The Kites of Ni Shen Xiao ~ Randy F. Nelson


The kitemaker prospered for a time. He lived in the mountains of Fu Lan province, on the crumbling edge of empire, where his shop was a marvel to all who passed. His kites, it was said, were so wondrously made that they required neither tether nor tail. No one could duplicate his skill. In the fall of each year the kitemaker would take down his wares and close up the shop as village children huddled around his stories and watched the fantastic flying creatures being dismantled and cocooned in their silken wraps. Then, with the first breath of spring, the sky above his shop would awaken once more. Red dragons, undulating serpents, golden lions, their teeth and talons glistening. Beneath these immortals flew all the shapes and colors of ordinary kites, some bound together in squadrons, others sporting pigtails as long as Wang Bo bridge. To the children of Fu Lan, it seemed as if demons in the upper air had gone mad with glee.

But seasons turn in cycles, and joy never lasts. In the middle reign of Emperor Ku, cruel winds brought drought into the high valley along with clouds of dust and despair. The western desert expanded. Fires burned through the dry forests below the snow line. Birds and animals began to disappear. Then, as if to prove that catastrophe never sleeps, a wasting illness brought death to the kitemaker’s wife. Some said that nomads were driving every form of disaster before them, like diseased cattle, as they fled their own parched lands. Who can know for certain? The truth of this world is that one tumbling stone provokes an avalanche, and in the end the poor kitemaker was forced to sell all that he had and flee. It was a wandering magician who offered to buy his last, most prized possession, a daughter named Ni Shen Xiao.

On this thin beginning all are agreed.

Imperial records do not mention the girl herself until the fourth year of Han and the construction of a spring palace at Bei Jiang. By that time the real Ni Shen Xiao would have been conflated with a dozen minor goddesses and other historical figures. Thus it is impossible to know her girlhood with any accuracy. In the few folk tales that come down from this period, she is inevitably beautiful and precocious as a child, often associated with birds or other winged creatures. Later, when pictured in traditional painting and tapestry, she will often have a Luna moth that flits near her shoulder. Occasionally there will be a stylized dragon or tiger at her feet, and these usually in the form of a kite. All the rest is conjecture. In some versions of the story the magician is kind and attentive during her long apprenticeship, in others heartless and forbidding. It makes no difference. Her early life was a jumble of contradiction. Sister, slave, orphan, apprentice, concubine, daughter. We long to know her; and she is either cheerful or pensive, dutiful or rebellious, according to our own imaginings. Like the modern kitefighters of Fu Lan, we want her image tattooed upon our arms. Even if we lack her courage with the knife.

In the western capital of Qin, a color-changing kite catches the eye of an ancient man. He knows there have been murmurings about his mind; but, still, he takes his ease, moving with slow ceremonial care. His knees ache. His robes hang loosely from his shoulders. Once or twice, he gazes upon the ten thousand gathered here in a country town, whose name he does not recall, in order to amuse the Son of Heaven. Dancers, musicians, contortionists, wild animals, magicians. Enough rippling banners to suggest a river running through the vast courtyard where his pavilion rests. Nude serving girls. The fluttering ministrations of his court. It all seems a dream to him that the greatest contortionists of all, his chancellors, have conjured up to obscure the collapsing ranks of his army. His bronze-clad soldiers that he once led. At some level he remembers them still. He takes his seat. Looks out upon the frantic throng. And what he sees is a kite.

Emperor Ku half-raises one hand, the fingers limp with meaning. The attendant chancellor falls immediately to his knees.

“What is it, Lord of all that lives?”

“Did I see? Just for a moment, there at the back. Close to the wall.”

The voice is like wind through dry willow leaves, and now the chancellor trembles. Of late, the old man’s every word and gesture have been riddles. “Only a god could see as you see, Royal Son of Heaven. Command me, and let me be your voice, your hands and feet.”

“Just there. Far to the back. It was blue. And then, without a human touch, it was gold. It changed, like a cloud passing before the sun.”

The chancellor looks and sees nothing resembling a cloud.

“Perhaps it was nothing,” says the emperor. “A trick of the light can fool the sharpest eyes, yes? Perhaps one was just imagining.”

The chancellor makes frantic signals with his hands. A silence falls. Every human body drops to one knee, places hands upon the ground. Still nothing meets the chancellor’s eye.

“There. It still flies. Just as when one was a boy. Bring it, master chancellor. And bring its wizard, that I might know its secret.”

Dear gods, protect us, the chancellor thinks. He descends into the smoke of roasting fires, the stench of bodies, wading like a man through shallow water. What insanity is this, that draws His rheumy eyes to gnats and moths and mites? The other chancellors gape. They watch their brother lord plowing through the mob, muttering to himself and cursing each time his sleeves touch one of the low born. They cannot conceive what moves the Holy One; and yet eventually here they are, culled from the crowd and thrown at the feet of divinity, another puzzle. It is a cowering magician, a worthless girl, and a kite.

“Ask how it is done,” prods the emperor.

Having still no idea of his lord’s intent, the chancellor can only bluster and pound his staff. He thunders into the magician’s face, “How is it done?! The Son of Heaven favors you with his downward glance.”

And now pity the poor magician who knows only that his life is at an end, for he has no answer to a question that has no meaning. He keeps his face to the floor and trembles.

But the chancellor, a keen interpreter at reading his master’s moods and ticks, at last discerns the old man’s interest. “The kite, you fool! Speak of its secrets!”

Still there is nothing the magician can say. The kite has been a decoration for his act, at most a distraction from the mechanics of his illusions. How could a kite enfold a secret? It has been made by a child. “Mighty Chancellor and Favored of Our Lord,” he begins, “in truth I know nothing of what you. . . . Rather, what I mean to say is . . . that. The kite . . . is . . . a kite.”

The chancellor well knows that peasant reasoning cannot enter the courts of the high and mighty. “Speak your lies again, magician, and no power in the universe can prevent the flesh being lifted from your face.” He leans low, next to the captive ear, and whispers. “I have seen men, believe me, who gave up the details of their own birth before He finished with them. So tell us something magical. Rather soon I suggest. Or he will scrape all our bones with flint.”

But it is the child who saves them.

Who would believe? A girl no less. With pigtails down to her waist and a crimson costume indistinguishable from the thousand others splotching the courtyard. “Grandfather,” she volunteers, “there’s no secret. Why, in my father’s shop. . . .”

The notables gasp. The chancellor stumbles back as if struck a blow, and the magician rounds himself into a ball. But the Ancient One seems amused.

“Speak, little flea. Tell all the world how blue becomes gold.”

Whether through ignorance of courtly custom or with the protection of the gods themselves or, as some versions have it, through a child’s simple desire to be loved, Shen speaks to the old man in a clear, high voice, as unmindful as a bird singing in the sun. She tells him of wax and string and paste and bamboo splints. Silken threads to tie the center staves. And boiling water whose steam will stretch the thinnest paper to be as tight as any drum. And paint made of yolk and golden foil.”

“How? How?!” interrupts the emperor. “I care nothing for the making of kites. How do you make the magic, you maddening child!”

But she hardly stops for breath. “The kite was always gold. Before letting out the string, I dusted it with powdered chalk. Blue, the bluest blue of night. Then the air itself lifted up my kite and blew the chalk away.”

The emperor claps his hands at the cleverness so plainly told. He has seen too many staged decapitations and disappearances, and he is pleased by such practical peasant engineering. “Too bad. Too bad,” he jokes. “One could use a bit of magic. But, too bad. The world is as it is. And one is not a boy again, flying kites. Still, lord chancellor, we might rest one day more in this place.”

A darkness falls upon the chancellor’s face. He bows his head and withdraws one step, and then another, until at last he’s invisible among the subtle throng.

Perhaps the emperor laughs, or perhaps he is coughing once again. Who can approach close enough to say? When he straightens up, he is muttering, “One day more. Yes. Will harm no one. And another kite, I think. A larger one. Like no other kite before. That’s what we’ll have. Yes. And, as you are a clever girl, I charge you to bring a clever kite. Tomorrow. But for tonight, my chancellors, give them what they need.”

Foolish girl, the magician thinks. Do you not know what you have done? To be blessed by an emperor is to be cursed by the gods.

All during the following day, the gōng rén work. They assemble a viewing stand and mark fabric and furl streamers on the ground. The paper panels of the new kite are sewn, tied, and folded according to patterns laid out by Ni Shen Xiao. Skilled artisans paint the designs. Carpenters construct a wooden spool that resembles a windlass on one of the emperor’s ships; then onto the revolving spool weavers wind a thousand paces of strong silk cord. Finally, toward dusk, a fire is lit, the emperor summoned, and, now how frail he seems. It looks to the girl as if he has been put together with sticks and string himself, as if the weakest gust of wind would lift him from the earth.

Any hint of breeze has died away. But instead of launching her kite by wind, Shen Xiao has directed the gōng rén to launch by fire. They hold a bronze funnel over the crackling flames and attach a leather tube which runs along the ground to the paper assemblage lying lifeless in the grass. First the girl and then one of her assistants nudges the tube or ruffles the paper parcel, but for long minutes nothing happens. Then a faint stirring, like a snake awakened in spring. A bulge, at first no more than a bubble of air, goes like something swallowed down the length of paper. A pleated corner rises from the ground. More prodding and adjustments. More air. A shape begins to insinuate itself, a canopy of sorts. In time it grows into a small diaphanous tent whose underside can now be held above the fire. A mushroom it becomes. Tethers and wooden poles hold it down as more wood is fed into the fire. Soon the blaze is roaring and the mysterious shape has doubled—a billowing inner sphere inside a translucent outer globe.

A soldier from one of the coastal provinces recognizes it first. “A jellyfish!” he cries. “A wave-rider for the evening sky.”

At a signal from the girl, all restraints are dropped; and the creature rises of its own accord until a single rope is all that holds it to the earth. Shen Xiao guides her unruly beast to the center of the meadow and spools out the line until she can lay it in the old man’s hand. “If you will, Your Majesty, give one sharp pull until this tether falls away.”

One pull, then two do nothing. A soldier named Li Chun is quickly summoned out of ranks and instructed to give a mighty heave, whereupon scores of crimson tentacles descend and a cascade of confetti falls upon all who’ve gathered in the meadow. The jellyfish floats higher, wavering and fluttering and billowing in the currents like the sail of a cargo ship. Soon it is lost among the clouds, drifting away toward the west.

All in the meadow who see the feat are amazed; but no one dares to laugh or speak. They are waiting, watching from the corners of their eyes for the one reaction that will determine history. At last the years seem to fall away from the old man, and his voice rises to that of an ancient boy. “It is like no other kite before. Almost a living thing. You are a treasure, child. You must tell my chancellor your name.”

Then within hours the scouts and spies arrive. They have returned from the battle front, all of them exhausted and some of them plainly terrified by the events they now report. A monstrous heavenly creature hovering over the barbarian army has been seen taking up men in its many arms and feasting upon their flesh. Calling upon their gods, the enemy flee in awestruck fear, and even now the emperor’s mounted troops are pursuing the remnants of the Han into the blackened forest.

When the girl is brought before him again, through the labyrinth of silk and along the carpeted path, Ku smiles and lifts up her face for him to see. He studies her. Strokes her hair and feels the flesh of her body. “Yes, my lovely warrior child. You must make me more. Many, many more.”

What did she feel, this girl, anointed by the emperor’s own hand? Being raised up by fate into the cold thin atmosphere of royal purity when what she most desired was a bowl of rice. Did she recognize her destiny, perform her outrageous imaginings in order to become the mother guardian of our race? Or was her only desire and motivation a boiled egg, a sip of tea? The histories do not say. All they can give us is a catalogue of kites.

Even the first ones were masterpieces of the art. If there were some among the emperor’s entourage who believed that the color-changing kite had been a peasant’s trick, they kept silent when the giant centipede crept across the sky, twenty men straining against the ropes that held it earthbound, those at head and tail alternately lifted off the ground by gusts. Indeed, over time Ni Shen Xiao grew famous for creating creatures that moved in flight. She learned to make birds that with the proper choreography of strings could flap their wings and soar. Lions that gaped their jaws and roared when turned into the wind. Lobsters walking in their armor. The great articulated dragons that looped and swirled. In the month of the emperor’s birth, it is said, she launched an eagle kite so swift, so mechanically perfect in its details, that it caught a dove in flight, then landed with outstretched wings and dropped its prize at the feet of the royal falconer.

With each new triumph the old man dipped into his treasury and demanded more from her imagination. He built a workshop for her and filled it with architects and engineers. He gave her a troop of acrobats to manage the cords and strings and pulleys of complicated kites. Servants to do her bidding. It is said that two scribes followed her on days when the emperor was distracted. They kept scrupulous record of her methods and results, reporting in the second year of her time at court that she had brought forth a tiny kite of thumbnail size, one so small that it was tethered by a spider’s silk and could float upon a baby’s slightest exhalation. Or, again, they wrote that she had made a kite so large that it could carry firepots over enemy encampments at night, raining down death like vengeance from the gods. And so too calligraphy kites that could take coded messages into the sky.

One of her engineers invented a binding that, when touched by the slightest moisture, would dissolve, so that kites folded tightly could unfold themselves into surprising forms when flown through clouds. She invented a series of shape-changing kites that amazed the royal court for weeks: a box that turned into a flying ball; a swallow that became a phoenix and burst into heavenly flames; a tortoise that transformed into a fish and thence into a bell and finally into a dragon that, for a moment, consumed the sun. –What use for magicians when the emperor’s lowest slave can throw sailing ships into the sky?

When at last she had taken her art as far as it could go, Ni Shen Xiao turned her thoughts toward more mundane creation, with the idea of making a home and recovering what her father had once lost. She had fallen in love with a handsome soldier, a young leader of the bronze-clad elite, and now a new stirring of life within her made her long for a nesting place. Thinking that a woman would understand such feelings better than a man, Shen Xiao one autumn evening presented herself before the empress and begged leave to return to Fu Lan province with perhaps some food for winter and the freedom to live her life.

“Sit, my child,” said the Empress Ku. “Let us talk of the wheel of time, the lives of women, and those of men.”

“I wish to return home only,” said the girl.

“How would you live?”

“The emperor has given me many chests, full of golden cloth and gifts. An entire village could be reborn with such munificence.”

“And where would you stay?”

“Within my father’s house.”

“Dear child, there is no Fu Lan province. Not anymore. Three years ago the emperor’s own edict diverted rivers and burned the forests in order to turn away a swarming pestilence of foreign-born. The few barbarians who linger there are scavengers in a wasted land.”

That life itself could be harsh was no shock to Ni Shen Xiao, but such casual cruelty, which seemed to be increasing as the emperor aged, sent a cold realization through her heart. Still, she persisted. “The emperor loves me. He will set me free.”

“Even emperors can be prisoners. And not all things are as they seem. In the long, slow swirl of empire, even the greatest rulers take themselves away from the affairs of men. They sometimes neglect agriculture, art, and governance. Perhaps they hear messages arriving daily from the battle front, some of them insane with fear. –The wheel turns. That is all any man can know.”

“I am not any man.”

“And so I understand. Perhaps you can understand, as I cannot, how an emperor can make himself hostage to a child, the maker of clever kites. Is it because he is decadent and mad, or is it because things are not really as they seem? Tell me, child, when he whispers in your ear at night, when he plants his seed within you, what does he whisper last?”

“He has never touched me so. I love Li Chun! We wish to be. . . .”

“Don’t deny your worth, dear girl. Love has nothing to do with the kind of knowledge he seeks. The emperor wishes to know you as he wishes to know all things.”

“Please, mistress. I am innocent of what you suggest.”

“Then I can help you. I can help you attain all you ask, but you must make for him one last kite. One capable of lifting up a man.”

“Such a thing cannot be done.”

“Practical magic, little flea. That is where you excel. One last kite. And when you finish it, please mention to him my name.”

The empress takes her archers each morning to a hilltop where the light is clear. It is her only joy. She would love to hunt again, but the war, the recent attempts at assassination. Now she shoots at men of straw. Even the execution of conspirators has brought her no relief. The food is bland. The court is dead or nearly so, and the real palaces of Hubei are a thousand li away. Months have passed. The emperor spends his days among philosophers and necromancers, his nights reading stars and shadows on the moon. The clothing smells of horses. The horses smell of fear. They go skittishly among the soldiers, placidly beneath the whip. And plums are out of season, berries green and hard. It’s as though the gods have conspired to sour the disposition of nature and of man. But for one hour she is content. In the flight of an arrow she finds enormous satisfaction. The narrow, directed energy. The pull, the leap of string. The satisfying thwak through armor at many paces. It is a sound she loves.

Li Chun climbs the hill with a happy heart. It is a day away from battle and a day of calm commands. Never mind the chattering delegation, and never mind the empress and her throng. He wears clean leggings. He walks beside Ni Shen Xiao, his hand occasionally brushing hers, her eyes occasionally finding his, and they smile with secret joy. That is enough for now. To leave behind sword and shield, blood and filth, armor and helmet, for a day, even for an hour, that is joy; and Li Chun feels as light as chaff in the early morning breeze. The crowd, he sees, is a kind of camouflage, and he boldly turns to kiss her cheek. Gives her one quick brush of his lips, one brief caress of her swollen belly. No one sees. And it is a morning full of promises. Never mind the men with coils of rope.

At the crest they tie him to the contraption, long cords about his waist, wrapped several times and knotted to the frame, then adjusted so he can breathe. They tie his ankles too so that he soon resembles the calligraphy for “man.” More cords at his knees, until he cannot move below the waist. Two men hold the thing upright as someone attaches a heavy woven rope. Then they drag him to the crest. Four now to hold the kite against the wind. Ten to manage the long rope. Many to murmur and speculate.

The girl herself is smiling. When all is ready, she whispers her last instructions and, like an attentive wife, adjusts the folds of fabric at his neck and chest. “Put your arms out like this,” she says, “and hold just here and here. The balance is the thing. Don’t let go of either side. The men on the rope know what to do. All you have to do is fly.”

“Has a beautiful woman ever said anything more insane?”

“If you start to sink, pull down on the handholds, both sides at once.”

“You will save me, little mouse?”

She blows a gentle breath into his face. “I will make you into a miracle. And then they will set us free. She has given me her word.”

The ropemen heave, and Li Chun falls away from earth.

For a moment he hovers a foot above the ground. His testicles, his toes, his heart contract in ecstasy, in fear. The animal in him lurches forth, and like a man lost in raging waters he swallows, swallows, swallows air. No longer bound by reason, his arms wrench involuntarily, spasmodically downward, and he shoots into the sky instantly above the archers, a hard cold current in his face. It is like looking into another world. No, it is like looking out from another world, listening to voices made tiny by a distance that cannot be explained.

She is shouting instructions upward. He can see her among the motionless faces, but her words are blown away by a current so cold that now he breathes in sips. And the air is dry, cutting at the corners of his eyes. And loud as the roar of crowds. Yet somehow still he can hear the creaking joints of the thing that holds him up, the groans and sighs of a sailing ship flying before the storm. The rope that holds him fast to earth, the one encompassing his waist, vibrates like a plucked string. He hears it safely singing and moment by moment makes himself unclench.

Higher they reel him out. Smaller the world becomes. Li Chun begins to see like a man standing upon a cliff when suddenly a magician has made the cliff to fall away. He sees the curvature of things. How nature is and man is want-to-be. The enemy’s encampment like a clustered bustling hive. The emperor’s ordered legions. And suddenly he understands the grave importance of placing pebbles upon a measured board. This is what they have wanted him to see. From such a height a man can see the future of many battles.

The empress is more than pleased. She sends a rider to rouse her husband, bid him look into the sky. Summons the girl to stand beside her and admires the fullness of her face. “Ni Shen Xiao,” she says, “how like a woman you’ve grown in every way. This must be your happiest moment. Why, you’ve given birth to a marvel, something no man will ever match.”

“I have done as you instructed. And both of us, I hope, have served the Son of Heaven.”

“Yes. No doubt.” She pretends an interest in the golden threads upon her outer robe. Picks a stray petal from her sleeve and lets it fall. “Now send him higher if you please. As high as the rope allows.”

“It is dangerous, your majesty. We are already at the limit of full control.”

The empress smiles upon the man who directs the ten who hold the rope. “Higher. If you value your wretched life.”

The rope pays out. The empress admires the skill of the struggling crew. They move as one, instantly, upon the commands of their lieutenant, keeping the kite afloat upon suddenly stronger currents. The shape diminishes until Li Chun seems to dangle over the rutted valley where half an army now stands and points.


“Your majesty, there’s no more rope. The men can barely. . . .”

She slaps his face with a speed and strength never seen outside the royal courts. The man bows and backs away. One by one, some with great reluctance, the rope tenders release their grip, and the empress begins to walk away. Ni Shen Xiao screams for mercy, unheard by any of the actors. At forty paces the empress turns to see only one man still clinging to the rope, a young Mongolian mercenary with shoulders like a bull. He is being dragged and battered against the ground. Then finally finds stasis by wedging his leg between two rocks, cabling the rope down hand over hand as if towing a boat against a raging flood. Knotted vessels stand out against his neck, until at last he becomes a statue, unable to haul the rope another inch.

“No?” the empress inquires.

The mercenary says nothing, gives his head a single defiant shake.

So she fits an arrow to her task. Tests the pull and slowly draws the bow. Then places the feathered shaft perfectly within his heart.

On the fifth night of the fifth month in the last year of the Kun dynasty, Ni Shen Xiao escapes with her infant son and nurse, an old woman who accompanies mother and child as far as the cliffs above Bei Jiang. It is there, according a woodcutter who observes the scene, that Shen leaps to her death, disappearing into the mists that arise nightly beneath the cliffs. He rushes to the rocky outcropping, unsteady and unbelieving, not because of the wine he has had to drink, but because he cannot imagine a mother so desperate that she would kill the infant at her breast. The woodcutter stares into bleary night trying to read the waters below, but the bodies are nowhere visible. And it becomes a moment of unbearable sadness for a man who measures his poverty in sons not born. When questioned by the emperor’s men, he swears that the report he gives is true. When questioned more closely, he pleads with them to turn their inquiries to the old woman who called herself a nurse. She was there, he says. An old woman. Standing by the cliff and coiling a length of silken cord.

On the same night that the woodcutter makes his report and the emperor’s concubine disappears, a barbarian named Han, like all his clan, makes his desperate way into a clearing where once green conifers rose up. He is dressed in the skin of animals, a bow and quiver upon his back, a still-seeping wound on one shoulder. He has been fighting and scavenging for months. Even though he is a prince among his own, he knows that one more defeat by the emperor’s forces will make his search for food and fodder useless. So he goes stumbling, careless of any kind of stealth, down a dry stream bed that he hopes will lead to the great river he has seen painted on captured maps. From time to time he swings his sword to clear away briars or vines, but for the most part he staggers like a man made drunk by exhaustion and loss of hope. His scouts, like hunting wolves themselves, have reported nothing but doom for days. And now he goes forth to read their collective fate alone.

At a powdery spit of land he sits and digs for water, finding a trickle and slurping like a horse. It’s only the slightest shift in wind that alerts him to another’s presence, but he is up in tiger stance faster than the eye can follow, ready to meet anything other than what he sees. It is a goddess in the form of a moth, a shimmering Luna moth, draped in cloth such as he has never seen. A sleeping child in a pouch upon her breast. She is speaking to him in a language he can barely understand, and yet he knows that sword and shield are useless against the magic of the gods. When, like the spirit of all changing things, she wriggles forth and casts aside her wings, he puts himself upon his knees and stabs his sword into the sand.

“I am Han, of all the Han,” he says.

She looks about, as if pleased by what she sees. There is a short length of rope tied about her waist, which she cuts away and casts aside like the afterbirth of some monstrous effort. Then sinks down beside a fallen log. The infant stirs, and Han brings them water and a strip of dried meat, laying both on the ground next to her and retreating into a guarded crouch.

She smiles an ageless smile. “Do you worship me—Han, of all the Han?”

“Tell me where you are from and where you go.”

She points to the distant cliffs and then to the black mountain shapes in the west. “You are kind,” she says. “And in return for a horse, I will give you a throne.”

There are those who say the barbarian king committed to memory in one night the entire battle order of the armies of Kun, and others who are equally adamant that the Han, hardly more than beasts themselves, simply persisted until the great wheel of time turned in their favor. It is difficult to know. Their first written histories do not appear until some hundred years after Han gave up his horse, a blanket, and a bag of rice, and yet all chroniclers agree that in the fourth year of the new dynasty a sumptuous palace was begun above the cliffs of Bei Jiang, and that from the laying of the first foundation stone until the rise of the four kingdoms it was known as the Palace of Ni Shen Xiao.

Oh, how we long for her in times of our own distress. The girl from the kitemaker’s shop in the mountains of Fu Lan. Did she live out her life in happiness or despair? What was the name of her babe? We cannot know. For in the mundane living of our lives, our very existence fades away, or so it seems, leaving behind merely the ripples of our passing and perhaps the gesture of a grateful king. Only this much is sure: that late in the afternoon of the first day of the first month in the first year of Han, the wolves of Han Wang Yeh break through the battle line of the aged emperor as if they know its every weakness, and the wide flat valley of Bei Jiang becomes a bog of blood.