Dual Dynasties: East Meets West

Book One: Lian and Valeria

Chapter One: China circa BC 89

The sky remained pessimistically jade-green, clouds rolling in the undulating shape of a dragon's underbelly. The matchmaker, Shu Fang, did not know whether the heavens were opening to reveal the Dragon lords to pounce upon the city of Ch'ang-an, or just to allow them to parade their brilliantly shining scales. She thought it a miracle, or perhaps an omen - for at that moment, a procession on horseback made their way down the main cobblestone path halving the capital.

A commotion swelled within the city walls as a magnificent file of imperial men advanced down the narrow marketplace. Some in their path bowed low and clasped their hands in a mingled sign of submission and greeting. The foremost rider clasped his ancient hands in a reciprocated sign as he trotted through.

The city men could not mistake the identity of the rider as Wu Di, martial emperor, as he rode along in a lavish silk robe, the garish color of blood red. His straw-like white mane was hidden by a box red cap, a crown of sorts, while a royal white cape billowed behind him. Even through the wrinkled face, and withered white beard, one could see the authority of the awe-inspiring figure radiating out of dark eyes.

The emperor's white steed balked at the sight of so many people, and rolled his eyes until the whites showed as the enormous mob gathered around the noble entourage. Quickly, the emperor's escort gathered around their fragile leader, and shooed the pressing mass aside. The most regal bodyguard robed in orange shouted through the teeming throng, "Step aside as royal Emperor Wu Di proceeds!"

The crowd seemed to turn as one toward the north gate of the city, parting like the petals of a lotus.

Zhang Ye protectively led his emperor toward their intended destination. His top-knot bobbed rhythmically with his march, left-right-left-right - up- down-up-down. His pace set the entire line's, as they swiftly covered the distance to the matchmaker's dwelling.

Ye scowled as he arrived at the L-shaped mud-brick home; the matchmaker let her house fall to shame. He decided this lack in upkeep was a bad sign at the ability of the seer.

The emperor sensed his reluctance, "She predicted my first wife and I would have a prosperous marriage, so far she is not amiss."

Ye looked up, his eyebrows raised in concern, "Yet."

Emperor Wu Di should have struck the man who raised such a preposterous claim, but he instead laughed jovially, and patted his most trusted soldier on the back. "Come, Ye, the fate of my kingdom awaits."

Shu Fang hurriedly prostrated herself before the great emperor, her antique knees bending farther than one would think able to. "My Lord, it is my honor to serve you. What match needs to be forecasted today?"

The emperor, recently dismounted, and still somewhat sore, threw a sack of papers on her place mat. The scrolls of zhi made of tree bark and rice straw scattered about the room.

The matchmaker bowed and gathered the scrolls. Examining them carefully, she dipped her brush into the ink pot and began to inscribe. An occasional mutter could be heard as she worked, "Year of the a fire , but she is a my." Shu Fang closed her eyes: the birthdates, the birth hours, all were terribly incompatible. The most persistent thought in her mind was the one and the same she had when she foretold the emperor's first marriage: lie.

She slowly opened her eyes, revealing a row of eager listeners, the most keen being the emperor. "All seems to be in order; the Gods have preordained the happiness of the couple-to-be. A fine match."

The emperor nodded, causing his headpiece to fall off his head, and his followers clumsily battled as to who should pick it up first. He sighed as he bent over to pick it up himself. "Thank you, Lady Shu. I am pleased with your services. Prince Batu shall be excited to hear the results. I bid you farewell."

The matchmaker bowed once more as the emperor and his train shuffled out of the cramped dwelling. As they left, she thought, I pity the poor girl who marries the Prince.

* * *

As Princess Lian gazed across the horizon, the earth seemed to writhe like a litter of snakes, or perhaps like the body of a Dragon. But the wriggling line was not a gleaming green but a cloud of muddy brown. The ground started to quake, a small rumble, slowly building until Lian saw the sleeves of her golden robe flutter.

She leapt up as the beating of hooves on the ground could be distinguished - her father had returned.

The rumble subsided while the column was admitted into the gated residence. Emperor Wu Di sat magnificently upon his steed, as he cantered through the ornately carved gates and up the meandering walkway.

The children of the palace scurried across the grounds to greet the returning assemblage. The oldest boys were first to arrive next to the line, with the youngest swaddling as fast as they could to arrive at their target. The brood cheered and grinned as they followed the procession back to the main building.

Lian sat complacently within the shaded courtyard, knowing her father would address her first. She knew well of his intentions while visiting the city, her intended and - she supposed - impending marriage. The matchmaker would have made her forecast already about her compatibility with the future groom. Now she waited for the results.

The emperor chuckled as he saw his youngest daughter sitting with a grimace upon her face - an expression so commonly worn that he had gotten used to such depressed looks. Nonetheless, he had not failed to notice her glowering mood spread since the news of her potential marriage was revealed. It was her downcast looks - he believed - that gave her a peasant-dark shade of skin. He was too foolish to know that her complexion was due more to outdoor sport rather than her sour disposition.

Lian's mood quickly shifted to one of pleasure when she espied her towering father. Her smile spread to light her face and the emperor could not help but beam at such a pleasant sight.

She bowed low to receive him.

"Come my child, we shall speak without prying ears." The emperor led her away from the curious glances of her siblings to the inner-chamber of the main house.

She followed him submissively, but he still affectionately held her hand as they turned down the winding mural-laden corridors.

They came to stop at the prayer room, especially quiet during this late afternoon period. Here they could have an open discussion without interruption.

"You have known for some time of my intentions - to marry you to a prince of the Wusun tribe. What say you in this matter?" He thoughtfully patted her hand as he gazed into her smoldering black eyes.

A fire burned within her, urging her to protest, but it was quickly extinguished by the loving looks of her concerned father. "I follow my father, as he knows what is best for me. I am but an unlearned girl."

He nodded his head in confirmation. "As Master Kong [Confucius] says: If you can treat the worthy as worthy without strain, exert your utmost in serving your parents, devote your whole self in serving your prince, and be honest in speech when dealing with your friends, then even if someone says you are not learned, I would say that you are definitely learned. I most wholly believe this statement is true of you, my wise Princess. And I must insist that you continue to live your life as such."

She bowed in acquiescence and turned to leave her father's presence.

He stopped her, placing his hand delicately upon her shoulder. "Wait. A present for the most rewarding gift of a loyal daughter."

Lian felt her father slip a cool trinket into her palm. She opened her hand to examine the small statuette sitting lightly upon it. A diminutive bronze horse shown brightly against her dark skin, making her eyes squint at its radiance.

"A heavenly horse - may it guide your every endeavor."

* * *

Many a book was consulted as to what date would be best for the marriage. The astrologer, Chu Shen, was thoroughly confused, never before had the dates been so complex to unravel. Such displeasing correlations between birthdates and the yearly almanac were disconcerting. Shen scratched at his irritating liver spot as he tried to pick an auspicious time. He was determined to find a day all the same, and settled upon the least unlucky.

When retainer Zhang Ye arrived to find out the scheduled wedding date, he was surprised to discover that within a week the ceremony would be held.

Chu Shen did not even show signs of discomfort as he bowed to the messenger, his gray hair enveloping his startled face, shielding any outward messages of concern.

And so, Zhang Ye went on his way to deliver the report to the emperor.

Emperor Wu Di was not at all displeased. The sooner an alliance was arranged with the Wusun tribe, the sooner border skirmishes would cease and the money expended upon such ventures.

Lian loathed to hear of such a near date, but resigned herself to her chambers until the day arrived. Though usually solitary, many a visitor came to pay respects and wish farewell to the young princess. The only constant guest was her eldest sister, Guan-yin, the first empress' only offspring.

Guan-yin was truly the Goddess of Mercy as her name implied. She stayed with Lian and listened to her every fear. Her straight back never bowed, but remained erect with grace and poise as she paid attention to her sister's repeated doubts. Through the long nights of comforting, Guan- yin's hair remained in a tight obsidian bun, no hair straying loose. Her dark eyes remained passive as Lian wailed with distress.

But then the night came before her sister's wedding, and Guan-yin could no longer remain a pillar of strength. She began to sob with as much intensity as her younger sister's emotions. It was Lian's turn to comfort with compassion.

"What is wrong dear sister? You do not marry in the morrow; you can stay with our father, in our palace, with your revered mother. Please do not cry. I am frightened to see you cry." Crystal tears began to well within Lian's eyes, her cheeks glistening as they dropped.

Through wracking sobs Guan-yin answered. "It is just that you are so young."

"Dear sister, I am thirteen!"

"It is just that you will be so far away."

"I shall visit!"

Guan-yin shook her head with disbelief. "You are going to marry some barbarian prince, and he will keep you in the desert, drinking camel's milk. And I will be left here all alone."

With this new information, Lian began to bawl even more. "B-but, s-sister, you w-will have your m-mother. I-it is I w-who w-will be a-all alone."

Guan-yin covered her face with her hands, sobbing profusely into her palms. "You are too young to know royal politics. My mother will be discarded like some insignificant concubine for she has not produced an heir. Once she is gone, I will be left to the mercy of the mother of Prince Ju, next in line to the throne."

Lian had ceased to cry and emphatically shook her head at such worrying news. "No! I shall not allow it! You must not give up hope."

The elder sister dried her tears on her blue silk robe. "I may have had hope if I had married a king of the Xiongnu or of the Uygur, but I refused such barbaric chieftains. I, the first Princess, to marry such heathen peoples? Oh how my hubris fails me now! I shall devise a plan, you shall see my little one, if it is the last act I do!"

* * *

The year of the Horse. The year of the union of Princess Lian of the Middle Kingdom to Prince Batu of the Wusun nomadic tribe. The year of the end of war - or so Emperor Wu Di believed.

The usual ceremonial procession of the retrieving of the bride from her home was passed over, as the princess was handed off like a sack of rice to the Wusun tribe.

The two parties had made their ways through the craggy mountain passes and rolling sand dunes to meet in the middle, between the capital of Ch'ang-an and the territory of Xinjiang. In attendance were fifty of Wu Di's greatest horsemen, including Zhang Ye and Wu Di himself. Prince Batu was also there to greet his wife and future queen.

Lian was secured within a covered carriage pulled by two magnificent mares. She was still able to gaze at her surroundings, if not in a somewhat rose- colored fashion. She made out the two parties meeting each other and hailing salutations, the vast amounts of horses that followed the Wusun, and her father's own gift of trunks of jade and gold.

Emperor Wu Di was clearly entranced by the majestic steeds that were led by the Wusun. Lian now understood - "heavenly horses" - her father's most fervent desire and an even trade for a lesser princess.

Zhang Ye too was caught up in the physical beauty of the horses and their legendary endurance, but he had not looked over the muddled emotion in Lian's eyes.

"Remember your royal surname, Liu, represents strength and loyalty. The type of strength to uphold your commitments and the type of loyalty to stay a filial daughter. Do not forget it."

Lian nodded her head passively as she looked into his eyes, covered by concerned, furrowed brows. She would never forget.

"Zhang Ye, you must not forget me as well." He bowed in agreement, and their covenant was sealed.

The arrangements were quickly completed, and Lian was transferred to a makeshift carriage on her husband's side. She finally saw him - her new lord and prince to serve.

Prince Batu was not particularly handsome, nor particularly young. He held himself royally, making his beak-like nose stand out straight and his profile seem taller. His thin lips were covered by a drooping mustache, which wiggled when said beaked nose sniffed the air. His age was revealed through his graying temples, but which made him appear more distinguished. The most piercing characteristic of the prince were his yellow eyes, the yellow of gleaming gold. Those eyes looked upon Lian with a burning hunger, and she was not able to shake such an intense stare from her mind.

Upon reaching his village, the prince reached out a calloused, olive hand for his bride, which she seemingly grasped demurely. Her padded soles reached the desert ground, the wind whipping up grains of sand that formed into a frenzied cloud around her. Through the fog of sand, Lian surveyed her new home.

Before her was the most bleak landscape of pure sand she had ever seen. The monotonous brown was broken up by a few huts which dotted along the horizon, intermingled with roaming horses and camels. The sun had begun to set and radiated a golden glow across the backdrop. Even through the heavenly inspired scene, Lian still could not help but feel alone in such a desolate and unknown land.

A silent inner chant sustained her. 'I am a Liu.'