Swords v. Cthulhu is our newest genre-blending anthology of original fiction, and to celebrate its publication we’re posting excerpts from each of the stories. Our next teaser is from Laurie Tom’s Three Kingdoms-set epic “The Final Gift of Zhuge Liang.” Instead of ending with the death of hope, hers is a tale that opens in that dark territory…
Zhuge Liang was dead, and with him, Shu Han’s greatest hope of a unified China. The prime minister’s star trembled in the night sky instead of falling to earth with the death of the great sage. Zhuge Liang had promised that it would remain until the Shu army had withdrawn, so their enemies would not know of his passing.
But that was small comfort for Jiang Wei, who entered his mentor’s tent to pack Zhuge Liang’s possessions for travel back to the riverlands. Outside, Yang Yi marshaled the soldiers in accordance with the prime minister’s final wishes. No banners of mourning would be hung, or the soldiers of Cao Wei in their fortress would know that the Sleeping Dragon now slept for good. The Shu withdrawal would be quiet, orderly. Once they were safe, then they would mourn.
The tent flap opened again and Ma Yun stepped inside. He clasped his hands and gave a slight bow. “I thought I would find you here.”
“Did Yang Yi send you?”
Jiang Wei outranked Ma Yun, but the two had become friends over the six years and five expeditions that had made up Zhuge Liang’s attempts to pacify the north. Though others were contemptuous of Ma Yun and his oddly light voice, the soft timber of a eunuch, Jiang Wei knew better. Ma Yun had been born a woman, but considered himself a man.
“No, I am simply concerned about your well being,” said Ma Yun. “My men are helping load the carts, and they do not need my oversight for that.”
“Then you should rest. We’ll be marching soon.”
Ma Yun knelt beside Jiang Wei and said, “We will both rest when your work is done. Do you think I could sleep when you do not?”
Jiang Wei sighed, but handed his friend a lacquered box. “Still stubborn,” he said. “As soon as Sima Yi realizes we’ve abandoned camp, he’ll lead the Wei army in pursuit of us. The prime minister’s star will have fallen and they’ll know that he’s dead. We need time.”
“You’ll think of something. You have been his student these past six years. There is no better strategist to succeed him and you know these northern lands better than anyone.”
Six years ago Jiang Wei had been an officer in the Wei army, until a paranoid commander had suspected him of collaborating with Shu. When he had fled for his life, Zhuge Liang had been the one to offer him refuge and gave him a position in his army. Now, with the prime minister’s final request, it would be Jiang Wei’s duty to pacify the land he had once called home.
“You could always dress a wooden figure in the prime minister’s clothes and stick it in his carriage,” said Ma Yun. “Wheel it around and from a distance Sima Yi might think that the prime minister is still directing the battle.”
His voice was playful, but Jiang Wei could almost take the suggestion seriously. Sima Yi’s greatness weakness was his tendency to overthink the traps Zhuge Liang had laid for him. That was why the Wei army remained safely ensconced in their fortress rather than facing Shu on the battlefield. Even the prime minister’s attempts to insult the tactician’s honor had failed in the wake of Sima Yi’s paranoia.
Which gave Jiang Wei an idea…
For the rest, get Swords v. Cthulhu from Stone Skin Press
Laurie Tom is a third generation Chinese American. She was introduced to the Chinese classic, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, via the video game series and only read the book much later. She apologizes to Zhuge Liang for never defeating Wei in the Northern Expeditions as her player avatar had other ideas. Laurie’s fiction has appeared in other anthologies such as Streets of Shadows and The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk.