The omen

Lu Buwei, Lord Wen Xin, ex-prime minister of the realm, retired merchant, and birthfather of the king sat in the ornate pavilion in the middle of a large hourglass-shaped lily pond. His position provided a serene vista of the manicured flower garden, the small manmade hill and the rippling waters of the coy filled pond. Peace reigned in the placid surrounding, a sharp contrast to his inner turmoil.

The idyllic surrounding used to provide relief from the rigors of the affairs of the state. Now it was a painful reminder of his past glory. But what was he to do? For a man used to running the affairs of a great kingdom, whose mere sneer sent men trembling in fear, he was bored to the edge of insanity. He wanted to remain significant, to be in charge, and to feel the sensations of power and influence. He tried to manage his own household, but soon realized the irrelevant issues of the manor mundane. Besides, his staff did a better job without him getting in their ways.

He missed the excitement, the heart-pounding rush of a major political coup; surprisingly, he even missed the intricacies of court intrigue. If he thought there was a possibility of a recall to the court, he would be on his knees and begging for the opportunity; but he knew the king jealously guarded his power, and would not willingly summon him, the Royal Uncle, to the court. Because, the malicious rumor regarding the king’s lineage could resurface to undermine his authority; however, while one lived there always was hope.

A movement overhead brought his attention up in time to spy a giant white crane swoop down and scooped up one of his precious golden-red carps. The sight of the elegant bird made his heart soar; it brought back memories of days gone by. Perhaps it was an omen for the things to come. Did he not see a great crane in the sky on that fateful day when he made the fateful pact with Prince Ei Ren? The pact that transformed him from a lowly merchant to a great lord. His daydreaming was interrupted by a servant, “Master, an envoy from the royal palace is here.”

His head spun and his heart raced, could this be the good word that he had been waiting for? Was it a summons to the court, as foretold by the omen of the great white crane he had just seen? “Who is it? Do you recognize him?”

“It’s the prime minister, Master.”

“Bring him to the study.” Let’s do it right this time, Lord Wen Xin crossed the bridge in lengthy strides to meet Li Shi – a former retainer, recent colleague and potential future political rival in the days to come. His head swam at the veritable possibilities of a return to power.

In the study, surrounded by the scrolls that were his legacy, he was ready to resume the mantle of power. He rose as the visitor entered the room. The Prime Minister formally bowed to his former patron and benefactor, “Lord Wen Xin, please excuse my unannounced arrival. The King ordered me to deliver this message to you personally.”

Lu returned the bow but was taken aback by the somber formality of the visitor. “Bring tea,” the host temporized as he gave the order to the servant. After a moment of silence, he inquired, “What is the message?”

Li Shi reached into his sleeve and brought out a golden silk scroll, tied with a white silk ribbon and presented it with two hands to the host. The golden silk scroll represented the authority of the king, but the white ribbon had the bloodless connotation of bereavement. Lord Wen Xin reached with hesitant hands to accept the scroll then pulled on the butterfly knot of the ribbon.

‘You had offended and betrayed your King by introducing the traitor Lao Ay into the royal court. You are hereby sentenced to death.

In view of your past service to my honored father, you shall be permitted to die with your body intact.

The Prime Minister Li Shi will officiate over your execution.’

Lu recognized the thick bold strokes that decreed his doom, the very same writing style he had tutored his flesh and blood son. The boy must have written the edict himself in private. He slowly rolled up the scroll, retrieved the ribbon and tied it neatly then laid it on the low table. After a momentary hesitation he nodded, “Yes, that is the king’s personal handwriting. I recognize and accept the edict.”

Li Shi nodded then reached into his sleeve a second time and withdrew a small black wooden box then placed it next to the silk scroll.

Still in a daze, Lord Wen Xin at first did not recognize the box. His hands reached out and slid the lid off via its grooved guides. Inside, a white porcelain bottle painted with an elegant red-crowned crane. Finally, it registered – the Red Crown of the Crane, the most deadly potion of the land. He’d dispatched many of his spies with the very same potion for use in foreign lands.

Dittoed again by the evil of his own making, he thought and felt the fickle touch of the gods. Lu smiled wistfully. So, it appeared that he had misread the omen of the white crane earlier. He was not the elegant bird; he was the unfortunate carp that got scooped up by the bird. Then he remembered, the god messenger crane he saw so many years ago was black, the color of greatness; whereas the crane he saw at the pond was white, the emissary of death.

Li Shi’s eyes widened at his predecessor’s facial expression. The man must be mad, or very brave; to be able to face imminent death with a smilethis is a man worth emulating.

Lu shifted his eyes away from the instrument of his own death, “I am sure you realize the hazardous and addictive nature of our profession. A good many of us do not die a peaceful death. Just look at our predecessors. Yang, the Duke Sang, who established the political and military system that made Ch’in the powerful nation of today was drawn and quartered by his king.

“Bai Chi, the Duke Wu An, the Butcher, and the hero of Chang-Ping. He destroyed armies, killed over a million foes, tripled the size of this kingdom then was forced to commit suicide by his master.

“As did my predecessor Fan Sui; then you saw what happened to Lao Ay and Arbe Wilkins, and now me. Chances are you too will not retire in peace.

“I could have retired and gone home, but one always held on to the hope of returning to power. And now…”

Lord Wen Xin fell silent and his eyes acquired a faraway look. His mind went back to that fateful day two dozen years ago when he made the pact with the then Prince Ei Ren. Images of the sensuous Zhao Ghi, loyal Chang Chung, toothy Old Han, pompous Gong-Sun Chien and the lovely Madam Li floated through his mind. Of those half-dozen souls, only Zhao Ghi, his lowly concubine, survived. Who would ever have foreseen the most insignificant figure of that cast ended up as the big winner, the queen-mother of the realm?

He weighted his losses against the gains and smiled again at the returns on his investment. For a handful of gold, he reaped riches, power, and a legacy that his ancestors would be proud of, not to mention a line of heirs to rule the most powerful kingdom under Heaven. Even his impending demise was a testament to his success. He had produced an heir that could be ruthless when required. Did he not teach the young man to watch for and eliminate potential threats to power? Emotional sentiment should never interfere with the ultimate goal – to survive, to defeat the foe and persevere. Yes, the boy had grown into a man. All things considered, it was a most profitable business deal, even if it had ultimately cost him his life.

Li Shi’s eyes watered at the host’s stoic smile. Lord Wen Xin reached with the right hand to pick-up the bottle from the box. He lifted the red crown of the bottle with his left hand then, in one smooth motion, drained the contents into his throat. With his broad sleeve, he dabbed away a residual drop of the liquid, replaced the top of the bottle and returned it into the wooden box then slid close the lid.

“Please tell the King, I’m proud of him.” With those final words, the merchant of Yang-Yi, the ex-Lord Wen Xin, the former prime minister of the great Ch’in kingdom, and birthfather of the First Emperor of China made a final payment on the greatest business deal under Heaven.

 

 

By Long Tang