User:Fish/The Silk Road

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This story is a work in progress.
The Silk Road
Author: Fish

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It was a city on the farthest edge, teetering on the precipice of history, at the place where the long meandering yellow river spewed silt into the sea. It was here that land yielded to ocean, here in the rainy, fertile delta where men gathered for the first time to coax rice and millet out of the soil. This is where the wandering tribes of the Stone Age carved a civilization of bronze out of the wilderness, constructing one of the first cities the world had ever known.

Jiang Jin began as nothing more than a ferry crossing. The river itself was Jiang, which simply meant river. As the lifeblood of agriculture, as highway, as landmark, sometimes god and sometimes destroyer, it needed no name. Even on a clear day the farthest bank could not be seen. Locals said proudly that the river could never be tamed. It sluiced when and where it would. Every spring when the rains filled every tributary the Jiang swelled past its banks, leaving new islands in the current when it fell.

The city would be a jewel in the East, the capital of a budding empire, and for a thousand years to come it would glitter against the sunrise. All roads would lead to Jiang Jin. Caravans would make pilgrimages to the city, bringing salt pork, soybeans and jade to sell in the markets. Upon their return inland, they would carry fish and rice, and fine wines brewed from millet. The traders would trade in tea, and in ceramic, and in silk.

In time, the city would all but vanish. Empires would fall, and rise again like the Jiang, and new islands of civilization would remain behind in other places. Jiang Jin would first be a ghost town, and then a weed-choked ruin. The river would reclaim the land, breaking down walls and filling cellars with silt. Almost every trace that there ever stood there a beacon of civilization would be swept away out to sea.

Every trace, perhaps, except one.

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When the Yellow Emperor sent a summons to Chen Guang, he sent in the form of two burly soldiers, both clad in stiff scales of tortoise-shell armor and armed with daggers of bronze and bows made from antelope horn. Around his waist each soldier wore a hempen sash dyed yellow, and the elder soldier had an icon on a leather thong around his neck: the Emperor's badge, a crane carved of jade. The soldiers had no writ, no legal documents, and Chen expected none. Their identity was self-evident.

Chen leaned on his spade and watched the soldiers pick their way through his muddy fields. Jiang had brought mud in plenty that season, rising with the rains and delivering nutrient-rich soil to Chen's modest farm. His home, placed high on stilts to keep above the highest flood, had nearly not proved high enough. He and his wife had been forced to lead the swine into the hills, and to use a small boat to get to and from the village.

The soldiers approached, their hide boots squelching in the mud. “Chen Guang?” one of them asked. “The swineherd?”

Chen nodded his head head in abbreviated bow. “Chen I am,” he said. “The swine you may see from where you stand, if you do not already smell them.”

The soldiers' expressions did not change. “The Yellow Emperor requires you. You are to come with us.”

“Tell the Emperor I will come,” Chen said, “after I tend my swine. One of my sows is pregnant and will be bearing piglets soon.”

“The Emperor does not wait for piglets or swineherds,” the elder soldier said darkly. “Make ready to leave.”

Behind Chen Guang, a figure appeared in the doorway of his stilt home: Chen Ji, his wife, shapeless in simple brown linen, grasped the door jamb and looked at the soldiers in consternation. “Guang?” she asked. “Why are these men coming for you?”

“The Emperor wants me, I am told,” Chen said indifferently, as if Emperors were too remote and legendary to be bothered with. The city of Jiang Jin was many days away on foot.

“Then I am coming too,” Ji declared. She gathered her brown linen robes from around her ankles and descended the ramp to ground level.

“The Emperor has not summoned you to court, woman,” the younger soldier said.

“I am coming anyway.”

“Women are not allowed in the court,” the younger soldier insisted. “Women are weak of mind and do not understand the laws.”

The elder soldier waved her off brusquely. “You are not to come.”

Chen Ji stuck out her chin. “If you wish me to stay here, then you must kill me.”

The two soldiers exchanged a glance. This was beyond their orders.

“I shall say I come to the city for my own purpose,” Ji suggested. “We will merely be traveling together.”

With a sigh, the elder soldier relented. “Very well. You may come, but you are not to come to the court.”

“Who shall tend the swine?” Chen Guang asked his wife.

“Our son shall,” Ji said. “And his wife. We will stop by their farm and give them instructions. Wan will watch over the swine.”

The elder soldier directed the other toward the sty. “We shall need food for the journey. Bring one of the swine. We will butcher it along the road, if we grow hungry.”

“Those are my swine,” Chen objected.

“We need food,” the soldier said again, more sternly. “Or would you rather starve?”

Chen considered it for a moment, then nodded a bow of assent. “Mind you do not butcher that large boar,” he said. “He is worth ten pearls, at least.”

The elder soldier leered at him. “You are saving the best hog for yourself! No, we shall take that one. Yun, fetch that boar. Tie it with that rope.”

Chen bowed again. “As you wish.”

They traveled to Jiang Jin along the river. The swineherd and his wife carried baskets upon their backs, bearing bowls for cooking, noodles to cook in them, blankets to sleep in, and goods for the market. Where they could, the four slept at the neighboring farms, and where there were no houses, the slept in the tall grasses above the high-water mark of the Jiang. Although the clouds threatened menacingly, and the winds whipped the surface of the river, there was no rain.

On the second night Yun, the younger soldier, butchered the boar by the riverside. They wrapped its meat in leaves and steamed it in a smoky fire of green wood. Yun grinned wickedly at Chen through a mouthful of pork from across the fire, but Chen calmly stirred a simmering bowl of noodles with a spoon, determined to take no notice. He did not mention the ten pearls the boar would have brought at the market.

The two soldiers chopped the boar crudely into steaks, and the next morning they bundled packets of pork into leaves and stowed them in the peasants' baskets.

“Is it a heavy load?” asked Ying, the elder soldier, as he added more chunks of meat to Ji's basket. His look was cruel and unsympathetic.

“I can carry as much as any man,” she said stoutly.

“You had better,” Ying warned her, “if you want to eat tomorrow. It is a long way yet to Jiang Jin.”

They did not reach the city the following day. Instead they stayed for the evening with a farmer and his wife in a small village. The soldiers demanded duck, and they got it; the badge of the Yellow Emperor seemed to intimidate the family into cooperation. Evidently Chen was not the first farmer these soldiers had bullied. Reluctantly, he shared some of the boar meat with the farmer and his wife in payment for the duck. They woke early to the sound of ducks quacking and fretting outside, and set off before it was fully light.

In the evening of the next day, with the sun setting in the clouds behind them, they crested a low, reedy slope and came within sight of the city: magnificent for its day, surrounded by thick walls, buildings soaring over the surrounding trees, throwing reflections on the Jiang. The city was like nothing the world had ever seen. Its walls were heavy stone, packed with mud to keep out the river; its wooden arches and pagodas loomed over the wall like a man-made forest.

“The city,” Yun said shortly. He was not feeling well, so his temper was not good.

“We have seen it. This is where we bring our swine to sell,” Chen said with just the trace of reproach.

“Not today,” Yun said.

“No, not today.”

Yun said nothing else. Instead he hacked a few wet coughs.

Chen Guang and Chen Ji were ordered to remain in a gaol cell that night, solid hay-strewn accommodations only slightly less luxurious than their wood-stilted home.

“At least here it is dry,” Chen said placidly to his wife.

“But they have stolen all that was left of our boar,” Ji said angrily. “What are we to do?”

“They say they have taken it for the Emperor,” Chen said. He sat down in the hay.

“That is always what the Emperor's soldiers say when they take what is ours. They took a boar and three ducks for the Emperor.” Ji laughed harshly. “If the Emperor were to eat all of the food they take for him, he would be a very fat man indeed.”

“He will not eat our boar,” Chen said with confidence. “The guards will take it for themselves.”

“May they choke on it.”


In the morning, two of the Emperor's guard came for them. These were not Yun and Ying, foot soldiers and thugs; these were dressed in armor of bronze and boiled leather, and they carried short, stout staves with axe-dagger heads. Unlike the soldiers that had brought Chen and his wife to the city, burly and bedraggled and unkempt, these two were fit, well-fed and well-groomed, and had the brisk air of men who had no time to waste. They did not bow.

“Chen Guang?” one guard said. “You are the man who sold five swine to Ma Chao the butcher?”

Chen hesitated. “Yes, that is so. Why? Was Chao unhappy with them?”

“The Emperor commands you to come before the magistrate,” the guard announced.

“I am coming too,” Ji declared defiantly.

The guard shook his head. “Women are not permitted in the magistrate's court.”

“I am coming,” she repeated.

“It is not allowed. You must remain here.”

“If you wish me to remain here, then you will have to kill me,” Ji said, thrusting out her chin. “I am coming.”

Like Yun and Ying before them, the Emperor's two guards exchanged a look, and then the first made a face. “Very well. You may offend the magistrate, if that is your desire.”

The magistrate was named Wei Xie, and he was a solemn-faced man in his fifties with a fine mustache and robes of voluminous black silk. Had Xie been born in a thousand years later, he would have been a scholar; had he been born two thousand years later he would have been a great philosopher. But in Jiang Jin there was little writing, only runes and symbols, and there was no law except the Emperor's word. No man along the river knew the Yellow Emperor's law so well as Wei Xie, and he dispensed it diligently in Huang-ti's name.

Time would eventually forget his name and his role, when even Jiang Jin itself was swallowed up by the river, yet so just was the wisdom of Wei Xie's court that for five hundred generations men would recall the days of the Yellow Emperor with fondness. Emperor Huang-ti, they would say, was the wisest of all men: physician, general, inventor of medicine, creator of the calendar, father of twenty-five children. His wife Luo Zu tamed the silkworm; his historian Cang Jie invented writing; his court artist Ling Lun invented music.

Though such legends would be told of the Yellow Emperor, all legends are built around a grain of truth, as pearls are said to be built around grains of sand. Here in the court of Wei Xie, in Jiang Jin, the city on the precipice of history, the pearl of legend was beginning to form.