Chapter 1

“What are you doing?” she says.

“I’m writing down everything you say and do,” I say.

“Why?” she says.

“Because I’ve never seen such a display of martial ability. You are truly a hero of the age. I will record your story so it may spread across the land,” I say.

“Whatever,” she says.

She stands there.

She looks at me.

“What are you writing now? I’m not doing anything,” she says.

“I’m writing that too,” I say.

She wipes her sword clean on the sleeve of one of the dead bandits at her feet.

She examines the blade. It is a standard straight sword without military markings. It’s covered in small scratches and there is something about the light at its edge that makes me want to check my throat. It seems weightless in her hand. She appears satisfied with the state of the thing and tucks it into a rather nice sheathe that hangs from her belt.

She pulls the dead coachman from the carriage. She kicks a dead bandit off its roof. She removes the dead passengers from the interior. We are the only survivors of the bandit attack.

She places the money and valuables of bandit and passenger alike into a sack. Anything like food goes in another.

She boards the coach and takes up the reins.

The horses bristle but only for a moment.

“What are you doing?” she asks.

“I’m coming with you,” I say.

“No you’re not,” she says.

“But I must!” I say.

“Not my problem,” she says.

“How else will I be able to chronicle your heroics?” I say.

“Ah. You think I have some fighting ability?” she asks.

“In all my days I’ve never seen swordplay as yours! It is as incomparable as the light of the sun to the light of mere candles!” I say quite poetically.

“Then we agree I have some talent,” she says. The tip of her sword is at my neck and I have no idea how it got there. “And we agree I could kill you now with the smallest flick of my wrist. Are you more trouble than the smallest flick of my wrist?”

“Possibly. But would it not be a waste of your wrist to flick it at me?” I say.

She considers it. The sword does not move from my throat. It’s difficult to write with a sword at your throat. I am persevering.

“You’re still writing,” she says.

“Yes. I just made note of it, actually,” I say.

“Fine. Keep quiet and stay out of my way.” The sword flashes back into its sheath. My powers of persuasion are not to be underestimated, reader. I am an accomplished scholar and know my way around an argument.

She snaps the reins and the carriage lurches forward. It’s difficult to hang on to my books and the ink and the brush and the carriage. She must have thought I was already settled. Regardless, I manage to hang on at a cost of only a few provisions. We can find more food I’m sure. Brush and ink enough to record the grand adventures of this heroic soul? Perhaps not!

What am I to say about her appearance? Tigers may be beautiful but that’s not why people talk about tigers. Her hair is unkempt as if her sword is also her barber. There are glimpses of battered leather armor under white robes turned gray from what I estimate to be a tremendous amount of travel. She moves with a martial grace that favors efficiency over elegance.

“What is your name?” I ask.

“I’m not going to sleep with you,” she says.

“I wouldn’t expect it. Your skill betrays the great deal of internal yin energy you’ve cultivated,” I say, showing the depth of my knowledge of these matters. Which is considerable by the way. “My own yang energy, while nothing to scoff at, let me tell you no complaints in that department, could not hope to compare! There are many daoist texts on the topic of copulation. Remarkably many. And yet the Academy’s library could scarcely keep them on the shelves. Regardless, the texts continually warn to avoid couplings that involve too great a disparity between internal energies.”

She rubs her temple. It must be a vital point. No doubt the wulin is full of warriors who have to regularly massage and channel their excess internal energies or else cause their own selves harm!

“Please be quiet,” she says.

“What is it? Do you hear more bandits?” I say.

“Sure,” she says.

I listen as hard as I can.

All I can hear is the carriage and the horse and the brush of this writing. But then my ears aren’t trained for this kind of thing! Who am I to doubt the honed senses of a hero?

“Are you always going to be writing?” she asks.

“I’m making a full and complete record of your adventures as they unfold!” I say. She appears unimpressed, but then these warrior types always look like that. “It’s a literary first,” I say.

“That’s terrific,” she says.

“You never answered my question,” I say.

“How rude of me,” she says.

She is silent.

Still silent.

Ah! She’s forgotten the question and obviously she would lose face to ask me to repeat it. I will oblige her.

“I asked your name,” I say.

She snorts. Or maybe it was a laugh.

“They’re calling me Jingwei these days,” she says.

The wulin are known for their flashy names but this is something else entirely.

“After the legendary bird that toils to fill up the sea but will never succeed?”

“No, after the tax consultant.”

I believe this is wulin humor.

“I’m Gao Wenshi,” I say.

“Didn’t ask,” she says.

“Where are we headed?” I say.

“We are headed nowhere,” she says.

“I hadn’t considered the question in those terms, but the wulin must be a fatalistic bunch come to think of it,” I say.

She rubs at her temple again. What a strain it must be to contain all those energies!

“Not what I mean,” she says. “I’m taking the carriage the rest of the way to Wuwei and leaving it there. With you.”

I’ve read enough about the wulin to know their method of refusing a request three times before they will grant it. It is a mere formality. A ritual that allows both parties to demonstrate their sincerity.

“I won’t slow you down,” I say.

“I know,” she says, ”because you’ll be staying in Wuwei.” That’s number two!

“Ah, but if I don’t stay with you, then your deeds will disappear. At the Academy we say nothing is real until it is written. A stroke of my brush will make your accomplishments live forever!”

She is mulling on it.

“Ain’t spent much time in the real world, have you, Gao?” she says.

I am amazed she deduced this so readily. But! Members of the wulin are known to possess a preternatural talent to assess one’s character. Indeed, it’s a matter of survival in their harsh world.

“It’s true that my entire life until this point was spent inside the walls of the Hanlin Academy, first studying for the civil service exam, then as an adjunct professor of history.” I say. “But thanks to the library’s wide array of books and pamphlets, I have no lack of understanding about the ways of the world!”

“Ha,” she says. “Leave it to a scholar to think what he’s read in books is more real than deeds.”

“Every dynasty has kept copious accounts of its policies and current events so future generations may learn from them. We know nothing of events that are not passed down in histories, therefore those events may as well never happened,” I say.

“Well said, Gao.”

I rather agree.

“So it makes no difference whether or not I remove your head,” she says.

“Um,” I say. My throat goes quite dry.

“A hundred years from now you’ll be dead either way,” she says. “And if no one records your beheading, then it’s the same as if it never happened.”

“Well. You see. Uh.” I am stammering. I had not expected this much philosophy from a swordswoman! “Of course unrecorded deeds themselves may be fleeting, but their consequences can be felt through the ages!”

“Uh-huh,” she says.

I think this means she won’t kill me.

Did her threat count as the third refusal? I could ask but it strikes me as an excellent time to keep the conversation to a minimum.

I will organize my notes.

~~~

Day Two

No more martial exploits but we counted up the money. Just shy of three taels all told.

Perhaps you’re wondering what an adjunct professor of the Institute of the Veneration of History is doing in a humble carriage with a deadly swordswoman trekking across Gansu which is so very far from the hallowed halls of Hanlin Academy and the Imperial City where he most certainly belongs.

As with all things it is the will of Heaven.

The Wanli Emperor rules by moral authority derived from Heaven; He proclaims Imperial Edicts in accordance with universal moral truth; and the Edicts, in turn, are enacted by the Court and all subordinate members of government. An Edict declared it was time for a new Imperial Encyclopedia, we are calling it The Great Record of Wanli, and it fell upon the scholars of the Institute of the Veneration of History to make it so.

The Great Record must be written. I, a mere man, dare not to place my will above that of Heaven’s. And so here I am, Little Gao Wenshi, plunging into the frontier to chronicle the people and places therein. That duty now necessarily includes recording the exploits of this Jingwei at least so long as she remains in Gansu.

You might think it strange that such a large, dangerous, and inhospitable region was left to me alone. But I dare say it is a testament to my colleagues’ belief in my ability!

~~~

Preface