Empires were fragile things, prone to strife and collapse at every turn. Whether because of a change in rulers or the internal conflicts within their borders, it was unusual for them last more than a few millennia. 

There were many ways to prolong the life of an empire—well-maintained roads to keep people moving, a well-funded military to keep them safe, a solid judicial system to keep things fair, and a monarch with absolute power to keep ambitious people in check—but it was the small things, in Wei Longshen’s opinion, that truly delivered.

The Crimson Lotus Empire was a behemoth that occupied nearly a quarter of the Central Inkwell Continent, from the vast shores of the outer sea to the capital on the inner coast. It had a great deal of problems that had festered for several tens of thousands of years.

Many believed that it was fate that the Empire had endured, not knowing how fragile the peace they enjoyed truly was. The nobility saw the rot within but cared not as long as they could play their games. The common people did not see that rot. They saw the little things, like tea and wine.

In the Crimson Lotus Empire, tea was brewed in small portions in small teapots. Tea sessions could last several hours depending on the setting but could also be enjoyed casually by a single person. There were quality standards for tea leaves, and bodies of experts that ranked and assessed these tea leaves. All new types of tea had to be approved by the Crimson Lotus Tea Council, or else they simply couldn’t be called tea.

The requirements for wine were no less stringent. Wine was to be enjoyed in groups and never in solitude. Wine was strong, not weak, and people drank until they were drunk. Whenever one person toasted, others in the room joined them. 

The people of the Slovana Empire just across the border did not share these customs. They did not appreciate good tea and good wine. They preferred beer, coffee, and boiled grains. They frequented taverns, not winehouses and teahouses, and enjoyed boisterous music and promiscuous dancing.

The cultures were simply too different, and it was for this reason that millennia of war had accomplished very little for either side. As such, there was peace, and the Crimson Lotus Empire endured.

There were disagreements, of course. Like the nobility, the common people had their wars and their just causes. The wine drinkers of the Empire, for example, did not get along with the tea drinkers, and vice versa.

Wei Longshen was an anomaly in that he straddled the line between both social groups. He liked both tea and wine. He would never admit to this fact in polite company.

“Tea…” the minister sneered, slamming a clay drinking bowl down onto the wooden table. His two drinking companions winced at the dent it left, but the minister seemed to think that insufficient strength would fail to drive his point home, so they made no mention of the damage. “Tea is the weak drink of socialites that can’t handle a true man’s beverage. Wouldn’t you agree, Brother Yimu?”

“Yes, yes! Of course!” Wei Yimu said, bringing his own bowl to his lips and draining it promptly.

Wei Longshen refilled their bowls dutifully. He was careful to fill his own bowl with slightly less of the potent drink, but not to the point that it could be noticed.

“To wine and friendship!” Wei Longshen said, holding up his bowl.

“To company!” Wei Yimu echoed.

“To culture!” Minister Zhang said. They drained their bowls in unison and let the accompanying drunkenness set in.

Wei Longshen naturally refilled the bowls, and after a few rounds of pointless toasts, the conversation drifted to important matters.

Minister Zhang’s face was quite red, even though they had only downed a few bowls as a welcoming ceremony. Wei Longshen guessed he was allergic to alcohol and refused to admit it. “Not only are you a proper wine drinker, but your cultivation’s not half bad. You’ve reached the middle of rune gathering before thirty. A prodigy indeed.”

“I beg to differ,” Wei Longshen said modestly. “I cultivate the Daoist path primarily, and only minor in a ghostly soul path as required. The path of a Dao God is far more challenging, even with all the right resources. It’s people like Senior Tianlong who are the true geniuses, despite their greater age. I can only admit my inferiority.”

“Reaching the peak of rune gathering and muscle empowering in less than a hundred and fifty years is quite difficult,” Minister Zhang agreed. He seemed unconvinced, as he, too, was as Daoist.

“Not everyone is born a genius,” Wei Longshen said. “I have my strengths, but I am not like those monstrous ascendants.”

“That’s true…” Minister Zhang said. “I forget he was an ascendant.”

“Ascendants are completely different than you and I,” Wei Longshen said. “The first part of their cultivation journey was in a lower realm, where energies were much sparser. They had to overcome everyone else in their home plane just to reach what we consider the starting line. The sheer amount of will and luck that takes is nothing short of miraculous.”

“If you say so,” Minister Zhang said. “Xing Tianlong also has very good things to say about you, by the way. Unlike the minister of war. How did the two of you end up meeting, if I might ask?”

“He was on a mission in the Burning Lake Prefecture at the time, posing as a lowly captain,” Wei Longshen said. “Imagine my surprise when I first came to the capital and discovered he was the emperor’s apprentice. As for the minister of war… his frustration is understandable. The situation was more complex than anticipated, and I let him down.”

“Well, I’m told you did a fine job,” Minister Zhang said. “Whatever that old coot thinks, you were assigned to a job, and you performed it admirably in the face of nigh-insurmountable adversity. I personally would never last so long while playing both sides; that you’re still alive is worth celebrating.” He grabbed his wine bowl and knocked it on the table, spilling half its contents in the process. “To life!”

“To life!” Wei Longshen and Wei Yimu echoed, draining their bowls.

This time, it was Wei Yimu who filled their cups to free up Wei Longshen’s attention. Seniority aside, some might say the older man should have been pouring since the beginning. Wei Yimu was technically older, but Wei Longshen’s station was higher and his cultivation even more so. Wei Longshen knew that the minister of culture was a stickler for older traditions and had therefore started off by pouring to show his respect for his elders.

Tradition. Culture. Drinking culture, specifically.

In the Crimson Lotus Empire, you drank as much wine as the eldest or most senior in the room wanted you to drink. You never refused a toast. Despite all the cheating he’d been doing, Wei Longshen still felt the strong effects of the concentrated wine, but he didn’t dare stop drinking. Doing something conspicuous like consuming alcohol-purging pills could backfire, so he kept himself aware. He did so by remembering the countless bloody scenes he’d witnessed over the past few years.

Following and assisting Cao Wenluan had been as frightening as it had been exciting. He’d technically failed in his true mission—creating an opening for Silver Fish to assassinate him—but that had always been a bit of a long shot. He’d tried.

“It was, in truth, an unmitigated disaster,” Wei Longshen said, shaking his head. “The mission cannot be considered a success, whatever anyone says. Cao Wenluan was assigned to Kraken’s Pass to slow his growth and force him to build something from nothing, therefore wasting his time. It seems our efforts only served as a whetstone to sharpen him.

“We arrived at a series of ports along the northern coast that were under constant and repeated assaults from enemy-backed pirates. We had no reprieve the entire time. The original plan was to fortify the location then slowly build up a navy, which should have taken twenty to fifty years, even by optimistic estimates. Things did not turn out as planned.”

“Even the best of plans don’t survive the battlefield,” Minister Zhang said, repeating an oft-quoted maxim. “Or so the minister of war assures me.”

Wei Longshen chuckled darkly. “Minister Zhang, it should have taken twenty to fifty years to accomplish this mission. There was no mistake in the estimate. I was there to sabotage it, and even then, he managed it in three. No, it’s more accurate to say that he succeeded after a single year. The next two years were used to somehow entrench his position.”

He took a drink from his wine bowl, not even making a token effort to toast. His two co-drinkers mirrored him regardless and continued to look at him expectantly. Wei Longshen couldn’t help but laugh. After all this time, and all this bloodshed, he still had it in him: his penchant for stories, regardless of their origins.

“In the first month, Cao Wenluan analyzed the enemy’s attack pattern,” Wei Longshen said. “He was able to make concise and intuitive guesses that cut our losses to a minimum. Then, after surviving an assassination attempt by his arch enemy, Dao Lord Black Fish, he took advantage of his enemy’s wounds to storm Kraken’s Pass. He did not bother building a navy—he conquered one instead. And he didn’t just take their ships, but their crews as well.”

“How did he manage it?” Minister Zhang muttered. “It shouldn’t be possible. Our cultures… they’re too different. You should know that I’ve spent a great deal of time protecting the northern borderlands from Slovana cultural influence. They mix like oil and water.”

“Oil and water mix with the right emulsifying agent, Minister Zhang,” Wei Longshen said. “But in his case, he managed it because he is Cao Wenluan.” He drank down another bowl of wine, and this time, it was his elders who were reluctantly following his pace. So many memories. So many he’d rather forget. “It started with only a few, but by the end of sixth month, he had a fleet of twenty ships, all flying his banner. By the end the first year, he had no less than a hundred kraken-bone ships that allowed him to roam the strait as he pleased.

“He became immune to demon assaults. Only an enemy navy could take him down. He was outnumbered two to one, but he still charged into battle, expecting to win.” Wei Longshen looked the minister in the eyes. “He would have won too. He would have destroyed his opponent and taken their ships as his own. He would have become an unstoppable force in the north, to the point that he could have established his own country. All. In a single. Year.”

Minister Zhang paled a little. This time, it was he who took the clay wine jar from Wei Yimu’s shaking hands. Seeing that it was empty, he stood up shakily and stumbled over to a shelf, where several jars of wine were held.

He fumbled around until he found what he was looking for: a jar with affixed with a red stamp. He smiled as he cracked open the seal. “This,” Minister Zhang said, “was gifted to me by the emperor after ten years of service as minister of culture. Obviously not just this jar, but ten crates of it.” He sighed as he poured them each a bowl. “There isn’t much left of it, but the taste still tickles my tongue every time.” He then sat back down. “Boy, you have a penchant for storytelling, but embellishing to this point is quite rude. Cao Wenluan did not win that battle. He did not gain such a fleet, or I would have heard of it.”

“He did not,” Wei Longshen admitted. “Otherwise, the empire might have already splintered. This was all thanks to Dao Lord Black Fish, who hadn’t, as many people thought, been licking his wounds the entire time. While Cao Wenluan was busy waging war, Dao Lord Black Fish realized that normal aquatic life-forms would be useless in fighting his enemy.

“He journeyed for months to find allies. He did not stop until he reached the Inner Inkwell Sea. He then proceeded to poke into unspeakably deep and dangerous crevices until he found the allies he was looking for.

“When he returned, he came with the wrath of the inner sea—krakens from the deep. The sight of kraken-bone ships enraged them so greatly that they destroyed all three hundred ships in the strait. There were only a few survivors.”

“Cao Wenluan survived, obviously,” Minister Zhang said. “You did as well.”

“Cao Wenluan always survives,” Wei Longshen said. “As for me, I was fortunate enough to be on shore—he was cautious with me and refused to let me take part in the battle.” He drained his wine bowl and savored the potent liquid as it worked its way down his throat. It was like Minister Zhang said—this wine was a rarity, and a treat to drink.

“One might think this would be a great mental setback,” Wei Longshen continued. “I was quite relieved by the turn of events, and so was Guardian Tianlong, and I am told, the emperor. For a whole month, Cao Wenluan looked like little more than a broken shell. No one bothered him for fear of stimulating him, to the point that we almost forgot where we’d left him.” He chuckled. “Then he left his residence looking thin but in good health. In fact, he looked better than ever, like someone had lit up a fire at the core of his being.

“For the next five months, he amassed his troops. He didn’t bother with ships and flew across the ocean, suicidal as that sounded. He saw what others didn’t, which was that if the strait was free of ships and the demons were still frightened out of their wits from the krakens passing through it, he pretty much had free rein.

“He brought his elites along and proceeded to the Slovana Empire’s coastal kingdoms. He pillaged no small fortune and used this wealth to rally the minor lords of our empire’s northern kingdoms. With their help in securing manpower, he proceeded to fund the greatest undertaking since the construction of the Imperial Capital.”

“You mean the dam,” Minister Zhang said. He poured them each another bowl, which they drank according to the dour mood in the room. “So much culture down the drain with that project.”

“It took him a year and a half to build it,” Wei Longshen said. “A mindboggling achievement. He recruited crews from all around the empire, then from Mendin lands and even the demons in the Wild Lands.

“For the longest time, the fragmented Slovana Empire still thought it was a bridge. So did I for that matter. By the time anyone realized what he was doing, he’d already set the foundation for a system of aqueducts in the southern lands. You know what happened next.”

“Such death,” Minister Zhang said, shaking his head. “Such destruction. With so great a sin, it’s a wonder he wasn’t immediately struck down by the heavens.” Wei Longshen had to laugh at these words, and the grumpy minister grew indignant. “Something funny boy?”

“I’m just expressing my helplessness,” Wei Longshen said, half laughing, half crying. “I tried sabotaging the project countless times, as instructed by the emperor himself, to no avail.

“Countless mortals died from the famines and the flooding. He killed millions of humans, and trillions of demons. Such sin should have directly devilized him, and we thought it would. At least that would give us some excuse to put him down.” Then his smile faded. “We were mistaken.”

“How did he do it?” Wei Yimu, who’d been listening all this time, asked. “Karma is a pretty direct thing, boy. You can’t just avoid heavenly judgment.”

Wei Longshen drained a freshly poured bowl of wine and wiped his mouth before looking them both in the eye. “This is a state secret. Minister Zhang is cleared, of course, but Uncle Yimu had better keep his mouth shut for his own safety.”

“My lips are sealed,” Wei Yimu said.

“Then I’ll reluctantly speak,” Wei Longshen said. “We believe it has to do with his soul-bound treasure, Wrathful Blade of the Conqueror. It appears that the blade has a rare karma-redirection ability. It’s not all-powerful, but it can shield him from a great influx of sin so that he can at least control it. He did not avoid the karma but instead reasoned with it. He was in the service of the empire, after all, so it stood to reason that the empire should be responsible for such abominable actions.

“The recent droughts, famines, plagues, insurrections, and cultists are all due to this decrease in the national destiny. Some even say that the Pale King’s actions in the Wild Lands are also a result of this. His army moved in at the worst times, and our defenses fell without much fanfare.

“The Black Fish, unable to ignore the grudge his bloodline bears toward the Paper Tiger Clan, was forced to abandon his pursuit of Cao Wenluan and base himself on our southeastern border. It is only thanks to this that our losses were mitigated, and only three kingdoms were overrun.”

“Such a powerful karmic ability…” Minister Zhang said. “I don’t know what to say. It’s just monstrous.”

“I am in full agreement,” Wei Longshen said. “It was then that the emperor declared me and my work by his side finished. So here I am at this meeting at Xing Tianlong’s request, and I assume, the emperor’s direction.”

“Indeed,” Minister Zhang said, happy for the change in subject. “Despite your contributions to Cao Wenluan’s growing influence, you acted according to orders from the emperor and gave us many surprises.

“One might say that Cao Wenluan succeeded despite your brave and well-executed actions. You even did so without him noticing you were our agent, which is nothing short of incredible. I take it he was happy about your reassignment?”

“He was ecstatic,” Wei Longshen said. “After all, his reputation is at its peak. Why not begin to grow his influence in the capital?”

“As we suspected,” Minister Zhang said. “It is for this reason that you were recalled.”

“In what way can I assist the emperor?” Wei Longshen asked. “Are you perhaps looking for a junior minister?”

“That would be a waste,” Minister Zhang said. “A man of your talents should not be relegated junior duties.”

“Then I am confused,” Wei Longshen said. “Last I checked, all ministerial positions are currently full.” Then he thought about it. “Does the emperor wish me to serve as a judge, as my father did?”

Minister Zhang burst out laughing. “Heavens, no. You don’t have the temperament for it, Longshen, and I’m sure your father would die in a fit of anger if he heard you were assigned to such a role. Last I spoke to him, he mentioned grooming your sister for the position.”

“Xinya would make an excellent judge,” Wei Longshen agreed.

“As for your position, the emperor and I were speaking the other day,” Minister Zhang said. “Xing Tianlong was sitting in on the meeting. We decided it would be best to create a new position.”

“A new ministerial position?” Wei Longshen asked. “Such a thing hasn’t been done in centuries.”

“It’s the only way to make full use of your unique talents,” Minister Zhang confirmed. “We decided that it would be best to distance you from the minister of war, who is fully convinced you are a traitor to your country, and the minister of trade is doing well on his own. As for minister of law and ceremony, he would hear none of it, which brought the ball over to my Ministry of Culture.”

Then it dawned on Wei Longshen. “You want me to continue what I started in the Burning Lake Prefecture.”

The minister nodded gravely. “Our kingdom has grown too weak. This recent wave of disasters due to our waning national destiny has only worsened the crisis. Many prosperous clans have collapsed, and as it happens, these were the clans most loyal to the empire.”

“I… see,” Wei Longshen said. “You want me to recruit these clans.”

“We want you to help us in restoring and consolidating these clans,” Minister Zhang corrected. “They are already loyal, and each of them is too small to be effective. We have some ideas about which clans would be most compatible together, which can be facilitated through marriage alliances and pacts and the like. This would also serve a cross-purpose. This role would put you on very good terms with those clans thanks to your ability to call and influence their ancestors’ revenants.”

“They’re not strictly revenants, but soul shadows,” Wei Longshen corrected. “I also cannot fully control them. They may express gratitude, but that is all.”

“The key is in the implied power,” Minister Zhang said. “Cao Wenluan would interpret this as you trying to assemble a personal army for him under the banner of rebuilding the empire. The opposite would be true, of course.”

Wei Longshen nodded. “What about my family?”

“Already relocated.” This time, it was Wei Yimu who spoke. “Apologies, Longshen, but I had to keep things discreet.”

“This will naturally seem like they are being kept as political hostages,” Minister Zhang said. “Worry not. They will be treated with honor, and we will stop at nothing to protect them.”

Wei Longshen had no illusions about the arrangement. It was common practice to keep the families of influential marshals and generals in sensitive positions in the imperial capital in case of treachery. The same applied to ministers and Minister Zhang’s own family. Should he consider triple-crossing the empire, his family was as good as dead.

“The arrangement is convenient,” Wei Longshen said. “In fact, it will give me good reason to refuse certain commands sent my way by Cao Wenluan in the future.”

“Our thoughts exactly,” Minister Zhang said.

“Then I have no issues with your proposal and am happy to accept,” Wei Longshen said. He eyed the empty jar of commemorative wine. “What a coincidence it is that we are drinking your ten-year anniversary wine.” He held up his bowl, which had only been filed halfway, as this was the last of it. “To tens of years of happy service to the empire!”

“To service, to fortune, and to good health!” Minister Zhang said. They drained their bowls, and having finished their drinking session, they smashed the clay bowls on the floor to express their satisfaction. The local wine-drinking culture would accept nothing less, as much as Wei Longshen regretted the dreadful waste.

“It will be nice to see my family again,” Wei Longshen said. “I worried about them constantly on the front lines.” He’d yet to see his wife, Cao Shufen, since his return, as he’d been directly summoned to the minister’s residence. I wonder how much Little Zhu has grown since I last saw him. His last leave of absence had been a full year ago.

As for his father, his mother, and the families and sects the Wei Clan had taken in, he’d only exchanged letters. The latest one he’d yet to read, and he hadn’t yet gotten a chance to review Cha Ming’s case with the Star-Eye Clan in Mendin, or inquire about Serrendil’s adventures deep in the Slovana heartlands.

“You’re going to need to do some extra legwork now that you’re back in the capital,” Wei Yimu said as they left. “Some political opponents have gone through a lot of effort to trash your reputation. I’ll see what connections I can draw on.”

Wei Longshen shook his head. “No. I want you to do nothing of the sort. Actually, this is perfect. You’re going to have to start behaving like the hostage you are, Uncle Yimu. Not just for your safety, but for mine. I’m afraid that we won’t have time for many visits moving forward.”

Wei Yimu looked pained at the prospect but agreed. “I suppose many of the ministers will think you a threat to the empire. A pawn for Cao Wenluan.”

“The emperor will also do nothing to dissuade them of that notion,” Wei Longshen said. “That’s the sort of game we play. After all, I’m a risky yet powerful piece, in a game that could possibly lead the empire to splinter.”

They said nothing more as they left the minister’s mansion and proceeded to their own living quarters not far way. He missed his son. He missed his wife. He missed… No. Forget her. Forget she ever existed. “Let’s go,” Wei Longshen said to his uncle. “Shufen is waiting for us.”

The old man nodded and followed a step behind him with his arms behind his back. They hummed a familiar tune as they walked, just like old times. Both of them knew that from this point on, there would be little freedom to indulge in these simple things, so they made the most of these few moments they had left.

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