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Cold,
that first night in the horse country,
autumn on the way,
but Li didn't put up his tent.
Laid down on the grass,
rolled in a blanket.
Stared up at the stars,
waiting in case the wild horses came,
sent, somehow, by King Xau.
 
Woke at dawn.
No wild horses.
His king, his friend, dead.
 
Li put the pack saddle and bags
onto Narson, mounted Kuan.
Rode on into the steppe,
pushing the thought of Xau away.
Nothing more that day
than wind-stirred grass,
the rhythm of the horse beneath him,
a hawk overhead.
 
On the second night he drank
a bottle of rice wine.
Found no comfort in it.
Woke up stiff, chilled.
Saddled the horses.
Rode, the grasslands extending
as if without limit.
 
At times,
the memory of Xau unstoppable.
The king's broken body,
the king struggling to speak,
telling Li not to blame himself,
but the fault Li's, the failure Li's,
Li who had been captain
of the king's guards.
 
Li shouted out as he rode,
shouted for forgiveness, for a sign,
for the wild horses to come.
Nothing.
 
On the fourth day
he saw smoke in the distance,
an encampment of horse warriors.
Li wanted no company,
turned his horses aside.
 
When it rained at night,
he set up the tent,
otherwise he slept on the ground.
He took care of the horses
and little else,
subsisted on dried meat and nuts,
his hair tangled, greasy,
his clothes grimy.
 
One night in his tent,
over the sound of rain,
a pounding of hooves.
Li bolted outside.
 
"Li, give me a hand, will you?"
 
Gan. Gan who had been a king's guard once.
Gan and two horses.
Only Gan.
 
Li unsaddled one of the horses,
carried Gan's bags into the tent.
Gan came in after him, dripping wet.
A long fumbling delay
while Gan lit a lamp.
 
Li blinked back brightness.
 
"You look rough," said Gan,
foraging in a saddlebag.
He pulled out a bruised pear,
gave it to Li. "Here. Eat something,
then I'll get you cleaned up."
 
The bruised pear in Li's hands.
He stared down at it.
 
"Eat, Captain," said Gan.
 
"I'm not captain anymore.
I stepped down."
Another way Li had failed Xau,
by refusing Keng, Xau's son.
 
"You'll always be Xau's captain," said Gan.
"And he wants you safe."
 
"Wanted," corrected Li.
 
"Wants," said Gan. "I didn't know
how I was going to find you,
but once I crossed the Guang Yun river
the horses led me straight to you."
 
The patter of rain, Gan watching him.
Li turned Gan's words over,
trying to find in them
the proof he needed.
 
Tears streamed down Li's face.
He took a bite of pear.


Mary Soon Lee was born and raised in London, but now lives in Pittsburgh.  She has won the Rhysling Award and been nominated for the Elgin Award for her poetry.  “The Sign of the King” is part of her epic fantasy about King Xau, more of which may be read at http://www.thesignofthedragon.com.
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