After 267 BC, Qin. Kairos lifetime 84: Meng Shi and the First Emperor.
Lockhart and Katie led the travelers away from the oppressive heat of the forges under Mount Etna, and into a pleasant garden of flowers and flowering trees. Several buildings, haphazardly placed here and there around the garden, looked oriental in the extreme. Katie chided herself for not remembering. Katie’s blonde locks and Major Decker’s African appearance aside, at least Boston, Sukki, and Elder Stow could adjust the glamours they wore to appear more oriental. Alexis could produce a glamour for herself as well.
As they stepped into the wonderfully fragrant garden, they startled many young women, who screamed and ran to the buildings. Men screamed as well, but Katie imagined they were the eunuchs that watched over the concubines of whatever great house they invaded. Katie at least got a good look at the clothing of these women, and changed her fairy weave clothes into a more modest replica of what she saw. She nudged Lockhart, but he seemed too busy staring.
“It was bound to happen, eventually,” he said, quietly. “We can’t expect the time gate to always be hidden behind a tree.”
Boston and Sukki led their horses, Honey and Freedom. Boston helped Sukki adjust her glamour. Alexis, Lincoln, Millie, and Evan came together, and Alexis immediately helped the others do what they could with their clothing. Dog followed them, bringing the wagon behind.
Decker and Elder Stow came last, leading their horses. Elder Stow made quick adjustments in his look, but Decker made the rest of the people in that garden scream louder and cover their faces. Decker thought it a good idea to check his rifle, but he had no interest in changing out of his camouflage fatigues.
The travelers did not have to wait long. Three men came to greet them. One, middle aged, stared, open jawed. He winced on seeing Decker, and mumbled something about demons of the gods. The elderly one got down on his face and prostrated himself. The young one in the middle spoke, kindly, though carefully.
“Welcome to Ji and the court of King Xi, my father. I am Prince Dan of Yan.” He bowed slightly before he continued. “The one beside me is Jing Ke, one who works for my father in many special ways. The old man at your feet is Ju Wu, my father’s most trusted counselor.” He paused before he apologized. “I am sorry my father is not here to greet you himself.”
“Quite all right,” Lockhart said. “We are pleased to meet you. Please tell Wu Ju to stand. We are not gods.”
“Ju Wu,” Katie corrected, and added, “But we are friends with many of the gods, and would like to be your friends, too.” She gave it her friendliest smile.
Lockhart looked at her, but did not question her sixth sense about such things. “I am Lockhart, and my wife is Katie.” Lockhart tried to match Katie’s smile, but Prince Dan looked up at the giant in front of him and swallowed. He repeated Lockhart’s name with no problem, but turned Katie’s name into two names, Kay-Di, which made Katie sigh before she shrugged. Di would indicate a clear connection to the gods, like their friend, Tien Shang-Di, the high god of the heavens.
Ju Wu did stand, though he trembled a bit, as Lockhart introduced the rest of the group. When he got to Boston, she appeared to be focused on conferring with Lincoln. She had out her amulet, and Lincoln had out the database. Lockhart tried not to yell. “Boston, your horse is eating the flowers.”
“Honey!” Boston did yell, and went to fetch her animal. “Sorry, boss.”
“We have a long journey ahead of us,” Katie said, to continue the conversation. “But we thought it only right to pay our respects to the king of the land we are traveling through.”
Katie had no idea what might have gone through Prince Dan’s head, but he suddenly returned their smile and confessed, quietly. “Right now, my father is hiding with the women.”
“I don’t blame him,” Katie said. “It must have been shocking to see us appear out of thin air like that.”
“Indeed,” Ju Wu found his voice. “And where have you come from?”
“Most recently, from a land of fire under a mountain,” Lockhart said, honestly.
“I felt the heat,” Prince Dan said, softly, and Lockhart turned his head. The time gate opened when they went through, and the heat radiated into this place. But now that they were not moving through the gate, it seemed to have closed up, or deactivated, or whatever it did to keep ordinary time-locked folks from stumbling through.
“Boston?” Lockhart spoke only her name.
“We checked against the map in the database. The Kairos appears to be outside a city. Anyi, we think. He may have a home there, but my guess is he is moving toward us. Lincoln guessed we will meet him in Handan. That looks like Zhao territory.”
“Your friend?” Prince Dan asked.
“The Kairos, one counted among the gods,” Katie said. Katie felt the need to play up the god hand as a way to insure their safety. Her instincts proved accurate when the third man, Jing Ke, spoke loud and clear.
“You carry weapons and ride horses like the three evil ones who came here two months ago. They killed my friend, Li Ao, and now, have you come to finish the job?”
The travelers looked surprised and did not know what to say until Decker spoke up. “They are outlaws. We have come to find them and stop them.”
“The gods will judge,” Prince Dan spoke to Jing Ke.
Ju Wu had another thought, and he sounded very surprised. “Your demon guardian speaks?”
Lockhart looked back. “Demon guardian?” He grinned.
Decker shrugged. “I can live with that.”
Evan stepped up. “We have several assignments, and things the gods have asked of us. But, you know about special assignments for the king, don’t you Jing Ke?” Jing Ke appeared to understand very well, and as he considered it, Evan turned to Katie. “Lincoln let me read some about this time period from the database.”
When they finally got to meet the king, the minister Ju Wu told a fanciful tale to introduce them. They were sent by the gods to capture the outlaws and drag them back to Diyu, the Chinese Hell, where they belong. In fact, the travelers just came from the burning court of Diyu, where they picked up their demon guardian, and now are on the hunt. The king was pleased to know the three evil ones would get their just reward, but he became more afraid than ever. The travelers spent the night, but in the morning, they all got horses with the hope that they would be out of Yan territory as soon as possible.
Prince Dan went with them three days, to the edge of Zhao territory, where he added some silver to the purse they carried. Jing Ke accompanied them ten days, all the way to Handan, the capitol of Zhao, which appeared to be under siege by the armies of Qin.
“I have been charged to spy on the generals Sima Shang and Li Mu of Zhao,” Jing Ke said, frankly. Jing Ke seemed an affable fellow, once he got to know the travelers a little.
“Slick as a used car salesman,” Lincoln described him.
Jing Ke, now more relaxed in the presence of the travelers, finally told more of the real story of the outlaws, as they sat around the evening fire, in a small clearing in the woods.
“Two of them came through just outside the city almost three months ago. They killed Li Ao with their magic weapons, their “gunds”, and fled to the south, where I hear they joined with King Zheng of the Qin and promised to make some magic powder. The third came to just south of Ji about a month ago. The king sent a troop of soldiers to catch him, but his horse proved too fast and strong to catch.”
“So, the three are together,” Lockhart concluded.
Jing Ke nodded, and added some thoughts. “King Xi has sent me to check on the Zhao. The Qin have already conquered Hann. If Zhao falls, the king fears Yan may be next. I know Li Mu, the Zhao general, has built and strengthened the great wall, and built fortifications to hold off the Qin, but will it be enough?”
“He won’t fight?” Lockhart asked.
Jing Ke shifted in his seat. “Li Mu beat the Qin in battle once. He is about the only general to do so, but his losses were so great, he believes he only has enough army left to defend the capitol. Two years ago, the ground shook in Zhao. We felt it in Yan, 1000 li from Handan. Smaller shakes in the earth followed, and many died, as houses and whole villages collapsed. People rebuilt, but then in this last year, floods came where there had been no floods, and the earth dried in places where rivers and streams used to run. The crops were not many. More people died of hunger.”
“Sounds like the general has limited resources,” Decker said.
Jing Ke agreed. “The Qin sent two armies, not just one. They came, one from the north and one from the south. The Zhao, under Li Mu have fortified the ways, and the Qin have become frustrated, unable to break through. Whether they are frustrated enough to turn around and go home, who can say? The ministers are talking. I believe ministers are born talking. It does not necessarily mean anything. I suppose they may find a path to peace, but I believe King Zheng of Qin does not want peace.”
“It sounds like you already understand the situation very well,” Katie said.
Jing Ke agreed again. “But I will look and report to my king what I find. Li Mu may make the taking of Zhao too expensive, so the Qin may reconsider and go elsewhere for a while. Like to Wei or Chu. That may give Yan time to make alliances and build our own formidable army. Who can say? That is the future.”
Things wound down, and people got plenty of sleep that night. When they got up the next morning, they stayed mostly quiet. They had some very strong morning tea, and Lockhart said thank you before he mumbled, “It still isn’t coffee.”