Liao prepared to depart from his service to the Kingdom of Kush to participate in the Hainan Island Dao Tournament, a prestigious event that, at Liao’s level, was open only to the best warriors of the Han Dynasty. The competition was by invitation only, and invitations were offered only to those warriors whose skill with the famed weapon had already been proven on numerous occasions and in the presence of many witnesses. Win or lose, it was suggested that to even be invited was victory in itself.
From the Han point of view, however, that wasn’t true. Winning, said the Han People, may not be everything, but losing wasn’t anything. With the title of Champion Standing came great honor. A common saying to the Han People was, “No one remembers who finishes second.”
No one really knew precisely when this tournament had taken on such grand proportions, or even when it had begun for that matter, but neither did anyone doubt its importance. When Liao was selected to participate and the invitation extended, eyebrows were raised throughout the empire, as were many whispers of protest.
The restoration of Honor to the Rong Clan notwithstanding, Liao had many enemies in the Empire and many openly voiced their opposition to the inclusion of a member of a once disgraced clan in such a prestigious tournament.
For the moment, however, Liao, and by extension the Rong Clan, had found favor with Chancellor Gengshi, and favor with the Chancellor carried great weight.
And so the invitation was extended; and the challenge was accepted. Liao would compete for the highest prize a Warrior could hold in the Han Dynasty.
The significance of the event was all the more true for this one who so often felt the need to be more Han than the Han People – more honorable than the most honored.
Rumor had it that Liao’s Nubian employers started a betting pool, and that they bet heavily in favor of Liao even though no first time competitor had ever won the competition.
Before departing for Hainan Island, there was certain business to which Liao need attend.
Liao proceeded down the main corridor of the Kushite Royal Palace to a staircase with his young son, Kaden, in tow. He passed several archers of the Nubian military along the way, each in turn greeting him and his son as they passed.
Climbing the ornate staircase, Liao reached the fourth floor, to the chambers of Princess Ayana. On the way, Liao explained to his son where they were going, and why. Leaving Kaden in Ayana’s care was a habit Liao had developed over the years since his son had come to live with him. Ayana was Kaden’s godmother; a request Liao made of her shortly after he discovered his wife had kept the knowledge of their son a secret until her death.
Ayana was already up and going over her day’s schedule when Liao rapped on the door.
“Come in,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
“I’ll be leaving shortly,” Liao explained as the two of them entered Ayana’s quarters. “It’s good of you to look after him while I’m away.”
“Good morning, Kaden,” she said before turning her attention to Liao, who had to turn his broad shoulders sideways to enter the narrow door. “I’ve been looking forward to this ever since your father’s invitation to the Hainan Island Dao Tournament arrived. We’re going to have a great deal of fun while your father is away.”
It was obvious from his expression that Kaden cared a great deal about Ayana and was looking forward to spending the time with her.
Ayana next turned her attention to Liao.
“I sense a certain amount of apprehension on your part, Liao. Nervous?” she asked.
“It is a very important tournament, Ayana,” he answered. “To be named Champion Standing is the greatest honor a warrior can achieve short of victory on the field of battle. I’m not certain that one who is not Han can fully appreciate that.”
“And,” Ayana interjected, “it takes your mind off of your upcoming birthday.”
Ayana and Kaden laughed loudly at the comment while Liao, agreeing with them, waited, stoic, for the moment to pass.
“There is perhaps some truth to what you say as well.”
Resting his large hand on Kaden’s shoulder, he said, “My horse is waiting. Kaden, do not dishonor your family.”
That said, Liao turned and left the two conspirators, still trying to recover from Ayana’s jibe.
“Liao”, she called after him, “we’re all counting on you to bring back that Champion Standing trophy! Good Luck!”
Liao merely shifted, bowed his head in their direction, and then continued on his way. He stopped back at his chambers only long enough to retrieve the things he would need for the trip, and to get his Dao.
As Liao reached the main gate to the palace, Ayana, Kaden and many off-duty archers were in attendance to see him off. Princess Ayana was the one to speak on their behalf.
“Liao! Brute strength is not the most important asset in a fight. Real power is in the heart. Success, to the Rong Clan!”
She spoke the words in impeccable Han Chinese. While the formality of Ayana’s salute surprised Liao, he was even more taken aback by the response of his friends, and their applause. He stiffened into a more militaristic stance, nodding formally. “I will bring honor to your kingdom, Princess.” He kicked his horse and rode at a full gallop to the docks.
Moments later, he guided his horse, bearing only him, his Dao, and the good wishes of his friends, onto the Hemiolia, the fastest ship in the Nubian navy – coordinates set for the Hainan Island and a date with destiny.
Aurelia sat quietly at her desk in the secluded complex on the outskirts of the capitol city of the Roman Empire. The report she had just finished reading troubled her.
“You are certain that the details of this report are accurate?” she asked the individual standing at attention in front of her desk.
“They are,” she answered. “There can be no doubt as to the authenticity of the information, nor the conclusions it had drawn. I personally saw to the collection and verification of the information. In addition, I was witness to some of the events outlined in the report.”
Aurelia rose to her feet, her gaze shifting from the parchment to the operative. “How is this possible? Many of the details disclosed in this report could only have come from the Senate Chambers. How is it that you have such intimately detailed information, and how is it that I am unaware of these events?”
“I am not without my resources,” the individual responded.
“Take care what you say and how you say it, Fabia. I will not tolerate insolence however impressive your benefactors in the Senate may be.”
“I meant no disrespect. I only meant that I do have means of securing information that may escape even your far-reaching network of spies. Forgive me if my tone indicated anything otherwise.”
The words were right, and the tone of voice certainly remorseful sounding enough, but there was something about the eyes of this stranger that troubled Aurelia even more than the report she delivered. The eyes were cold, hard, and otherwise completely unreadable.
“There are problems within the Han Dynasty that we can exploit,” the individual continued, “perhaps even to your specific end of replacing Gengshi’s government with a puppet government. Perhaps even to the end of seeing that sniveling Wang Mang wear the robe of the Chancellor. I don’t say this will be an easy task, but with the right set of circumstances, who knows? Those willing to take the risks have accomplished more difficult things.”
“The Han Dynasty is ripe for disruption. Gengshi is a megalomaniac more concerned with his own gains than with the good of the Empire. For a culture so enamored with the concept of honor, it amazes me that one so disreputable could have ascended to Chancellor.”
“I have no love for the Hans, but they are a key piece in the puzzle to overthrow the Nubians. If we control the Han Dynasty, we can direct their forces to the African continent. Destroy the Kushites, and the world is ours”
“Ambitious predictions, Fabia. What else have you learned?”
“It’s in the report.”
“How you came about your conclusions is not. Nor is your plan.”
Aurelia turned and walked across the room to a steaming carafe, where she poured some hot tea. She did not offer anything to her guest. Returned to her desk, she again sat and began to silently go over the information contained in the parchment one more time.
Gengshi was, the report suggested, becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the peace arrangement between the Kingdom of Kush and the Han Dynasty. The report concluded that he was looking for an excuse to break diplomatic relations between the two governments. The report also suggested that he was about to make yet another about-face regarding the status of a number of the clans within the Empire. He seemed willing to further the undercurrents of unrest that would most assuredly result in civil war. Gengshi, it further suggested, was more than willing to sacrifice anything or anyone that he perceived as standing in his way.
A megalomaniac, indeed, thought the Roman.
“What is it that you are suggesting?” she asked her informant.
“Why,” Fabia answered, “the assassination of Gengshi, of course. Followed by the installation of the Wang Mang as the natural successor. We can control Wang Mang.”
“You are certainly aware that these things have been suggested and attempted in the past, with disastrous results. What are you suggesting that has not already failed?”
“The Dao tournament?”
“Exactly! Gengshi will be in there. The finest warriors of the Han Dynasty will be in attendance. Gengshi himself has even invited the mercenary, Liao, to compete.”
“From the Kingdom of Kush?” Aurelia asked incredulously. “The viceroy’s pet Han? I thought members of dishonored clans were forbidden from that competition.”
“They are, but this is one of Gengshi’s ploys – he has reestablished several dishonored clans, and invited the male heads of those clans to participate in the tournament. No doubt, with the hope that they will be defeated and further dishonored, allowing him to move against them once again.
“You will note in the report that the tournament pairings are heavily sided against the dishonored clans. It is not unheard of that a combatant at Hainan Island sustains serious injury or even death.”
“You’re suggesting, Fabia, that Gengshi may be planning the elimination of these clans by having their representatives assassinated under the guise of the tournament? That seems too clever by far for Han reasoning!”
“As I said, Mistress, I am not without my resources.”
“How unfortunate it would be if one of the clans were to seek retribution against Gengshi’s tyranny by avenging the death of their First. The Empire would need a new emperor, and Wang Mang would be primed and waiting.”
“Certainly, the incidental deaths of others who stand in our way would go unnoticed. More importantly, plans have been set in motion that will indicate that Nubian agents are behind the disruption of Gengshi’s government. With the Kushites to blame, the tenuous treaty will fail.”
“My agents are already in place awaiting your approval.”
Aurelia smiled for the first time since the agent had presented her with the report. “You will remain with me in the capacity of my personal aide and advisor, Fabia” Without glancing up, she dismissed Fabia and turned her attention back to the report.
This just might work, she thought to herself. This just might work.