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  • Jennifer Mueller

Free Read To the Ends of the Earth

This is something I wrote a very long time ago, once it had come out in Women of their time, an anthology of a number of short stories I wrote years and years ago.

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To the Ends of the Earth China 1376

The sun was turning the buildings golden yellow in the cold air of the setting sun. Beyond they could see the high rugged mountains capped with snow. The Great Wall and the mountains forced them to leave the wide-open countryside and file through the funnel at the pass. It was the only way through the mountains. Behind them stretched some thirty carts, a caravan ready to leave the empire and reach the lands to the west to sell their goods and bring back others. Chang was a rich man, but despite that he still made the trips dressed as any other merchant. Mercenaries rode with them to guard against thieves. “There it is, my friends, the impregnable defile under heaven, the fort at the Jiayuguan Pass. We’ve made it to the end of the empire. Beyond lies nothing.” His listeners, the only woman in the party and her escort, were grinning. “Save us the melodrama, Chang.” Chang laughed, but there was no amusement in it. “Don’t think it’s all boasting. Only part of it is.” He winked and started the horse moving again. Chang spoke with the guards at the Gate of Enlightenment and soon they were admitted to the fort. The more than thirty foot high walls were forbidding and stark. “You didn’t say you had a woman with you,” the guard at the door said as the horse passed by. By the look he gave her, up and down, it wasn’t against the rules, only unexpected. The mercenary stepped in between him and the woman. The soldier at the gate lifted his eyes to the newcomer, his eyes had to keep going. Her protector was far taller than he was and carried the bearing of a man that dealt with all the problems that came up without worry. The fact was only multiplied since his width blocked the sun as it set over the walls and illuminated the arrows’ fletching that stuck out of the quiver over his right shoulder. He took the woman’s arm and led her away, out of the gaze of the men. Word of the woman had spread though; they could see heads turning from the wall as they passed. The door to the room was closed quickly to get her away from prying eyes. Chang had negotiated for her to have a room of her own next to his while the rest of the party would share a barracks. The woman’s escort looked around before he visibly relaxed. Juan Ning collapsed on the bed. “I thought we would never get here.” “Now that you’re safely installed, my lady, I should leave you to rest.” Shaozu replied. The knock at the door made him jump. “Juan Ning, are you coming to get some supper?” Chang called out from behind the door. “I think I’m enjoying being off that cart and not thinking of sleeping on the ground. I’ll go find something later,” Juan Ning answered, removing her shoes. “Have you seen Shaozu? I can’t seem to find him anywhere?” Chang asked. “I think I heard him mention a chore he had to get done before we leave.” The same escort Shaozu grinned at Juan Ning. “He knows we are a few days here. Oh well, he has been nothing but conscientious with his work. A few hours to himself are warranted. I’ll see you later then.” Shaozu whispered so he wasn’t heard, “So what chore are you sending me on this time?” “It’s been weeks since we’ve been alone and once we enter the desert, it will be weeks before we are alone again. Come, forget your duties until we leave here.” He couldn’t help but smile as he pushed closed the latch on the door and pulled the curtain closed. “So how much did this room cost you?” The heavy clothes that protected against the cold of winter were removed to reveal badges of red cloth that denoted company and corps. He was a soldier or had been. “I batted my eyes and said I would just die if I didn’t have some privacy for a proper bath.” “You’re a wicked woman.” Shaozu muttered as he began to pull her clothes off and she was naked to the waist. Juan Ning kissed him tenderly. “How can you say such things? I married you, did I not?” “You must have a redeeming quality or two in there somewhere then? I’ll have to see if I can find them without all these clothes to block my looking.” Juan Ning couldn’t muffle the giggle as he started tickling her. * * * * It was dark when they emerged, though with visitors in the fort there was more activity than there usually would’ve been. The guards on the walls of the fort were changing and men on their horses moved up and down the ramps that led to the top. The Great Wall may have continued past the Fort, but it was the last bastion of civilization on the route to the West. A little scared, Juan Ning pulled him closer to her as they walked. “It will be all right. We’ll be safe enough with Chang.” “We’ve to get out of here first,” she muttered as a soldier passed them. They both knew the danger they were putting themselves in by staying at the fort, but entrusting themselves to the desert alone was suicide. “Hush, no one will know unless they hear you talking like that. If your feet had been bound, we might as well have gone into the desert and starved to death.” She pushed him away with a grin. “Now you hush.” “Ah, there you are, Shaozu. Some of the other men were looking for you. There’s some gambling going on with the soldiers. They lost some money and they want you to win it back for them,” Chang called as they passed. “Then show me the way.” Juan Ning followed. There was little else to do in the fort unless perhaps the theatre had some performers to occupy their time. The men all stood up nervously when they saw Juan Ning enter. That was until Juan Ning bent down at the game of chance. “So what is the bet?” The men started laughing and joking as they settled back to their games. Juan Ning won all their money back, not Shaozu. * * * * “Where on earth did you learn that? Not from your governess,” Shaozu muttered as they finally went to look for something to eat. “Ah, the things we women with unbound feet can get away with in clothes beneath our station. No one even notices me walking on the street.” He looked over at the woman that many considered the most beautiful in the kingdom. “I find that very hard to believe.” “Well, no one ever thinks me to be a lady of the upper class, let’s put it that way.” Shaozu leaned his mouth near her ear. “When no one is around, remind me to find out all about these little exploits of yours and why I never found out before.” Her eyes twinkled more beautiful than any jewel could have. “My charms must have been blinding you. My attributes have been there all along, besides you were guarding me. Do you think I would let you in on my secrets so I could no longer sneak out on your watch? As my father always said delicate flowers are easily crushed.” Shaozu laughed. “No one would accuse you of being a weed.” “A hearty flower is what I strive for. . .” “Ah, there you are, Juan Ning!” Chang called as they found the eating hall. “Come and sit with us. This is Colonel Xing, the commander of the fort. He said he wanted to meet the woman in our party. They get so few coming this way after all.” Shaozu tensed. It was a reaction only Juan Ning perceived. “Do you know him?” She whispered under her breath as he helped her remove her coat. “He was my commander some ten years ago. I never actually said a word to him though. I don’t think he would recognize me.” They moved forward and sat down. There was no way around it now. “Colonel, you’ve a lovely fort.” Juan Ning said politely. Xing laughed heartily. “Trust a woman to call it lovely. I’ve always thought it was impressive only in size, not lovely at all and it’s too far from my family.” “Well it’s that. We’ve been on the road for weeks already and we’ve not yet made it through the desert.” Xing looked her over carefully. “May I ask why you’re taking this trip then?” “Seeing to my father’s interests. He fell ill, and his cargo - though small compared to the esteemed Chang’s - needs to be sold to pay for the doctors if nothing else. I only hope I can make a good enough deal so that we’ll have something extra to live on.” “But that will be years before you’ve returned!” Xing exclaimed at the thought of a woman making such a trip. “The worst is over. It’s only that we owe them a great deal now. They are keeping my home as surety against my return. Father is too weak to make the journey, I’ve no brothers, and my other sisters are far too young to make such a trip.” “Then it’s lucky that he has someone to make the dangerous trip for him. Such duty for a beautiful young woman to be undertaking for her father, but your safety on this caravan of men must surely be hard to secure?” “I don’t think it is.” Shaozu murmured his hand resting on his sword. Juan Ning’s hand rested on her husband’s and she lied easily. “My old family friend has offered his services on the journey for just that task.” Xing looked over at him and flinched a little as the two newcomers were served their food. Shaozu wasn’t a man one would wish to meet face to face in a battle. He was handsome, but with a lethal streak that was most evident. “With perhaps the hand of the maiden he’s to protect as payment?” Shaozu grinned devilishly. “They didn’t have to make the offer twice.” Xing laughed as the talk turned to other topics. He had to admit his guest was most gracious, as well as beautiful, even if obviously not of noble birth by the fact that her feet were not bound. When her protector smiled, his looks changed. He seemed quite like all of the men that were serving at the Fort. “Shall I show you around my lovely fort when you’re finished eating? I get so few to entertain here.” “We would be delighted, Colonel.”

Chang escorted Juan Ning back to her room after they had finished the tour as Shaozu saw to the horses for the evening. It was late by then and the noises of life had quieted. “I’ve never seen the Colonel so expansive before. I usually get ten minutes out of him and he’s gone. I think that only has to do with the fact that I’m wealthy.” Juan Ning chuckled. “Women have their secrets, even common ones.” “He’s going to be waiting for your return no matter how long it takes us to return, even if he knows you’re promised to Shaozu. He may go to your father in the time you’re gone and arrange things so you come back to a new betrothed. I wouldn’t become too attached to your protector.” Juan Ning chuckled. “He’s welcome to try, Chang. He’s welcome to try.” “Your father is a man of his word, is he? You sound certain of where to put your affection.” She smiled knowingly, far too knowingly for what Chang knew of the girl. “Something like that.” Chang laughed. “You always surprise me, Juan Ning. Sometimes you’re as common as my men and at other times, you’re as proper as the Emperor’s daughter.” “Am I going to come back and find that you’ve sent your agents to my father as well?” “If you keep talking like that, I just might.” They rounded the corner and Juan Ning’s laugh stopped abruptly. It was dark in the corridor that led to their rooms. Juan Ning dropped to the ground and pulled on Chang just in time to keep the club from hitting his head. “What in the Emperor’s name is going on? Guards!” He screamed. It was loud enough that everyone in the fort heard it. The guards on the wall were yelling in answer as they came running. The attackers started to slip back into the darkness, but one stopped suddenly as Juan Ning kicked out catching him in the knees. He hit the ground hard screaming in pain. Shaozu suddenly stepped into the faint light with a hand on the others’ throat. “Are you all right?” Shaozu asked of Chang, but his eyes only cared about the one woman in the fort. Chang patted his massive robe feeling all the pockets. “The Colonel should keep a better eye on his men. They could have robbed me blind. How did anyone know that I was carrying the entire purse I have to buy new wares?” The Colonel came careening around the corner with several men. “I don’t think that anyone did know.” Juan Ning whispered. “What? Then what were they after if not my hard earned money?” “At the ends of the earth, there are things rarer than money.” Colonel Xing muttered keeping a close eye on Juan Ning as she was helped up. His men took the two into custody and they were escorted to the brig. “Thank goodness you were on your way back, Shaozu, or this might have been a bad evening for whoever the target was.” Chang, in the dark, seemed to have no idea who had pulled him out of harm’s way. Juan Ning’s look was all it took for Shaozu to claim all the credit for the foiling of the attack. “Thank you, sir. I’ll see Juan Ning back to her room then. It may be best though if we leave in the morning instead of waiting. Your money would be the safer for it.” “I think you may be right. A sound precaution. I’ll let the others know we leave in the morning.” They watched Chang leave with the soldiers. Xing took hold of Juan Ning’s hand. “I’m so sorry that you’re not safe here. As it has been said, we get very few women coming through here.” He knew what the attack had been about and it had nothing to do with money. “It’s not your fault, Colonel. I know the ways of soldiers.” “That is perhaps best if you’re going to marry a man like your protector. You were a soldier once, were you not?” Xing looked up at Shaozu with a questioning eye. That look told him there was no use lying. Trying to deny it would’ve just made him suspicious. “Yes, sir. I actually served under you at one time, many years ago. I was little more than a skinny boy at the time, so I don’t expect you would recognize me.” “No, I never would’ve thought that I knew you once.” “We never actually talked, sir. I just watched you walk by and quaked in my boots.” Xing laughed. “It must have been a long time ago then if you were scared of me. Now why do you not get her back to her room and see she’s safe from any more attacks until you depart.” “Thank you.” Xing left them standing in the dark passage. Shaozu picked Juan Ning up around the waist. She was forced to stare him in the eyes as he carried her to the room. “How did you know they were there?” He murmured in her ear. She started kissing his neck; he had yet to let her down, and his concentration wasn’t the most focused at that moment. “Frankly, after five weeks of sharing a caravan with fifty men, I can smell you at thirty paces, and you’re far cleaner than most.” Shaozu’s concentration suddenly left him altogether. * * * * The caravan departed as the sun rose over the walls of the fort. They were moving fast. Chang was eager to get to the west and empty his purse of the money he had. That he would have thirty or so carts of goods and a purse full of the profits that could be stolen on the return journey didn’t seem to cross his mind. * * * * Three days later, on the day before the caravan had originally planned to leave the fort, soldiers came riding hard up to the gate. “Open up.” The one in front yelled with authority. Colonel Xing came out at being told of his visitors. “General Qui-li, it’s a great pleasure to meet you finally. I’m most humble in your presence.” The man dismounted from his white imperial stallion and Xing was reminded of the guest that had just left. The general was a tall, muscular man even though he was well into his fifties. “I don’t have time for this. We are to set up a trap and catch them as they come through. No one is to let it be known that I’m here.” “Catch who, sir?” “My daughter, of course.” “You need so many men to catch one girl?” “Don’t second guess me. I’ve been after her for six months now. Disappeared on the way to the temple with the guard I trusted with the job of delivering her to her wedding.” The minute the words were out of his mouth Xing had a bad feeling about the woman he had just met. “What does he look like?” General Qui-li’s head snapped in his direction. “When did she come through?” He roared. “I don’t know that she did, sir. There was a woman traveling with the trader Chang who had a man taking very good care of her. She was beautiful, but of no great distinction that I would probably be able to tell from a description. She looked like every other beautiful woman I’ve seen.” “The man, he’s built similar to me, handsome like a devil and hard edged. He was a soldier through and through.” “Then yes sir, they came through here. They were to have been here still except that there was an attack by some of my men. . .” “What!” “She’s fine, sir. As I said, the man was guarding her very closely. She wasn’t harmed as much as a lost hair. Chang thought they were after his purse and he left to keep it safe.” “How long ago?” “Three days.” “Then we can still catch them. Men!” Qui-li yelled. “Sir, if you will. Chang is a wily man. He didn’t get to be as rich as he is without some help. I’ve never seen him approach the fort from the same direction, he never makes a planned route so that he can be predicted and ambushed and he’ll be twice as cautious after the attack. He’ll be hard to find and he has friends along the way.” The curses filled the fort and an Imperial sword buried itself into the corner of the wall above Xing’s head. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?” “I only know the border. I’ve been sitting here for four years. If the barbarians see this large a force take off into the desert, it may very well invite attacks thinking it’s insufficiently manned.” “And what guarantee is that of my daughter’s safety in those conditions. If anyone is going to kill her, it’s going to be me.” “Chang has probably bribed every band between here and the west. She’ll be safe enough.” A roar filled the cold air of the mountains and echoed into the oblivion that lay beyond the impregnable defile under heaven. “Sir, if her feet had been bound, I would’ve perhaps thought something odd and detained her until her identity could be confirmed. As it was, no one thought anything odd about her being here with the story she told. Why was she not bound as a child?” Qui-li looked over at him and he seemed far older than he had only moments ago. “Her mother died giving birth and I suppose after so many years of war, I had seen what destruction was done in war when a woman couldn’t even walk across the room without help. She was left unbound on my order.” “Was she taught to defend herself as well? She didn’t seem all that disturbed at having two men come after her.” Qui-li turned on him. “I’m sorry, sir. It’s not my place to ask.” The anger fell away. “She can shoot the bow out of the hand of an enemy at a full gallop and could overcome most enemies hand to hand. The guard she disappeared with was the best solider I’ve ever commanded. He single handed led an attack on the Tatars that drove them back and has kept them back from its ferocity for years now. That is why I go after them with this number of men.” He sank onto a bench. “And that is why I don’t go after them now that I know that the men they are with are so hard to find. They know that I’m looking for them. They’ll use every trick they’ve learned to increase the odds against us. Damn them.” “Who was she to marry?” “The damn bitch fled a match the Emperor insisted on and the Emperor will have my head on a platter if I don’t return with her. The bastard is not fit to be called a man, but his father needs to be kept happy as he has large lands. You’ve met her. Does it look as if I would have trouble finding her a husband without men going to the Emperor to demand it?” Qui-li stood and swept away his feathers of office, his cloak flying in the fury of his actions. * * * * The knock on the door was soft and Qui-li’s voice was quiet when he bid entry. The single lamp cast barely enough light to allow Xing to see the man in the corner. Qui-li was an old soldier, there was no doubt about that. His hair had turned grey long before, but there was a humanity to him that had not been there in his rage earlier. He was a father who had lost his child. “Yes, Colonel Xing, what can I do for you? You wish to leave this post most likely. Show me your record and I’ll see what I can do.” “Actually I was thinking that perhaps I could help you.” “In exchange for what?” “Your daughter was a most enjoyable woman to meet. The contradictions that I saw in her are now explained with finding out who her father is. Perhaps I wish to see her with the man that I saw made her very happy. The way she looked at him was enough to tell me that.” Qui-li growled. “If you’re not going to help me find her, what help can you be?” “Am I right in believing that the main reason you wish to catch her is so that you stay out of trouble with the Emperor?” “She’s my only child.” His answer only made Xing firmer in his belief that his idea would work. “Did the groom ever see her?” “No, but if you’re thinking of switching someone for her, that thought occurred to me, but as you know her feet are unbound and no peasant is going to fool the bastard, no matter how pretty she is.” “Does he know about her skill at arms?” Qui-li snorted having a hard time holding back the laughter. “Even the Emperor would never have been able to marry her off if that was the case.” “I’ve a niece who is most beautiful, delicate, and schooled in the arts of noble women. She’s also a vain, materialistic, self centered, gold digging cat. I’m a self-made man, General, my family is not of high birth, her feet are therefore unbound. My sister married above her station and now her daughter is aiming for the same; for a house full of silks and beads of coral, she would give her soul. Why should she not change her name as well? If this fellow is as unworthy of your daughter as you say, it sounds as if he would deserve a wife such as that. The only problem with this is if anyone he knows would’ve met Juan Ning.” Qui-li’s eyes had narrowed to small slits. Suddenly his laughter filled the room. “Name it and it’s yours, Xing, promotion, land, money.” “Sir, I told you my reason for offering this solution.” “I don’t quite think you have.” He looked over at the Colonel with a grin. “Sergeant, bring me some rice wine.” He bellowed. “How do I find your niece?” “Then no one has seen her?” “She grew up more in an Army camp than she did in a city. But she was schooled in the arts of women as well, she can even read and write. Not even the Emperor has ever met her before.” “I’ve leave due me. I can take you to her and explain the situation.” “You’ve double that, enjoy the visit. You would really do this for a woman you’ve known all of a day?” “Most likely if you don’t approve of a man, then he’s probably just the sort of man to give my niece what she deserves.” Qui-li laughed. “Even if it’s giving her what she wants?” “It will be a prison whether her feet are unbound or not. He’ll lock her in a room and she’ll rarely see the light of day. That is where women who get my son killed over vanity belong.” Qui-li nodded. That sounded more like a reason why he would do this. After he told of the chase she led him on and the indecencies she perpetrated, after the wedding was over of course, she would never see the light of day. The rice wine arrived and glasses were poured. Qui-li toasted him before he drank. “What do you really think of Shaozu as a match for your daughter?” Xing asked. “She may be a General’s daughter and could have a husband from the cream of the empire, but I could never put her in the prison you demand for your niece. Shaozu was never going to be a General, he cared too little about politics, but he was always the man you sent when you needed something done well or something dangerous. Plays hard, drinks hard, but he works even harder and he loves my daughter as if it will make him explode if he’s not with her. I think if the Emperor had not intervened, they’d have married anyway. I found the priest that married them too if I had any doubts.” Xing just about choked on his drink. “You’ve been chasing them for six months and you knew that even before they left?” Qui-li grinned. “I’m her father, not blind. I assigned him to take her to the temple figuring they’d need to say goodbye. It never really crossed my mind that I’d have to chase them to the ends of the earth. I should’ve known that neither of them are ones to give up something that is perfect. They are too independent.” “Then a toast to your daughter and son-in-law.” The wine in their glasses was gone when Qui-li looked up at his guest. “Is there any way to get a message to them? I should like to see my daughter again when all this has died down. Perhaps I could even bring her back as a niece or illegitimate daughter and they can inherit my property as they should.” Xing grinned having to admit that he could probably have told him where to find her only hours earlier. “There are some places where I can leave messages for Chang that he may visit on the way there or on the way back. It may be a few years before the latter happens, but you’ll see them again.” “I trust you know more than you’re saying and I don’t want to know. The day I see her you’ll receive your promotion. I’ll retire soon. How does General sound to you?” Xing’s eyes widened. “Sir!” “Now I need to get some sleep if we are going find your niece. I’m no longer a young man and six months on campaign has tired me out even if it was only after my own daughter.” With a smile Xing slipped out, the end of the earth sometimes gave him more satisfaction than a position guarding the Emperor himself.

#china #freeread #greatwallofchina #fiction

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