I fought my way through the panicked civilians, the nurses and doctors trying to help whoever they could, the soldiers fallen out of formation in the confusion. I understood now why we hadn’t seen any soldiers from Wa all day - they may have been bold in death, but they weren’t wasteful, not on this scale.
Bai Ling had never married, and when the Imperial line ended, there was no one to appoint a messenger. The new government hadn’t had time to, or hadn’t cared. Maybe the latter- they seemed much less impressed by mythology and magic. That’s understandable. When you throw aside the will of Heaven…
Regardless, someone had to go find him. I wasn’t going to put my children in that danger. That meant me.
The Imperial Palace had been abandoned for almost a decade, and there was usually a detachment of soldiers outside. Their numbers had dwindled as the war went on, though, and today there were none. The air was thick with smoke and sickly-sweet here, and the closer I got to the gates of the palace, the smaller the noise of the city became until it dwindled to silence.
I visited the Palace once as a girl, with my father. I remembered it vividly, a place of bright, rich colors and textures. The shapes themselves are fuzzy – I could not tell you the pattern of any fabric, or what the servants looked like, or why we were there. But I remember the sensation of it. It was so overwhelming that when we returned to our home, I wrapped myself up in my thin, white blanket and stayed there all evening, remembering them.
None of that remained now. The gate had been torn off its hinges recently, probably by Jian himself. The conditions inside, however, were the work of my countrymen. While the palace was officially being maintained, little actual work had been done. The floors were coated in dust and dark with grime. The walls were bare, the color of clotted cream, with cobwebs allowed to collect along the ceilings. All the decorations had been removed. Smoke hung in the air, even more thickly than it had outside. There was a fire nearby, almost certainly. I hoped I found him before I found the source.
I hurried through the hallways, unsure where he would be. To be honest, I had no way to know he would even be there except for blind intuition. But intuition, I’d found, was pretty good when it came to things like magic.
“Tzuyung Jian! Please! I know you’re here,” I called in desperation. I felt blasphemous as I pushed through one gate after another into the heart of the city. I knew that during the Empire an Anglo like me would probably never be allowed to come this far. It was a sobering thought as I pushed ahead. I burst through another door, and this time I found him.
The room was plainly the emperor’s audience chamber. Much of the decoration was missing even from this room, but the carved, upholstered Dragon Throne remained at the top of the stairs. He was lounging in it, splayed comfortably across the mildewed silk.
“Tzuyung Jian?” It wasn’t really a question. Though I hadn’t seen him in more than thirty years, since I was a child, I knew him instantly. Nothing about him had changed, after all.
“What do you- Rose? Mildred Rose, is that you?” he stared at me, sitting up and leaning forward.
I approached the throne. “Yes, Jian. It’s me.”
“How can that be? No, I’m asking wrong question. How long has it been?”
“Since the bombing?”
“Since I have been in this world.”
I wasn’t quite sure how to answer that. “The year is 4642.”
“Perhaps too long then, if the Empire has forgotten me.”
“What do you mean? You- you’re supposed to defend the Empire, aren’t you?”
He shrugged. “The Empire has made it perfectly clear that it has no interest in being defended. It’s not my place to get involved any longer.”
“Defending the Empire wasn’t my true goal, you know. It was what the Imperial line stood for at the beginning, that was what mattered. Line replaced line, and… nevermind. Now that I’m no longer required, well, the government of Wa has been kind enough to give me something else to do.”
“What? You’re not – you’re not working for them, are you?”
Jian laughed. It was not a pleasant sound, and it eched through the hall, making my ears hurt. “No, my dear. You think too small. Didn’t you notice what had been done to this place?”
“I know it was attacked. It smells outside as if it is burning.”
“I believe parts of it are, yes,” he looked thoughtful and unconcerned. “And yet you came in anyway.”
“Someone had to.”
“Not really,” he said. “But they’ve dislodged the… the reality of this place, you could say. More symbolic than anything, given how it’s been used since the Emperor fell, but it’s nonetheless dangerous. You really shouldn’t stay here, you know.”
“What about you?”
Jian sat up and leaned forward. “I appreciate your concern, but it’s really more interesting for me if I stay here.”
“No harm will come to me.”
I looked down at the dusty floor. “But you won’t come to the country’s aid.”
“I tell you again, no one has asked.”
“You’re not of Shenzhou,” Jian shook his head. “Even if you were born here. And you are certainly not empowered to speak for Heaven or for the country as a whole. No official of Shenzhou has come forward to speak with me since the Emperor died.”
An idea occurred to me. “And if they did?”
He looked more amused than anything. “If they did, I might well laugh in their faces after all this time. But I’d listen, anyway.”
I nodded. It was something. Maybe it would work, I didn’t know. I would have to try. In my head, I was already going through the list of everyone I knew, all my parents’ friends, who might know someone who could do something.
“You should go,” he told me. “It’s not stable here.”
The floor didn’t shake and the ceiling looked solid, but I felt something in the air that told me he was right. I took a deep breath and bowed as I’d been taught. “Thank you for your audience.”
He smiled. “Such formality!”
“Please remember your country,” I added, and then turned to leave. At first, the hallway seemed easy enough to follow back to my starting point, but I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere – one moment I thought I knew where I was, the next I was in some part of the Palace I had never seen before.
This area was as forgotten as the others – dust lay thick on everything – but it had not been stripped bare as the other halls had been. There was a finely carved wooden bed and many rugs and wall-hangings that must have been beautiful back when they were maintained. I wanted to take the time to look at them, but the smell of smoke was even thicker here and I was starting to panic.
Behind me I heard a cracking noise. I turned just as an overhead beam cracked and fell, and the fact that someone jerked me backward was the only thing that kept me from being crushed. Even so, a sizable piece landed on my foot and I gasped in pain.
“I warned you to go.”
“I was trying!” I shouted, trying to see if anything was obviously wrong with my foot. “I got turned around.” I didn’t think I could put much weight on it.
Jian shook his head. “I suppose I should have expected that. The weapon Wa used has made this place very dangerous; reality is weak here.”
I didn’t know what that meant, but I was pretty sure it was bad. “Just point me in the right direction.”
“I believe it’s too late for that,” he said.
“I can walk.” I hoped it wasn’t a lie.
He scoffed. “I wasn’t referring to you.” Despite being the same height as me, he picked me up as easily as I did my children and started walking through the burning palace. He moved too fast for me to see the path we took, but shortly we were outside the courtyard and he was trying to find someone who would give me a passage back to my home.
I tested my weight; my foot seemed in terrible pain, but I did not buckle. “There are many injured more seriously than I. I will make my own way home and not trouble them.” I was already planning who I could call, though I already thought it might be a losing battle.
“If you insist,” Jian said, leaving me to stand on my own feet. “Thank you for… for your visit, Miss Rose. I will remember it.”
He was gone before I could reply. Frustrated, but unwilling to give up, I smoothed my singed skirts and started to limp home.