pomegranate-red.

Wan-er kept her face bland, but allowed herself a moment of pleasure -- it wasn't the best she could do, but as good as anything the Empress had written.

The Empress read it through, nodded. "A clean copy, but not too formal -- make it look dashed off."

Wan-er nodded and took a fresh sheet. "Addressed to whom?"

"Lord Chou of Pu."

A lifetime of practice and peril were not enough to save Wan-er's composure. Her brush jerked, ruining the superscription -- a mistake that couldn't be hidden. She froze, which only served to acknowledge the fault.

Imperial eyes narrowed, a look that had made brave lords quake.

With reason. If Wan-er couldn't save herself, and quickly, she would be the next unfortunate one to be purged. And once again, past overlay the present moment. Here, now, was another time when groveling would not save her, only bold riding -- toward the only way out.

She carefully lay down her brush and raised her head to look at the empress. "So you know."

"I am most displeased." As would be anyone powerful who found out that a servant was sleeping with their lover. Wan-er would miss his touch more than anything she'd known.

"I had hoped to have more evidence before I came to you." The words somehow kept her voice steady.

Only the tiniest of twitches betrayed the Empress's surprise. "Indeed?"

Wan-er bowed, politely. "Not to mention more details of, ah, scope."

At a single gesture, the room emptied of all others but Su-long and Lady Wei -- two of the Empress's most trusted ladies, for now.

Old eyes studied her for a moment that lengthened into three. "You suggest that Chou is plotting against me."

"He talks with others about ending your regency, to have the emperor rule alone." He'd been her lover for a month before she found out just how dangerous a game he was playing. Even so, that hadn't been enough to give him up. Not until now.

"'Guided' by himself and others, of course," the Empress said sourly. Then iron command: "Names."

Wan-er gave the three she knew. The Empress shared looks with Lady Wei, who nodded.

"We know two of those are whispering up trouble. This -- this grows more serious, your majesty."

The Empress sighed. "It is time to stop ruling in the name of others. There are plans to complete." To Wan-er, she added, "You shall assist."

Plans, she meant, to take the imperial throne in her own right. Her own coup, to become the first empress regnant. The audacity took Wan-er's breath away. As did the implication that she might survive this. She bowed deeply in her seat, wordless.

"You shall be questioned to confirm your evidence. After, for sleeping with my lover, your cheek shall be tattooed, that all can know of your disobedience. When you recover, you shall resume your duties as my personal secretary."

Resume as -- ? Ah, a promotion. Even while suffering the shame of a disfigured face. The pains of an interrogation would pass, but that would last. Cruel and clever as usual.

But she had ridden clear of the flood, for now. She knelt down, and bowed till her forehead rested on the floor.

III. Autumn

As she crossed the broad courtyard, Wan-er noticed the high clouds pulled into wisps by winds not felt here on the ground. Cold snap soon, just in time for the full moon. That would complicate the Empress's moon-viewing party.

She should confirm Lady Wei had alternate plans. Doing so would be a good excuse for meeting with her.

Su-long's quick steps tap-tap-tapped on the stones -- just behind her, as always. Always watching.

As they passed into the imperial compound, they passed two groups of servants carrying baskets of winter robes to be fulled, pounding on stones them to make them warmer. Their red coats reminded her of maple leaves -- once they turned, it would truly feel autumn. Wan-er looked forward to that -- the older she grew, the more she prefered that season over spring.

She should be preparing for this morning's audience, but the words ordered themselves without thinking:

Ten-thousand mallets pound in the night,
A lone goose flies across the bright moon.
Red leaves at least have company as they fall
While I wait in my chamber for you.

A new lover, Wan-er thought -- that would indeed be nice. It had been over a month since her last.

At the side door of the audience chamber, Wan-er took her writing case from Su-long. Officials were still gathering as she slipped inside, taking her place at the low writing table by the right hand of the throne of Emperor Wu --

No, not Emperor: she was still Empress Wu to Wan-er, for all she now ruled in her own right.

While Wan-er prepared her ink, Yao Shu, the latest chancellor, chatted with other ministers. It was not a stable job -- she'd seen, what, a half-dozen the past three years alone? Indeed, given her duties and and how long she'd lasted, Wan-er was now sometimes called "prime" minister. A new title for a new kind of reign. Certainly, enough people curried her favor for her influence, such as it was, on the Empress.

Who arrived with suitable pomp, and the audience began.

Chancellor Yao started with some opening remarks, including his customary flattery -- all unimportant enough Wan-er paid only half attention, and watched the audience and its shifting constellation of ministers and administrators and other stars of the court. Who was working with -- and against -- whom. The courtiers out of power, more than the current top ministers, were the ones to worry most about. Yet another thing she'd learned from the Empress.

After all, the Empress was not getting any younger.

From a side galley, Lady Wei's gaze caught Wan-er's eye. She returned the look for a moment -- no longer. More acknowledgement was too dangerous. Absently, she touched her tattooed cheek.

That scribes were expected to understand the laws they wrote about gave Wan-er access to the learning needed to give her documents weight, to be more than just echoes of others. And, to her surprise, she liked official work -- the chance to order things better, to regulate affairs and help the empire run smoothly, that gave her a pleasure deep in her bones.

" -- and so we come to the matter of the imperial examinations," Yao finally said, taking a scroll from an aide. Wan-er's cue. She watched the scroll as if her life depended on it, not just her future.

Silently, she opened her writing case and took out her own scroll.

"This edict contains the best thoughts of a committee of men who have been through the examination system, and so know its strengths and weaknesses, along the lines we discussed before."

As he untied his scroll, the Empress held out her hand, as if Yao had been intending to present it instead of read it. He hesitated only a moment before bowing and giving it to her. The Empress scanned it quickly, and made a silent Hmph. Did that mean -- ? She handed it to Wan-er, who passed in turn her own version.

Wan-er read quickly -- ugh, that paragraph was florid -- would it have -- ? Ah, there, what had she warned the Empress to watch for: hidden between other clauses, a committee of arbitration for appeals, one that would allow those students with connections to have their exam results adjusted.

Even after the Empress's purges of the oldest, most influential families, lords still found ways to help the sons of other lords.

Wan-er felt her shoulders relax slightly, and let them.

"Very prettily worded," the Empress was saying, "but we've already prepared our own version, based on the committee notes." The version of the notes that didn't include the appeals committee -- not to mention a layer of bureaucracy between the examiners and the graders. Another of Wan-er's contributions.

Yao wanted to protest, but flinched under that imperial gaze and accepted the replacement from her. He began to read it aloud.

The rest of the audience was -- not tedious, there was still too much for Wan-er to do for that. It was like the last act of a play where the rest of the story was already ordained by the events before. Something to be sat through to get to the end.

When the audience broke up, Wan-er followed the Empress to her personal quarters. "In the future," the Empress told Wan-er as they walked, as if in passing, "you shall compose more of our edicts." Have even more of a role in ruling the empire.

Wan-er bowed, and the women shared a quick smile.

IV. Winter

As she crossed the broad courtyard, Wan-er pulled her fur-lined coats close against the stiff wind. Flags snapped, a troop of cavalry clattered by. Soon she would be riding as well -- in a few days, the emperor would visit Warmspring Palace, to bathe in the hot springs on the slopes of Mount Li. The words ordered themselves without thinking.

Wind-rattled phoenix pennons turn, brushing through the sky,
Shaggy-hoofed steeds of the horse guard come, stamping beams of light.
Mount Li lies sunk in shadow, jutting beyond the clouds,
While far in the distance, the royal tent opens beside the sun.

She should write that down. Later -- she had a visit to make.

Su-long's steps tap-tap-tapped behind her, like the faithful attendant she now was.

Shangyang Palace was small, hidden behind the east wing of the imperial women's quarters. Wan-er left her two bodyguards in the antechamber. In the inner bedchamber, the deposed Empress Wu, now known by her regnal name of Empress Zetian -- as if already dead -- lay on a bed heated by a small stove underneath it. Her skin was pale, almost grey, and one of her two (just two!) attendants had to raise her to a deeply reclining position. Only her eyes were as sharp as ever.

Wan-er thought she had prepared for this. She had to force herself to not look away.

The former empress -- no: she was still the Empress to Wan-er, for all that another held the title now -- the Empress coughed, and took in Wan-er's rich winter robes.

"Still on your feet, I see." Her voice was soft but clear.

"I still ride through the windstorm."

"Which is more than we can say of me, eh?" the Empress said.

That took Wan-er a moment to decode. Empress indeed -- she still had the old subtlety. "What are you up to?"

The empress waved a hand weakly. "Oh, nothing much. My final gift to my son, to go with returning the throne to him."

Returned, that is, in a coup led by loyalists to the old order of male emperors. "One he should be wary of," Wan-er interpreted. As she should herself, having joined the emperor's party in return for the protection of senior concubinage and control of the Secretariat. Her skill with words and alliance with Empress Wei had made her too valuable to dispense with.

The Empress chuckled, a dry sound in a dry room. "Nothing you need worry about, my dear. And to prove it, I ask for your assistance in the matter."

A gift defanged through Wan-er's vetting. This -- this might be sincere. Absently, she touched her tattooed cheek. "How?"

"I wish to leave no loose ends. My son needs all the legitimacy he can grab, if the Throne of Heaven is to avoid continued turmoil." The Empress paused for breath. "I want to you draft an edict for me, stating that I am to be known as Empress Consort Zetian."

The title of the wife of a reigning emperor, the one she held their first meeting nearly thirty years ago. As if she had never been a reigning empress who'd deposed her son, who'd deposed her in turn. As if he'd ruled unbroken.

Wan-er's throat tightened. After all that work, all those deaths, to give up the title.

And this was a gift not just to her son, but to Wan-er -- by bearing this, as prime minister, to the emperor, she'd have even more of his favor. For this, she could take the time to get the wording just right, even if she was late to her meeting with Empress Wei.

Wan-er let out an unsteady breath, then nodded. She gestured to Su-long. "It is just as well, then, that I brought my writing kit."

"Ever the scribe, eh?"

Already, elegant phrases flitted through Wan-er's mind. As she started preparing her ink, she said, "I learned to always be prepared for anything."

On her bed, her teacher smiled briefly and closed her eyes.