* * *
held both of Lady Wu’s hands tightly and gazed at her ruined, swollen face. Her hair hung down, tangled into clumps, and there were long self-inflicted scratches on her arms and chest. Her face was vacant, her eyes dry and exhausted. The room was a shambles.
The curtains had been torn down, vases smashed, tapestries and quilts ripped into shreds, furniture splintered and overturned, and food thrown against the wall. Lady Wu’s robes hung in tatters from her body. She sat, saying nothing, eyes half closed.
“Please,” Kaotsung whispered. “Tell me what I can do to make you happy again. I am begging you.” She raised her eyes and looked hard at him.
“Bring my firstborn back to me. Restore her to life
and put her in my arms.”
“I would if I could,” he cried. “I would do it a thousand times!” He put his head down and began to sob.
“Or …” Lady Wu began in a small
voice. He raised his head eagerly.
“What? What? Anything. I will do it.”
She looked at him.
“Make me your Empress,” she said.
back, mouth open, unable to reply.
“But …” he faltered.
“Make me your Empress, and you will give me joy. Nothing will ever take away this pain. It will live, coiled like a snake inside
me for the rest of my life. But that is one joy you could give me.”
“But I already have an Empress,” Kaotsung protested weakly. “You know that. Chosen for me by my father. I cannot—”
“You disgust me,” she said then. “You say you will do anything for me. Here is a simple thing, and you say you cannot do it.”
“But it is like asking me to bring the infant back from the dead,”
he protested. “It is impossible. It cannot be done. I … I would have to depose the Empress, overturn every precedent, cause terrible grief, go against the will of the Council of Six and my own dead father! And the family of the Empress would turn
against me and all my descendants. Probably for generations! What you are asking would tear me in two!”
She said nothing, but lowered her eyelids, let her shoulders sag, and looked down at the floor.
well,” she said softly. “Very well.” Kaotsung was on his feet, walking back and forth helplessly, desperately.
“Please,” he begged, arms spread supplicatingly. She said nothing. Kaotsung stopped pacing
and looked at her. Then he found the only object in the room that had not been destroyed, an empty chamber pot peeking out from under the bed. He picked it up and hurled it against the wall.
Excerpt: Chapter 8
One winter morning before dawn, a man woke from obscure, uneasy dreams unable to recall who or where he was. He lay in the chill darkness, his open eyes looking up into what seemed to be the infinite
night sky, and listened to the sound of his heart thumping and his blood hissing in his head. His body was inert and so distant from him that his consciousness seemed to be suspended in a great void; he was afraid, and wanted to call for someone, but he could
not remember any names, or any words at all, and so lay mute for a long time before slipping back down into his dreams. He dreamed of fire, red and searing hot, his heartbeat huge and thundering, filling the universe like a great drum.
he woke, a woman’s face looked down on him, her expression one of fear, solicitude, and impatience all at the same time. She was shaking his shoulders and telling him to speak to her immediately. He knew this woman, he was sure of that. Her face was
familiarity itself, but strangely disconnected from any memory of who she was exactly. He tried to smile, and felt warm drool run out of the corner of his mouth, down his cheek and jaw, and onto his neck. This seemed to make the woman even more annoyed. She
accused him of playing disgusting games and shook him again. But she must have seen something more in his face, because anger vanished from her features as swiftly as it had come and was replaced by alarm. She said that she was going to fetch the Imperial
physician immediately, and ran from the room. He tried to tell her that it was not necessary, but found no words to express the thought. Soon the drool on his cheek and neck chilled. He wanted to wipe it away, and tried to raise his right hand, but found that
it no longer belonged to him. He tried his left hand; shakily, it obeyed his command. He wiped his cheek, shivered, and with his good hand pulled the coverlet up over himself and lay in the soothing darkness under the bedclothes.
By afternoon, Emperor Kaotsung had regained the use of his right hand, though it was feeble as a baby’s. The physician regarded him with worried eyes, and implored the Emperor to allow him to administer a needle treatment, but Kaotsung refused,
communicating his feelings with gestures, because words were still evading him. By now, he knew who he was and that the woman who had hovered over him that morning and who conferred now with the physician in low, worried tones was his wife, the Empress. He
knew her name, too, but found that he was unable to move it from his brain onto his tongue. Words and sentences piled up inside his head, but met the same barrier. He had no confidence at all that if he spoke, anything but gibberish would issue from his mouth,
so he refrained. It was strange, and quite interesting, and he settled back into himself to explore the phenomenon.
After the physician had left, the Empress came and sat on the bed, took both his hands in hers, and looked at him.
“Speak to me,” she implored. He opened his mouth to answer her, but only an inarticulate rush of air, like wind in the treetops, issued from between his lips. It took him by surprise, and he shut his mouth quickly. The Empress started
in alarm at the sound. “What is the matter with you?” she said sharply, her voice edged with fear and vexation, dropping his hands as if he had suddenly become odious. He shook his head and looked at her helplessly, embarrassed at the strangeness
of it, unwilling to try again. Her eyes grew hard. “You are doing this to humiliate me,” she said. He shook his head again.
Then her face softened and she began to cry. She picked his hands up again and stroked them while
tears ran down her cheeks. “My poor love,” she said then. “My poor, poor love. Don’t worry, I will take care of you until we drive out whatever this horrible thing is that has possessed you. I will care for you as if you were one of
my own little babies.” With that, she pressed her sweet-smelling breast against him and laid her head on his shoulder so that her perfumed hair was directly under his nose. She lay and sobbed softly while he closed his eyes in resignation.
* * *
Wu’s approaching footsteps. They were particularly eloquent today; he could read them as clearly as words shouted in his ear: brisk, tapping, full of self-important exuberance, with an underlayer of unswerving, uncompromising, single-minded intent. He
also detected a note of incongruous cheer. Was it her intent that created her impatience, or did her impatience give rise to her intent? It was a riddle he had pondered often. The answer was no clearer to him now than it had ever been, but he could hear them
both now, seeking him out as unerringly as an arrow shot from the bow of the surest hunter.
He rolled to the side of the massive bed and let himself drop down to the floor in the narrow space next to the wall. He lay with his shoulder
tightly and comfortably wedged, smelling the dust in the carpet and enjoying the odd perspective of the bed and the carved ceiling as seen from this unusual vantage point, and thought that this would be a good place to lie forever.
held himself very still as he heard the door open. Her presence immediately filled the room. It was not that she was making a lot of obvious noise, or that her perfume was strong, or that she was breathing hard; it was nothing so obvious as that. It was her
intent, tangible and palpable as something alive, that actually displaced the air so that he could feel it pressing against him. At that moment, he decided that it was her intent that came first, then her impatience. He closed his eyes and waited.
He heard the bed creak and the quilts rustle. He sensed the moment when he was no longer alone, when he could feel himself being looked at. He opened his eyes; her face was directly above him, looking over the side of the bed, her dark eyes steady
and calm and fathomless.
They regarded each other for a long time. Presently, she moved back out of sight; the next thing he knew, she was pulling the bed farther away from the wall, making more space. Then she came across the bed again
and lowered herself down into his hiding place with him. He did not move. She nestled against him wordlessly, her face in his neck so that he could feel her breath.
“You know, of course, that it was I that they meant to kill,”
she said finally, her mouth right next to his ear. “My poor sister is a heroine. She stood in their way, and took the blow for me. I am devastated. Who would want to kill me? Who? I am so afraid!” She tightened her arms around him. “Let us
stay right here together forever. We will hide, and no one will ever find us.” She put a leg over him as she spoke, drawing it up slowly so that it moved along his thighs toward his midsection. She let it rest there for a moment, then began to move it
gently back and forth.
He was aware of her concentrating, her attention focused on his groin, feeling for his response. When she found nothing, no answering movement of his flesh, she deftly pulled up his robe and opened his silk trousers
so that her bare leg, the silky inner surface of her thigh, moved against him now.
She did this for several minutes, varying the pressure, her tongue in his ear or on his neck. He held himself perfectly still. I am a dead king, he thought
to himself. I have been lying in my tomb for three thousand years. It has been so long since I have seen the sun or heard another voice or sniffed the air on a summer morning that I cannot remember any of it at all. All I know is darkness, vague memories of
faces, and the dank walls of my tomb.
He felt her hands on him, squeezing and kneading his limp flesh. Then her mouth and tongue, resolutely demanding that he rise. A dead king in his tomb, with no memory, no desires, he thought.
She was working with fierce determination now. She had pulled up her gown and was astride him, then moving down to use her mouth again, caressing him with her tongue, raking him ever so gently with her teeth, then her tongue again. She rubbed, squeezed,
licked, tickled, and caressed, even tried to press him into her body by force. But there was nothing. He opened his eyes and looked down, and saw her holding what looked like a drowned snake, flaccid and useless as his dead arm had been on the morning of the
seizure. The look on her face was one of pure revulsion as she gazed down on the ugly thing in her hand.