“Indeed, the Emperor died on the morrow. And indeed, several days later my pupils gathered for class only to pull a surprising array of weapons from beneath their cloaks and rush out of the room to join the soldiers loyal to Liu Bao arriving at the palace gate.
“The Han coin with the hole in its center spun upon its edge, and I thought it prudent to avoid taking sides in the ensuing struggle on those palatial grounds. For several days, through the winter solstice which was my only clue to the date in that foreign land, the eunuchs’ faction battled the Yan clan and the palace guards whose loyalty that clan had retained. I remained in my classroom throughout, dragging wounded soldiers of both sides from the courtyard and hallways to administer first aid as best I could, occasionally fending off attackers with one of the many swords which had been dropped by the dead and wounded.
“The eunuchs eventually prevailed, defeating and then slaughtering their rivals for the ground beneath the throne. I was spared the sight of that final bloodbath, and only learned of the eunuchs’ victory when Sun himself arrived back at the door of my classroom, his sword and appropriated chain mail both splattered with blood. I happened to be dressing the wound of one of his eunuch comrades (indeed, my patient would go on to become a marquess), and I happened to receive a last-minute invitation to the coronation of the new Emperor, a coronation which took place in the blood-stained courtyard that afternoon.
“It was the next morning, after I had risen from bed in the new and more spacious palace quarters which had been assigned to me, that I was visited by Sun. He seemed impressed that I was not hung over like most of the other celebrants of the previous night, and this impression seemed to hasten the arrival of his proposal: Sun had heard of my swordsmanship from men who had fled my expert thrusts, and, having learned from me directly on a previous occasion that I was once in the Roman Army, he proposed to suggest to the new Emperor that I be made a military advisor.
“I instantly perceived that this proposal was in the same vein as the eunuchs’ classes on Latin; the Han would learn more about a potential rival and Sun would gain power as my champion. I felt a twinge of loyalty to an Emperor at the opposite end of the Eurasian landmass, but I also sensed, as I sipped my tea before responding, that I had the most to gain with cunning.
“Cunning, as well as my mastery of the Chinese language. The following day, when a beaming Sun proposed to the new boy Emperor that His Majesty make me an advisor on training and tactics to his top general, I bowed and interjected that I would be most effective as an advisor if I knew the army which I was advising.
“Sun, still in his own bow, flushed deeply, but the new rival official standing beside the throne smiled for his part, and leaned over to utter a conspiratorial whisper. Emperor Shun spoke in the repetitious manner of his predecessor, declaring that I would join General Ban Yong on his next expedition.
“And thus began the next stage of my wanderings, a journey to the western desert of Xiyu. I was delivered the following day to the general Ban Yong, who promptly assigned me to an indifferent subordinate and seemingly forgot about me (I would spend much of the next few weeks sitting in a tent).
“The seemliness ended the following month, soon after Ban’s army had crossed the Yellow River and begun its journey along the Great Wall to the forward operating base at Tun-huang. The mid-winter cold was harsh, and I at first did not recognize the voice from atop another horse speaking to me through my muffled ears. I did not recognize the bundled figure either after my slow turn in his direction, but I did recognize his horse and uniform and realized that it was the commanding general himself who was addressing me through his cloth face-wrapping.
“I pulled my own wrapping from my face (at great personal discomfort) and replied that I had indeed never seen the Great Wall, which ran into the distance to the right of our path. Ban pulled down his own wrapping as well, informing me that this section of the wall ran two thousand li and had stood for over two hundred years, protecting the caravans carrying silk and spices for my homeland and elsewhere.
“I listened politely as the western wind numbed my face, failing to inform the general that my true ‘home’ was a time and place he could not begin to imagine. He then continued on, startling me with the fact that it was his father, General Ban Chao, who had initiated the sole contact between the Han and Roman empires thirty years before, in the form of the envoy Gan Ying.
“‘Your father sent a man all the way to Daqin?’ I asked with incredulity as we rode along, using the Chinese term for the Roman Empire.
“‘Indeed, and back,’ the younger Ban replied with a smile, before continuing with, ‘He reported of an Empire with its capital at the far end of the Western Sea, with over four hundred walled cities nestled among pines and cypresses. Teach us a few of your Roman tricks to help us defeat the Hsiung-nu, and we just might reach your Western Sea.’
“Ban had already begun re-wrapping his face before finishing his words, and he trotted on before me to the head of his army.”
“I realized after some reflection that the sea Gan Ying had been referring to was the Black Sea, which is presumably as far as he reached. And I realized after some observation that the ‘Hsiung-nu’ of which Ban spoke were the Huns.
“We encountered the Huns by simply marching to the point between a large lake and a river in the Tarim Basin and proceeding to build a fort. The barbarians, incapable of laying siege to a fortress once it was completed, attacked while it was still being constructed, and Ban’s troops were ready for their arrival. The Hun horsemen attempted to charge the ditch-mound, but the ditch had already filled with table water, and the Han had already invented the crossbow.
“Many a Hun horseman and his horse perished in the man-made river which ran red within moments, and then it was the Han horsemen who attacked, crossing the moat over ready-made planks and wheeling to attack the bogged-down enemy from the rear.
“The battle was short, but the victory was lengthy, as the enemy left many of their number and much of their courage on the field. Once that first fort was completed, detachments ventured forth unmolested to construct additional strongholds throughout the Basin, along the caravan routes which competed with those sea routes I had sailed in vain the previous calendar. And once the barbarians had lost their courage, they had lost their freedom, as the Han cavalry trotted out from one of these bases after another to compel the local Hsiung-nu to swear oaths and submit tribute to the Emperor.
“But I get somewhat ahead of myself. General Ban, I, and his army were still on the field of battle when he approached me again about the matter of ‘Roman tricks.’ Or rather, he and I were above the field of battle at that moment, as I had witnessed the Han victory from the safe perch of an enclosed archery tower, just behind the ditch, and he had climbed the tower’s ladder to ostensibly survey his troops’ handiwork and watch his cavalry hunt down the fleeing enemy. ‘You’ve now watched my men do battle,’ he prompted without looking at me, instead peering out one of the wide slits for windows cut into the wood of the tower, sticking his head into the open air enough to make his guards visibly nervous.
“‘And your men have defeated the Hsiung-nu,’ I replied, instantly realizing I had performed a dangerous parry in an attempt to put off betrayal to my Emperor. I stuck my own head out of an adjacent slit, desperate for a few moments of reflection and perhaps hoping for the whizz and thud of an enemy arrow that would win me sympathy and distraction.
“It was as I glanced down at the blood-filled moat below us, at the piles of men and horses with quarrels jutting out of their corpses, that I realized things could have been so much worse for the Huns we had met that day; that the Han victory could have been so much more decisive. Greater technology could have made a greater difference.
“I pulled my head back into the tower, turned to my host, and declared, ‘I know of new technology which might be of benefit.’
“‘What is it?’ Ban asked.
“‘I do not know quite exactly,’ I replied. ‘I will have to re-invent it.’”
“Perhaps General Ban Yong saw through my ruse of delay; perhaps he sensed correctly that I, an infantryman by training, had little else to contribute in the way of tactics against mounted archers. What he most likely never sensed was that I had no intention of allowing the Han Empire to make full use of my invention.
“Assuming, of course, that I succeeded in inventing this particular invention. I knew to begin with the ingredients charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter, the first plentiful in the remnants of any campfire and the last found in many caves lying in the marshy area along the Tarim River. Unfortunately, the only source of sulfur I knew of was a volcano, the nearest of which lay smoldering thousands of miles away.
“But, amazingly to me, the general let me go find one of those volcanos. I described the properties of the flashing, noisy, and smoking powder to him, along with how this crucial ingredient could only be found in a tropical cauldron, and it all seemed to make sense to him. South to the South China Sea I was sent under heavy escort.
“And it was south of that sea, between the islands of Sumatra and Java, that we explorers for the Han Empire found what we were looking for, the only volcano in the region I knew the location of: the Island of Krakatoa.
“Unfortunately, we came ashore on a mountain island whose caldera had not yet formed, and we had to dig for our sulfur. (Oh, my friend, how I sensed anew at that moment, when the intact top of the mountain first peeked through the sea fog as evidence of my conquest over geology, just how far I had leapt back in time.) Fortunately, our expedition was not lacking in manpower, and we soon scraped together two tons of the yellow powder we had sailed so many leagues for.
“But, fortunately for me, cyclone season by then was upon us, and I was able to persuade the admiral of our little fleet to wait out the next six months on a nearby island, until we could safely sail our junks northward once more. We kept a low profile with our jungle huts and beached vessels, apparently convincing the Indians plying the surrounding waters that we were not the vanguard of a Chinese invasion of the Spice Islands.
“My native calendar had turned southward by the time we arrived back in the Han Empire. I and the boxes of yellow powder were detained and detached from the escorts Ban had provided for me, on the road north from Wu-yang Ch’eng, and my new escorts took me and the sulfur straight back to the capital of Lo-yang. I soon learned that both of my champions in that foreign land had fallen victim to court politics; Sun Cheng had been sentenced to exile within the Empire as a result of his efforts to protect an ally, and, in the tradition of so many generals who had proven too successful for their masters, Ban Yong had been accused of tardiness to battle and removed from his post in the west.
“So I found myself back in the Imperial palace, my protectors gone and, furthermore, dark clouds of suspicion hanging over my head as I entered the throne room. The reception was chilly indeed, and this time I was allowed to cool my heels in the Emperor’s very presence, as if to convey that I might as well not exist.
“But I learned that I existed still, at least in the eyes of the Han Empire, when I was told to step from the back of the room to a standing position front and center before the throne. Emperor Shun was given a command by a new eunuch, and the Emperor asked me a question after deigning to provide the explanation, ‘General Ban tells us that he sent you south on the sea to create a fire weapon.’ The question was, ‘Is this true?’
“I looked up from my bow, and instantly perceived a smirk in more than one corner of the room; I then perceived that the general’s endorsement of my outlandish expedition might have contributed to his downfall. I only replied, ‘It is true, Your Imperial Majesty.’
“Another command, another question: ‘Where is this fire weapon which you speak of?’
“‘It is not yet ready for demonstration, Your Imperial Majesty,’ I replied. I was looking at the floor now, but sensed the smiles behind the eyes more than ever.
“‘Not yet ready for demonstration?,’ the Emperor prompted, amazingly without being prompted himself.
“‘I have the ingredients required, but not the exact knowledge required,’ I replied, dancing upon a razor sharp edge (perhaps literally, I feared) between revealing useful secrets and proving that I still had useful secrets to provide.
“The eunuch leaned over to whisper once more, and I learned in the next instant that I was considered useful still (and therefore would survive for the time being). ‘You will perfect this “fire weapon,” and provide me with a demonstration in one month’s time,’ the Emperor informed me. He concluded with a ‘That is all,’ and I was curtly led away from the jade throne.”
“Every step away from that throne led me to the next stop on my long, long wanderings: a single room in a tall tower, complete with unfriendly guards.
“To be sure, my cell was spacious, and soon stocked with the accouterments of a comfortable captivity, as well as the necessary supplies and equipment for my coming experiments, including the two tons of sulfur which had been brought back with me in crates, and the charcoal and saltpeter which were procured for me within a matter of days.
“But also to be sure, I was a prisoner in the heart of a foreign land, uncertain of my fate if I were to present that land’s ruler with my ‘new’ invention, and uncertain of my fate if I failed to do so. It was a week into my confinement, when I created the first flash of a gunpowder reaction the world had ever seen, that I began to contemplate means of escape. Considering the means at my hands, an initial breakout seemed entirely plausible, but the means to escape the power of the Emperor and his rulers altogether were patently missing.
“That is, until my second week in the tower. My first and last visitor in that cell was none other than the eunuch Sun Cheng, who arrived in the middle of the night wearing, it still being winter, a face covering that allowed him to conceal his identity without arousing suspicion. He obviously still held some sway amongst the palace guards, his exile notwithstanding, as the pair on the far side of my door let him in without a word.
“I, who had been sleeping on a bed in a far corner of the room, had risen the moment I had heard the door creak open, and was standing in the middle of the room with pestle in hand when that door creaked shut behind my visitor. I did not make another motion until the visitor uncovered both his face and his lamp after he had advanced a set of steps further into the room.
“‘Sun Cheng,’ I whispered when I saw the face. Fearing an act of revenge for the slight before the Emperor’s eyes, I tightened the grip on my makeshift club.
“The eunuch seemed not surprised by my defensive stance, and slowly pushed his left palm downward as he informed me, ‘I come in peace, to help you escape.’ His high-pitched voice was so soft that it was barely audible.
“My grip did not loosen, and I asked, ‘Why would you want to help me escape?’
“Sun looked about the room, glancing at the stacks of crates with seeming x-ray vision. ‘Because I have learned that you are creating a weapon for the Empire,’ he replied with his hands now hidden in the sleeves of his overcoat, save for a pair of fingers holding the lamp’s handle, and he continued with, ‘The Han Empire is too corrupt, and its Emperor too weak. A weapon such as yours will only keep it in power, instead of letting it go the way it should.’
“Still, my grip did not loosen. ‘Then why not just kill me?’ I asked.
“I saw Sun smile for the first time as he looked about the room once more. ‘Because I will need your expertise in destroying these ingredients,’ he replied.”