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Third Book in Five Book Series - Southern Swallow - a tale of 12th Century China and the back story for that holy terror, The Jade Owl
“We were like Swan Clouds, or so my master Li K’ai-men said, because for ten years we drifted from place to place — city to city — one temporary capital after another.” Ten years has passed since The Nan Tu, Book II of the Southern Swallow series. The Sung court and government has settled at the great city of Lin-an and peace is sought with the invading Jurchen. The stage is set for one of the most infamous incidents in Chinese history, known as The Yueh Fei Affair — an intrigue, which casts our adventurers into the perils of the times.
Book III of the Southern Swallow series – Swan Cloud, like its predecessors (The Academician and The Nan Tu) is told by K’u Ko-ling, servant to the Grand Tutor, Li K’ai-men, who must forgo his obligated mourning period and set out on a diplomatic mission for the Emperor Kao — a mission fraught with political intrigue and treachery. Set on the broad canvas of Sung Dynasty China (12th Century), Swan Cloud is a tale of separation and sacrifice — injustice and intrigue. It represents a turning point in this saga for our hero and his band of spiritual warriors.
The Southern Swallow Series:
The Nan Yu
The House of Green Waters
Related series – The Jade Owl:
The Jade Owl
The Third Peregrination
The Dragon’s Pool
The People’s Treasure
In the Shadow of Her Hem
We were like Swan Clouds, or so my master Li K’ai-men said, because for ten years we drifted from place to place — city to city — one temporary capital after another. However, we inevitably returned to Hang-chou, the Emperor’s favorite place. It wasn’t always his favorite. After our flight southward and along the coast, the Jurchen enemy was embroiled in their own political quagmire, allowing us to return to the battle scarred earth we called the Motherland.
His Majesty had learned well — learned well from my master, his Grand Tutor and the Custodian of the Yellow Door. Under my master’s influence, the Emperor Kao became energetic, seeking talent and resources. He even moved north in an attempt to retake our lost lands. We had four brave generals — Chang Chun, Han Shr-chung, Lu Kuang-shr and Yueh Fei. Things appeared promising, but what do I know, K’u Ko-ling, piss-ant servant that I am. I only parrot my master’s words. Fortunately for you, he has told me much.
The Jurchen didn’t slacken when we Sung attacked them. They had bolstered their puppet buffer state under Liu Yu, who had ennobled many outlaws to join him, including Yueh Fei’s brother-in-law, Li Ch’eng. Still, the Sung generals perceived they had the upper hand; so much so, His Majesty went to the city of Ch’ien-ning to direct the campaign personally. Unfortunately, he was not a strategist. He meddled with the assignments and promotions, placing rival commanders in the field. This led to mutiny and the defection of the popular general Liu Ch’i-fei who took two-hundred thousand soldiers with him, joining the enemy’s camp. His Majesty’s appetite for war waned. He withdrew south to Hang-chou, renaming the city Lin-an — Pacified Forest — and declared it the Temporary Capital of Temporary Capitals. The grand offense now had become a grand defense, and stood thus for ten years.
My master, his ch’i-t’ang and the family went wherever his Majesty went. So did I, because I am ch’i-t’ang. Our growing family stumbled along from place to place living in mud daub dwellings and dank dells until finally we settled into a spacious compound just east of Lin-an’s West Lake. My master named the place The Pavilion of the Gentle Zephyrs, because he had hoped the wind would keep us steady there — that our travels might be at an end. In that, he was wrong.
We were privileged. Many officials still squalored in muck houses and sties. It didn’t much matter to me. Life had become a steady work in motion — a Swan Cloud, as my master said. But for me, it was more a Crow’s Bucket filled with the handy tasks that I was born to perform. I couldn’t complain. I was sinewy and had free access to every fan-tan game in town, not to mention every whore. I had my own horse — Water Dragon, and I was married — say yes. But my fat-ass wife and brawling craphound son were not worth a fart. I did my duty. I gave the world one son . . . well, two, but . . . when I think of the secret one, I lose my good humor and drift toward melancholy. So I won’t think about him. Instead, I will tell you about the events that shaped the world as it became — events turning my three and thirty years at the time upon their head.
Lu Ting crossed his arms as he rode in the sedan chair, the curtains drawn, protecting him from the rising sun. The mornings were still chilly in the north. He had been traveling for nineteen days and was a long distance from Lin-an. He worried how his colleagues would fare in his absence. Still, his mission was important — a blunt one and worthy of the journey’s hardships.
As the chair bounced unsteady along the road, his porters lost their grip. Lu Ting held fast to the lacquered canopy. In his youth, he would have ridden a grand steed, but in his dotage, the chair would do, if these damned porters could hold it steady. Suddenly, the vehicle wavered and shook and then crashed to the ground, the minister clutching the side poles to avert serious injury. The curtains wrapped around his head.
“Help me,” he shouted, twisting about in the crimson cloth.
The porters recovered the chair, but not the Director of the Left. That task fell to the steward.
“My lord,” said the steward.
“Fei P’ing,” Lu Ting shouted. “Help me. Who’s responsible? This is unforgivable.”
“It could not be helped, my Lord,” Fei P’ing stammered.
He extricated his master from the curtains, righting him, and then immediately knelt in supplication. Lu Ting whirled around scowling at the porters, who also knelt. The entire entourage, twenty-five in all, knelt, heads bowed low. However, Lu Ting softened as he scanned the surroundings.
“It could not be helped,” Fei P’ing murmured, weeping.
Lu Ting stepped over the curtain to the road’s edge. He trembled.
“What has happened here? What is this place, Fei P’ing?”
“It is Yao Ch’ing.”
On both sides of the road — death and carnage — bodies clad in sullied leather and sodden silk. Bodies stacked haphazardly where they had fallen. The ground oozed blood — rivulets of crimson pooled beside shattered corpses. Dead horses were decayed and strewn across the landscape. Lu Ting choked.
“So much death,” he muttered. “The earth will yield nothing but weeds beneath such fodder.” He sighed. “Up with you, Fei P’ing. Up! Up! All of you. I can’t be cross before the ghosts. Of course, it couldn’t be helped. I haven’t sustained injury, except to my eyes, looking out upon this terrible . . .”
Carrion birds feasted, scarcely stirring at the grand minister’s presence. Lu Ting shaded his eyes, straining to see the distant hills, where the battle fires still smoldered. Nothing moved except the occasional banner angled to catch the stinking breeze.
The entourage slowly stirred — the carts refastened, the sedan set right, the curtains reattached, although Minister Lu Ting refused to draw them again. In fact, he refused to take his seat again. He trudged past the road’s edge, exploring the marks of battle. His slippers raised the dust. He kicked hands that had lost their owners and legs, now mere debris. Fei P’ing followed him at a distance.
“This is a victory, no doubt,” Lu Ting said. “I see more leather than silk. But how much more can the earth sustain under the warrior’s hand.”
“My lord,” Fei P’ing called. “We are a half day from the place. We should not linger here.”
Lu Ting halted, his travel robes feeling twice their weight. He allowed his eyes to settle on a head — a Jurchen head, one not unlike his own, except that it was loosed from its owners neck and may have belonged to one of several of the nearby fallen. This trunkless head seemed to laugh at him. It said Fool. You wish to continue this unending state of things — this war of ten years. And what have you gained?
Lu Ting scanned the distant hills again.
“Yes,” he muttered. “We’ve recaptured Lo-yang. It’s a good thing to have one of our jewels back, despite the cost.”
He sighed, and then raised his collar to block the noxious odor.
“Yes, Yes. We’ll hasten to Lo-yang, Fei P’ing. We must speak to the butcher in his lair.”
Lu Ting trundled back to the road, the entourage anxious to leave this place. The porters attended once again. Lu Ting climbed into his chair.
“Have better care with my old bones,” he told them. “Make haste.”
However, even at an increased pace, Lu Ting would not lose sight of the carnage for a full watch. He refused to draw the curtains as he pondered the evidence of his policies. As for the stench of rotting flesh and the spectacle of bloated torsos, he would take those to his grave. They would follow him like the blowflies and the carrion crows.
From the West, a fast horse approached Lo-yang, the rising sun blinding the rider. His mission — important. His cargo — an imperative, tucked within two parcels in the depths of his saddlebag. The dust flew about in the beast’s wake.
“Ai-ya,” the rider shouted, striking with his boot heels and snapping the whip-like reins.
The horse whickered, charging forward as if the world depended on his delivery.
“Ai-ya and go. Stop complaining. He is waiting for it.”
The walls loomed before the rider who steered toward the gates. A city of tents now emerged before the fortress — a sea of color shivering in the wind. Soldiers awoke to their morning duties and piss. They noted the rider and he noted them, but nothing slowed his course. In fact, the gate opened at his approach, as if the world expected him.
“Ai-ya,” he shouted as he raced past the guards, who held their helmets fast as if the steed would blow them off. Only the ancient streets in the Western Market slowed the animal’s course.
The rider called for a canter, reining in — directing hooves toward the old Imperial compound, which now served as the Ya-men and headquarters for the Great Commander of the Western Forces — General Yueh Fei. As the horse and its cargo trotted through the market and then passed the artisan guilds, the night lanterns were extinguished, apprentices waving to the soldier, who ignored them. He kept to his course.
The Ya-men gates opened and he spun into the courtyard. Two grooms cuffed the steed, and then the rider dismounted, snatching the saddlebags in a single motion.
“He waits,” shouted an officer, who stood nearby. “Haste.”
The rider followed the officer into the darkness.
General Yueh Fei paced in the Pavilion of the Copious Harvest, his staff watching his every move. Captain Tzu Ma-lin listened, cocking his head attentively for the expected footsteps. He had already made his report to his commander — that an entourage from the Capital was approaching from the southeast and had crossed the Yao Ch’ing battlefield. However, nothing could commence — no planning, agenda or even the reception for the Director of the Left until the General’s morning ritual had reached its completion. That could not commence until the rider rode the distance from the General’s lady-wife.
“I hear them,” Tzu Ma-lin said.
The other officers — six leaders of stature who had been pouring over maps, stirred.
“As it should be,” Yueh Fei said.
He stared at his staff, particularly Tzu Ma-lin, until they gathered around their maps, their strategic conference drawing away from the General’s business. Another Captain, Go Xin, marched smartly into the chamber, followed by the rider, who toted the saddlebag.
“We are here, sir,” Go Xin said, clasping his right fist to his breastplate, and then bowing.
The rider knelt, bowed his head and raised the saddlebag high above his noggin. Yueh Fei, a giant by anyone’s measurement, loomed over the man. He snatched the bag, the rider prostrating.
“Are they intact?” he asked.
“Yes, my lord. Untouched by any one but my mistress.”
“Any word back, my lord?”
“Linger in the kitchens. Don’t leave unless I tell you. I’ll send her a token, but I must consider it first.”
“Yes, my lord.”
The rider regained his footing, saluted and then shuffled toward the door.
“Go Xin,” Yueh Fei said. “Walk with me.”
The captain followed Yueh Fei to a corner, where the general retrieved the parcels. Go Xin took the saddlebag.
“Lu Ting has been sighted at Yao Ch’ing,” Yueh Fei said. “How long do you think it will take him to reach Lo-yang?”
“He’s old, sir. He might take a day.”
Yueh Fei turned and grinned.
“No one lingers on that battlefield, Go Xin, especially a man of dainty qualities. If he hadn’t turned about and rushed back to Lin-an by now, then I would say he’s running his ass to Lo-yang and will be enjoying our hospitality by the eighth watch.”
“I shall prepare.”
“Prepare well. His presence disturbs me.”
Go Xin shrugged.
“He’s friendly to the cause,” Go Xin said.
“Yes. A dangerous cause. He might be old and genteel, but he has had the balls to oppose Ch’in Gwei.”
Go Xin opened his mouth to comment, but closed it, commentary enough having been expended on the subject of Ch’in Gwei — commentary too often spouted — too often unproductive. Captain Tzu Ma-lin approached, coming to attention, and then nodding.
“Your orders, sir.”
Yueh Fei gathered the parcels into the crook of his arm, and then grinned.
“Well, Tzu Ma-lin, it isn’t every day the Emperor sends an emissary to piss ants like us. We fight for the nation and His Majesty, now that he chooses to embrace his southern whore house.”
His captains grinned.
“Ignore me, comrades,” Yueh Fei said. “I’m a gruff man and have known our Imperial Lord since he was a boy. He gave me my commission . . . personally . . . and in the field . . . and before he ascended the dragon throne.”
Yueh Fei’s grin melted away as he thought of that day on the road to meet the Jurchen lord, Nien-ho. General Yueh escorted the Emperor, at the time Prince Kang, through the lands of the outlaw Li Ch’eng, who was the brother of the woman who sent the parcels now tucked under Yueh Fei’s arm.
“His Majesty is diligent, brave and worthy of our devotion, gentleman,” Yueh Fei said. “But gruff men will be gruff men.”
“We share your gruffness, sir,” Go Xin said.
“No. You share my battlefield and are therefore my heart — the pulse of my existence. You know me well and serve me better. So, greet the Director of the Left with respect and comfort. Billet him in the Phoenix Pavilion and set his entourage in our best rooms. Lo-yang is the seat of Emperors. Let the best of tradition be served in Lu Ting’s honor and remember he’s a friendly voice in that shit hole we call the court.”
He closed his eyes, knowing that any speech dishonoring the Imperial regime was not befitting his position as Commander of the Western Forces. Still, these men were his right and left hands. They needed to hear his true thoughts. He trusted them not to transmit these notions to their subordinates and thence through the rank and file.
“It shall be done, sir,” Tzu Ma-lin said.
“Good. It is well. K’ai-feng is within our grasp. There are times when politics rule us and I believe this is one of those times.” He raised the parcels. “But now I must spend time with these. Any one who dares interrupt me during the next watch, his balls will be impaled on the Western Gate.”
The captains laughed.
“What if General Han Shr-chung should be that man?” Go Xin asked.
“He would be the exception having nothing for me to impale.” Yuen Fei laughed. “But he’s far away in the East and shall not be calling today.”
His men bowed, departing to fulfill their orders. Yueh Fei glanced at the parcels, and then drifted out of the Pavilion of the Copious Harvest, roaming through the courtyard to a small enclosure that he called his billet. Simple, cold and soldierly, it reminded him that as lofty as his responsibilities had grown, he was a warrior still — one of many.
“Sir,” said the steward as Yueh Fei entered his quarters.
“It’s here, Pan La.”
“I’m going, sir.”
“Guard against all comers, Pan La.”
The steward, young and bright eyed, smiled at his commander, devotion radiating from his eyes. He bowed, and then disappeared into the courtyard.
Yueh Fei set the parcels on a table near the window, and then knelt at a portable temple that enshrined his ancestral tablets. He bowed, his top knot whisking the shrine’s edge. He reached for a joss stick, stuck it in a sand pot and then, taking a fire inch-stick, he struck it on the side of the pot, the stick bursting into flame. He touched it to the incense, igniting it — a thin smoky stream yielding jasmine perfume. He clapped three times.
“Father,” he intoned. “I know you wanted me to be a pot-maker and marry a seamstress, but the world has turned and I’ve become the enemy’s devil, hacking my way northward in service to the Son of Heaven. My wife is the sister of an outlaw, whom I have compromised, and she sews nothing more than tent hems and flag trim. But she can bake and steam cake like no other woman to my acquaintance.” He clapped again. “So, as your greatest disappointment, I beg you to indulge me a bit longer. There may be a time when I shall do naught but make pots. Meanwhile, I prefer the enemy’s blood on my boots and his wail in my ears and his wounds within sight.” He clapped again, and bowed. “If you see fit to speak on my behalf to the spirits who guide mapmakers, tell them to be more accurate with their fucking landmarks, so I might strike truer at the enemy’s heart.”
He reached for another joss stick, lit it and then clapped again. This done, he went to the table and unwrapped the first parcel. His fingers breached the strings carefully, unrolling the stiff paper, revealing an object wrapped in yellow silk, a red string fastened at each end. Again, Yueh Fei liberated the wrapping, pressing the cloth flat. In its center was the prize — a pastry of golden quality, rectangular and glistening in the filtered light. He sighed.
“She loves me still,” he muttered.
He pressed his hand in the cake’s side, breaking off a goodly piece. He chuckled in anticipation, and then raised the crumbled victual to his eye.
“She loves me still.”
His wife had sent him these honey cakes, and it was more than a gentle wifely gesture from a faithful woman. She was the sister of the outlaw Li Ch’eng and had married Yueh Fei when he was a member of the cutthroat’s band. She too was skilled with the sword and had seen her share of freebooting. However, when Yueh Fei threw his lot in with the Sung Army, she dutifully abandoned the bandits and followed her husband into respectability. Now her loyalty was tested. Her brother had been driven out of the north and had infested Lake Tung-t’ing, where he led a rebellion. Yueh Fei, however, crushed that rebellion, Li Ch’eng retreating to serve the Jurchen. They declared Li Ch’eng their champion and commanding general.
Now, Li Ch’eng was dead, slain in battle at Yao Ch’ing along with his army, defeated by . . . his brother-in-law, Yueh Fei. Victory was sweet to the Sung, despite the prevalent court policy to sue for peace. Victory was sweet to the Generals of the North — Han Shr-chung and Chang Chun. However, it held bitterness for Yueh Fei, who had sent a dispatch to his lady-wife to say that he was safe, but her brother was dead and slain by her husband’s hand.
I shall deliver myself to your wrath, he wrote to her, and I will retreat to the mountains at Kun-ming, exiling myself from your weeping. If you despise me, send me a knife and I shall dispatch it into my heart. If you share in my victory, send me a sweeter sign of your love.
She sent him both — a honey cake and a knife, and, at first, he wasn’t sure she meant for him to live. However, after consideration, he used the knife to cut the cake, and then sent his thanks. Another cake arrived and then another, and since it was not poisoned and he thrived, he was blessed by the daily arrival of his lady-wife’s forgiveness and loyalty.
Yueh Fei smiled as the crumbs moistened his lips and showered his beard.
“Who needs a recalcitrant father, when I have such an abiding wife?”
He glanced back toward the tablets, the joss sticks still fumigating the corner of the room. He swallowed hard, and then called Pan La for drink. The steward, never more than a shout away, popped his head in. He already had the flask.
“Take this other parcel to my staff room. Let the mapmakers enjoy it.”
“Honey cake again, sir?”
“Indeed. And this portion I leave for you.”
“I’m not worthy.”
“I’ll determine your worthiness, Pan La. I command here and no other. When I say you’re to eat honey cake, you’ll eat it.”
“Thank you, sir.” He poured some wine. “Go Xin and Tzu Ma-lin are hovering, sir.”
“They dare not come in.” He laughed. “It’s good that they keep their distance when I’m cavorting with my ancestors. My captains value their balls, Pan La. Did they say what they wanted?”
“Yes, sir. The commissioner from the Capital has arrived.”
“That would be Lu Ting — the Director of the Left, Pan La, and it is the Temporary Capital not the Capital. We mean to retake the real Capital and enthrone His Majesty there again.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”
“Well, drift their way and mention that I said for them to prepare the Hall of Virtuous Peace in two watches. I might be found there and ready for a conversation with the Director of the Left.”
“Are those orders, sir?”
“They are, but . . . do not frame them as such. You’re not me. You overheard my thoughts and hoped my captains will be engines of anticipation. Then, return here, snuff out the incense and lay out my court attire.”
“Just so, sir.”
“Don’t look so puzzled. I must be a politician today and put the warrior away . . . at least for now.”
Pan La snatched the unopened parcel, bowed and then scurried over the threshold.
“He’s a good lad,” Yueh Fei muttered.
He pawed at more honey cake. He ate no more, but hoped that Pan La would leave some morsels for a late night indulgence. Yueh Fei closed his eyes. He had at least one watch to rest and to prepare for this meeting of state.
Yueh Fei was the savior of the Empire, or so every one who bellowed his name proclaimed. The other generals had shown brave measures, but also false steps. Yueh Fei never wavered. At Yao Ch’ing — his finest hour, he clobbered Li Ch’eng’s army, and they weren’t a weakling group of invested farmers and salt miners. No. These were seasoned soldiers, mostly Han who were now comfortable under their Jurchen overlords. They were content with the swagger of Li Ch’eng. However, Yueh Fei knew his brother-in-law well — knew his stratagems and anticipated the lethal blow reserved for the seventy-seven swords. So, Yueh Fei trained warriors to match those swords, blade for blade, and assigned each soldier to an individual outlaw. On the battlefield, distinctive emblems and devices were worn by each, a stupid move on Li Ch’eng’s part marking all seventy-seven. Yueh Fei’s strike force targeted each, easily finding them in the heat of battle, drowning them in metal, fire and blood. None survived. Yueh Fei himself met the antlered Li Ch’eng in a contest that would be legendary — told in local inns for years to come.
Still, the great Hero of the Nation had overstretched his authority. The court was negotiating for peace even as the battle raged. Although the victory was lauded, there were those who urged the Emperor to halt it at once. There was much at stake. Now, for me, I had had my fill of battle, so peace and quiet would be nice for a change. However, those who think lofty thoughts and form opinions of worth are constantly debating the issue as a matter of political gain. It’s easy to hold such opinions if you strut in silvery chambers and scrawl pretty characters on clean silken sheets. But if you just want a full belly, a woman and a good night’s sleep, war or peace is a matter of outcome and on which side you’ve eaten, humped and slept.