The Narayani Sena took a handful of dirt, clenched it in his hands, then transformed it into some strange substance. It now glowed with power and hummed with music that was barely perceptible by the ears. Then he placed the contents into a brass bowl that Li Linfu gave him and lit it with a tiny spark that emerged from his fingers.

Immediately, the cave was filled with the sweetest of smells, irresistible, and the stench of fear and hopelessness was replaced by memories of colorful springs and warm summers. The Prince himself remembered pleasant memories of innocent childhood, before the time of corruption and decadence. Slowly and with gentle steps, the Prince and Duryodan walked among the sleeping men, holding the bowl as though it was filled with incense. Li Linfu led the way, guiding the Narayani Sena to those men who most needed the magical scent, and Duryodan dutifully followed, their footsteps like mist.

“Here,” Li Linfu said as they came upon a group of cavalry men, who stank like their horses. They slept upon dirty straw mats and were hungry, for they gave most of the little rations they had to their own horses.

“These are men like me,” Li Linfu said. “Lesser nobility. Of all the men here, they had the most to lose in joining me. Li Bei and the higher nobles and mandarins targeted the lesser and regional houses, seeing them as threats to their own power, then replaced them with merchant-princes more concerned with the tax base than their people’s welfare.”

“There is no need to hide your thoughts, oh prince. These men fight for their houses and their legacy,” Duryodan said knowingly. “But you doubt their loyalty to you and the empire.”

“I would if I were in their place,” Li Linfu answered. “I am a fraud, my lord. Like these men, I rebelled because Li Bei attacked me and mine. I did not care for the welfare of the Empire until the executioner’s sword was poised to strike at my head and the court eunuchs took my father and brothers away into their dungeons.”

Li Linfu stared hard at the faces of the cavalry men. Their features were like his own; narrow, aristocratic, and of good breeding. Even the dirt, hunger and wounds could not hide such features.

They were good warriors, too, but he knew their mindset, because it was like his own: family over nation and empire. He knew with certainty that Li Bei’s offer of amnesty brought doubt to their minds, and he feared that they might slip away before the final battle, crushing what was left of his men’s morale.

“Lord Prince,” Duryodan said at last. “All men doubt, as you do. It is the way of things. Even we, servants of the ‘Lord Dao,’ falter in the face of entropy, but a man’s motives are nothing compared to his actions. These men have struggled with you for many years. They have had many opportunities to abandon you, to flee to obscurity or to foreign lands, as many others have done, but they have kept the faith. Do you doubt them, Prince of the House of Li, or yourself?”

Li Linfu did not answer. He looked at the faces of his cavalrymen and found only peace there, without doubt and without fear. And he did not need Duryodan’s words to bolster his faith in his men. He scanned the faces for his chief lieutenant and found him snoring serenely, shaking slightly due to a fever. Duryodan walked to the officer, blew the incense upon him, and the illness went away.

“This man over here,” Li Linfu said, “is Xuan Ti. He’s barely 20. He joined me after his father’s property was stripped away and his family exiled to distant Panlongeng. When he joined, I promised him that I would restore his family’s fortune, that I would avenge the dishonor done to him and his family. Do you know what he told me, my lord?”

Duryodan did not speak; he merely stood next to Li Linfu, comforting and ominous at the same time.

“He told me, ‘Save the nation of my ancestors, my prince,'” Li Linfu said sadly, “‘That is the only reward I want.’ Please, my lord, I beg of you, do not let him perish.”

But Duryodan would not speak. Heaven itself cannot stand against a man’s free will, nor can the innumerable gods stand against his conviction.

And I weep for Xuan Ti and his general, Li Linfu.


With the smoke of the incense trailing in their wake, Li Linfu led Duryodan to his archers and auxiliaries. Unlike many of his own men, these soldiers hailed from Uyt and the Sokudai lands. They wore the hides and leathers of their people instead of the scale mails of the Qin, and they were armed with clubs and bows instead of shields, swords, and spears.

Many of them watched the prince and his guest approach, and soon they were all awake, watching curiously. The Sokudai stared at Duryodan, as though seeing past his flesh, and they made several signs with their hands, as though asking for protection or warding off a terrible spirit.

His Sokudai lieutenant, Tenak Ir, walked towards Li Linfu and bowed to him, but to Duryodan, he knelt. He touched the ground with his forehead, then got up again. Turning to Li Linfu, he said, “You have summoned something ancient and powerful, little princeling.”

Tenak Ir’s voice was rough and harsh, but also filled with fatherly compassion. The brown-skinned man was twice Li Linfu’s age, and though a foreigner and not of the empire, he held a fatherly affection for the Prince, who in turn was also just as fond of the barbarian.

Tenak Ir turned to face Duryodan. “So-called civilized peoples say that your kind have departed this world, my Lord, but we—the people of the plains—know better. Did you come here to fight by our side?”

“No,” Duryodan said simply, and for a brief moment, the youthful flesh of an Imtiri mercenary fell away to reveal the true power beneath it. Tenak Ir blinked in fear, then looked at the smoking bowl upon the creature’s hand and understood its purpose.

The harsh faced warrior looked at Li Linfu, then back at Duryodan, and he bowed his head to both. “Thank you, my lords,” he said with outpouring gratitude. “Thank you.” Then he stepped aside and allowed the men to walk among his soldiers.

There was no need for words here.

The men they passed through bore the brand marks of slavery, their necks and wrists covered in scars from collars and shackles broken long ago. Their eyes bore the memory of distant lands, lands whose kings had been thrown down by the armies of the Qin, and whose peoples were brought over to the Jade realm to work upon the fields and toil in the mines.

Most of their brothers and sisters—desiring power—pledged their loyalties to Li Bei, the Higher Mandarins and the Court Eunuchs, the very same men who conquered their lands and enslaved their people. For their fealty, they were rewarded with power over the peasants and Lower Houses of the Empire that conquered their lands. But among those who refused, those who desired only to bring independence for their nations, they joined Li Linfu, and for their faith, they were rewarded with poverty, pain, wounds, hunger, misery, and now, imminent death.

But they did not detest their fate, bitter though it may seem. As Duryodan passed among them, they beheld for a few moments, their homes and their families, far beyond their reach now, and many wept. Even rough faced Tenak Ir wept, and they began to hum songs from their lands, sorrowful and filled with yearning for what had been lost. When Duryodan had finished his blessings, the songs died down and were replaced by a dignified—almost meditative—silence.

“A question to you, Tenak Ir of the Sokudai,” Duryodan asked, and the old warrior seemed surprised that he would even deserve his notice.

“Of course, my lord.” Tenak’s voice seemed to echo through the silence.

“Why do you serve a prince whose battle cry is ‘Zunwang Rangyi!’ Why do you serve a man who calls you ‘barbarian’ and wants to drive you off his country?”

Tenak Ir was taken off guard, not by the question, but by the fact that the Narayani Sena—a being who is said to know the deepest secret things—would ask him a question.

“My Lord, I will tell you the same thing I told this little princeling when my men and I first joined his pitiful rebellion: ‘I fight for the freedom of my land and my people, and that means opposing Li Bei.’” He looked at Li Linfu for a moment, as though measuring his thoughts. “Rhetoric aside, the prince has treated me and my men with dignity. A cold sort of dignity perhaps, but we have no cause to complain. We for the freedom of our own peoples and also against a common enemy.”

“And if that very same enemy were to offer you the freedom of your lands and people,” Duryodan asked, his face hard as he asked one of the many questions that troubled Li Linfu’s heart, “would you slip a blade through this Qin princeling’s heart? What is your answer?”

Tenak Ir’s face became grim and he faced Li Linfu as he answered. “Yes. I will kill this prince who has led and succored my men and I for many months, who gave up everything to fight against injustice. And afterwards, I will take my life in penance.”

He turned to face Li Linfu, whose own face remained tranquil, and said, “If the duck fornicating son of a whore Li Bei did offer such a promise, and there is proof that he will keep such a promise, then yes, I will kill, you little princeling, and then I will join you in the afterlife as your slave.” He then turned back to Duryodan. “But such an offer would be a lie, oh lord. And so I will fight by his side. Free!”

“Then you and all your men shall die with him tomorrow, Tenak Ir of the Sokudai,” Duryodan answered grimly.


And finally, they went among the peasants. The vast majority of Li Linfu’s army consisted of peasants; hungry, sick, and emaciated peasants who, out of a combination of courage and desperation, had remained in rebellion long after their more rationale comrades had escaped back to their farms and villages. The prince led Duryodan among ragtag peasants of his army; desperate farmers and tradesmen, and even a few merchants, who followed him out of love for their nation and in fealty to the great Dynasty.

Most were asleep, though a few sentries saluted Li Linfu as he passed by. They bowed low to the prince and his companion, their emaciated bodies and weary faces barely concealed by the dirt and shadows of the cave’s walls. Of all the soldiers in Li Linfu’s armies, these were the most miserable. Coughs were common among these men, and the smell of unwashed bodies and dried blood pervaded the air.

Here and there, Duryodan noticed dust-covered rice bowls and cracked waterskins patched up after many years of use. Their weapons and armor were likewise pathetic, many of which bore signs of multiple repairs. Save for their coughs, all the soldiers slept silently, as though already dead.

Tomorrow, these men will be forced to fight against a well-fed, well-supplied army. Li Linfu silently guided Duryodan among these men, and as incense smoke wafted through the cave, a new vitality seemed to infuse the peasant soldiers. The coughing stopped, and the murmuring of dark nightmares seemed to fade away. Even their stench and odor was fading away, to be replaced by an ambiguous though familiar scent that invoked memories of joy and warmth.

Li Linfu felt the change as well, and he began to weep, even as he guided Duryodan among his men.

Slowly, as though seeing through the mist of their mortal limitations, the sentries saw through Duryodan’s human façade, and they peered at the glorious power who walked among them and their comrades. In both terror and awe, they bowed before this creature and murmured half-remembered prayers from their childhood, prayers to the Lord Dao, beseeching me to give them aid and mercy in their time of trials. None dared to approach the two, save for a brave soul who touched the hem of Duryodan’s cloak.

A few of the rebels awoke, their sleep interrupted by an ambiguous and hidden light that they could not quite see, but which glowed wildly at the periphery of their vision. Quietly and with fearful caution, they joined the procession of sentries who followed Duryodan and Li Linfu.

At last, the incense had run out, and Duryodan hid the brass bowl into his robe, and the hidden, ambiguous light was slowly fading away, turning into a gentle glow in the darkness. But the smell of the incense and its blessings never went away. All throughout Li Linfu’s camp, rebel warriors rested happily, their bellies full and their hearts filled with a strange and distant joy.

They will die tomorrow.

Their bodies will be hacked apart and their heads mounted upon pikes to be sneered. But it was going to be okay. For up above, the sky was calm, and the light of heaven and all its stars will not go out. Rebels though they may be, miserable though their fate may be, they were filled with a certainty that their deaths will not be in vain, and that the Nation-Empire of Qin shall survive, and their families and villages will live on, despite all the suffering and miseries of the coming years.

Though they may not know it, I was with them that night, and in all nights and at all times, and I filled their hearts with courage and renewed their sagging spirits. I whispered to them and reminded them of their sacred duty to act, and though they could not hear my words, I have touched their deepest being, for I am in all and all are in me.

These I gave to all the men who served Li Linfu; to the rebel aristocrats who forsook their privileges, so that they may fulfil their noble duties to their nations; to the Sokudai warriors of Tenak Ir who made common cause with a Qin rebel prince so that he may free his nation; and to the peasant militia who fight with pitchforks and plowing tools against armed soldiers, so that they may free their own country from the tyranny of court eunuchs and a power-hungry minister who see their own people as enemies to be suppressed with foreign auxilia-mercenaries and call it “Enlightened Governance.”   

Amidst the soft silence of the desert and in the face of death, the rebel army understood their duty, their dharma, and they found peace in that certainty.


For all installments of “The Age of Crows: Glorious Yongqui,” click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1


“Glorious Yongqui” is part of Jed J. Del Rosario’s Age of Crows universe. If you would like to read another story set in the same universe, you can purchase Death Dealers and Diabolists here.