Mourn Their Courage

When Liu Jie reads a plea for help from his nephew, the Ron Emperor, Jie's hope for a quiet life with his family is dashed:
    "The Son of Heaven requests the aid of all men, as sons might come to their father. Yellow Turban rebels assault the people and threaten the capital."
 Jie vows to destroy all who threaten his family, and raises an army with
the help of warrior-merchant, Tong Zhang. The ghost of two of Jie's children visit him in his dreams. They compel him to accept a dying orphan named Aiyu as his apprentice.
 
    "I'm sorry, Papa," Jiao said.
    Jie sipped the tea, cradling the warm cup in his numb hands. "Sorry for what, son?"
    "I'm sorry we're dead."
Jie choked. The tea was bitter. The icy cup cracked and shattered. Outside, the birds fell silent.
    "I'm sorry this is how we have to talk."
    "We wish we could be with you, Papa," June said.
    Tears wet Jie's cheeks. He wanted to tell them, "You're always with me," but his lips were frozen shut.
    "Take Aiyu with you, Papa. He's part of the family too." Jiao's lips twisted in his sad half smile. 
 

Jie leads his army to the rebel camp, where he and Zhang debate how to attack:

    A quick, northern blast of wind made Zhang jump. "Iya! It's getting cold. I'll take my wine now, Aiyu!"

    "I felt it too, sir," Aiyu said. He wiped dirt from his hands. "It - it means a strong wind comes. It will arrive by midnight."

    The boy's expression suggested that fear and need battled in his heart.

    "How do you know this," Jie said.

    "Farmers know the weather signs."  As if cued, a frigid breeze thrust through their gathering.

    If Aiyu was right, the enemy's precautions were pointless against such a wind.

    If Aiyu was right.

The Imperial Chancellor and his general, Hu Liao, meet Jie after the battle, and the Chancellor coerces Jie to ride to the capital.
 
While Zhang and Liao fetch Jie's wife and son, Zhang tells Liao stories and they drink and build a friendship.  Zhang admits he wants to be a great leader, though he doesn't understand strategy.  Liao is so moved by Zhang's trust, he keeps Zhang's secret from the Chancellor.
 
After Zhang and Jie reunite, the Emperor sends Jie a secret message on silk:
    "The imperial crown is no longer the head of state, but chancellor Hu. He dictates the actions, punishments and rewards of the kingdom without regard to the wishes of Heaven.
    Join league with men whose loyalty and honor are equal to the task of restoring dignity to the Ron Empire. Do not fail us."
    Jie's mind raced. If he signed this and the silk was discovered, the family and history of every name listed was rubble and fire.
    If he signed it, his defiance might lead others to risk everything for their Emperor. Anyone who signed it was committed.
Jie pulled his dagger and sliced his index finger. He signed his name in broad strokes. He wanted it legible.
The Chancellor visits Jie the following afternoon, but Jie's attempted assassination fails and Jie and his army flee. The Chancellor murders the imperial heir and jails Emperor and Empress before he launches a two-pronged attack on Jie.
 
During the attack, Aiyu, Zhang, Jie and his wife are separated.  Liao defies the Chancellor's orders and saves Zhang's life, knowing it's a debt of honor that will be called in later. Jie's wife finds the Turbans and send them to help her husband, who fights through the battle believing everyone he loves is dead. Zhang destroys many Turbans without realizing his mistake while Aiyu is led by a ghostly presence impersonating Jie. The hallucination vanishes and though he rejoins Jie, Aiyu's trust is shattered.
 
Aiyu tries to help Zhang win the Turban's loyalty after Jie rides ahead to seek reinforcements. But Zhang is drunk and terrified Jie will discover his deficiencies. Bewildered and scared of a Tong Zhang weaker than he'd ever imagined, Aiyu cannot bring himself to betray Zhang's confidence. They flee through a desert, constrained to secrecy by fear and solitude.
 
Jie defeats one of the Chancellor's armies, but Aiyu's secrets are uncovered. His parents are not dead. They abandoned him after he was haunted by his dead brother, Fong. Aiyu vowed to never trust anyone with the secret of Fong's existence, but after that mistrust leads to the accidental death of Jie's wife, Aiyu confesses everything.
 
    Swirling around him was a maelstrom. Fury radiated from it and settled on Aiyu.
     "What is it?" Jie croaked. He wanted to protect Aiyu, but how?
     "My brother," Aiyu said. His tear-stained face was calm, emotionless.  "He died two years ago, but wouldn't leave me." Aiyu looked into the air. "Speak. I release you, Fong."
    The wind cracked. Jie saw a blurry copy of Aiyu as if he looked at the boy's face through running water. It had green eyes. Jie finally understood his dreams.
Jie stops himself from abandoning or harming Aiyu. Instead, he fulfills Aiyu's desire for family:
    Jie realized Aiyu and Fong had lived without family for two years - without one another. They'd born enough punishment.
     "Then I accept both of you," Jie said. His voice failed him. First Liu Yao, then Mei. He must regain a portion of what was lost before he ceased being Liu Jie. If that happened, the enemy won.
     "You are my children, now. My family." Jie took Aiyu's face in his hands and forced the child to look at him. "I give you both my family name and inheritance."
Jie defeats the Chancellor's overwhelming forces with Fong's help. Then Zhang tries to be a strategist and sets an ambush for the fleeing Chancellor and Hu Liao:
     "Zhang, no!" Liao thought he'd spoken aloud, but the words were silent. Instead, he stepped in front of Xiongli's horse and bowed. Just like the night outside Zu Fen, he hated himself for what he was about to do.
     "Congratulations, General," Liao said. "You have caught us and proved yourself a leader among men."
Zhang grimaced. "Liao, I -"
     "Tong Zhang, you once told me you wanted to be more than a killer."
     Muscles in Zhang's jaw line twitched.
    "You are too honorable to kill defenseless men," Liao said. Too honorable to kill someone you owe your life to.
    "Your master is not defenseless," Zhang said. He glowered at Xiongli.
    "True," Liao said. He sighed as he straightened. "He is not." The pause that hung between them was thicker than the mud beneath their feet.
Will Tong Zhang allow his friend - his enemy - to go free? How can the Empire, let alone Zhang and Jie's friendship, survive such a betrayal?
 
 
MOURN THEIR COURAGE is a 104,000 word epic fantasy based on Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
   
     
   
 
 
 
 
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