I can’t believe we are doing this. When the star first appeared nearly three weeks ago, everybody was in an uproar. Of course, there were many in the courts who tried to toady up to Emperor Ai but showing how it was a propitious sign for his reign. Jiao Guangqi knew better. He followed closely the writings of Louxia Hong and said that this star could only mean that the one destined to become the greatest emperor in the history of the universe has been born far in the west. How far? “Farther than any merchant from Chang’an has ever traveled.”
At first, it was exciting to be part of the select group that Guangqi put together to discuss the true meaning of the star and what we might be able to do about it. There had been high hopes for Ai when he first became the Emperor after the death of his uncle. Unfortunately, expectation did not match reality and we have been more oppressed and taxed worse now than at any time in recent memory. To speak of a newborn emperor in some distant land was a good way for us nobles and scholars to vent our frustrations.
Somehow, somewhere along the line, it became much more than that. The talk of this new emperor turned to talk of going to see and pay homage to him. Somehow Shi Huangdi managed to secure for us permission from Emperor Ai to embark on the journey. Most of us did not even know he was going to broach the topic, to begin with. Even more surprising than his courage was the fact that Ai granted our request. I guess when Ai heard that it was a journey of months in each direction, he figured it would be a way to exile some potential malcontents without being seen as doing so. He may be cruel but the Emperor is nobody’s fool.
Anyway, we began the journey today. So soon! I counseled for more time in preparation but this trip is marked by eagerness and impatience. I confess I am a bit eager myself. I am supposed to be the oldest and wisest one on this journey but the young men’s enthusiasm is contagious. At forty-eight, I am hardly ancient, but most of the others coming are closer to half my age. I just hope I can keep up.
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We have been heading steadily northeast and uphill for more than a week. The three merchants in our party used to such travel have said we have been making good time. I have never spent so many evenings in a row sleeping out among the stars. I have never realized how many stars there truly are. Nearly all my life I have remained inside the walls of Chang’an. In a city like mine, it is never truly dark. I never realized what true darkness is until spending a cloudy night far from the comfort of my home. But there are no clouds tonight. There are simply a million stars lighting up the sky. Kang Tai tried to show me the different constellations last night. He could point to and name all the brightest stars and told me how they were used for navigation. I did my best to pretend I was interested, but I don’t think I was very convincing. He went off and shared his love with Guangqi who is just as crazy about those things of beauty. Me? I figure in this one area, ignorance is bliss.
Tomorrow we will change direction slightly to begin heading directly north. The good news is that we will not be heading uphill for the next leg of our journey. The bad news is that it is much drier on this plateau. I do not think I am as big a fan of the climate here as I am of my home. Even worse, for the third time today, we have broken an axle. There is talk that we might have to trade in our wagons for extra pack animals at the village that marks the end of this second leg of our journey. That means I will be riding a horse rather than this bumpy wagon. As much as I would like to say I enjoy the challenge, I know that I am not nearly the equestrian I was a decade ago. My hard-earned wealth was supposed to shelter me from unpleasantries like this.
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We have now been more than a month on the road. That phrase, “on the road” is completely inadequate for where we have been. There are no roads here. For much of the time, there are not even any paths. I know, I know, Kang Tai insists that we are traveling a route that is growing more and more common every year. I don’t see it as very common. That village we last passed has fewer people in it than are on my block back in Chang’an. I miss Chang’an. Oh, how I miss my home. Why did I ever agree to go on this journey? Every night my legs are sorer than the last. Every morning the dawn comes earlier and I am falling further and further behind on the sleep my august personage should be getting. This kind of travel is a young man’s game. I am no young man.
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I am told that this will be the last time we will be spending a night in a village for a long time to come. From here we will be climbing the mountains. and then passing through the desert. At first, I thought they were only joking when they spoke of the desert to come. What do they think we have been traveling through these past two months? It hasn’t actually been wet. I can’t remember the last time I saw any rain and we are going further and further each time to get to the next stream which always seems smaller than the last one we passed. I thought they were joking until I saw that we are unloading practically everything we have just so that we can load up on water. This is not good. This is really not good.
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A real city! I cannot believe I am saying that about what, just five months back I would have considered this place a flyspeck of a barbarian outpost. I don’t think there are even twenty thousand people here, but that is more than the combined total of every village we have passed since crossing the eastern edge of the desert. Kang Tai has pointed out some writing on a building that once served as a barracks. Apparently, this was the westernmost outpost during the former Han dynasty. I wonder if they realize that our maps still claim this land? They certainly do not speak any language I recognize.
The local mayor has heard of our quest and requested that his son, Jushi, join us on our journey. No one from our party has ever traveled further west than this little city: Sulei, Shulig, or Kashyar, (apparently the town has a different name for each language spoken here). So this new addition to our group is more than welcome. To be honest, even if he did not know the land and speak the languages of these barbarians, I would welcome a different face. Shi Huangdi has told every story he knows a hundred times and as dry as they all are, nobody else has made the effort to do anything to keep our spirits up. This emperor had better be worth it. When I return home, I will never again set outside of my precious Chang’an.
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We have wandered into a death trap. Nobody told us that this city, Heravia or something like that, was raging with some disease that Bian Que calls Typhoid. Apparently, the locals have tried to segregate those infected while trying their best to maintain business as usual and hide the truth of the epidemic from travelers. In a way, I do not blame them. The lifeblood of this city is trade and without it, all will starve. On the other hand, by keeping their gates open, they are encouraging the infection to spread far and wide.
It is too late for us. More than half our group including me are now raging with fever. Bian Que has been forcing us to drink as much water as we can possibly get into our bodies. He is also making us eat nothing but fruit. I think the man has bought out every fruit vendor in the bazaar. He has also created some awful concoction that tastes like garlic and vinegar as well as some other awful plants or things that are not intended to be consumed by man. If it is a choice between this gall or death, however, I will drink it down. Apparently, the local barbarians in this area worship fire. Well, I sure feel as though I am burning from my stomach into the rest of my body. If this is the type of disease these people get, then clearly their god is not happy.
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My fever has broken. There are still seven men in our party still raging with that internal fire but Bian Que believes at this point that they all will pull through. If they do survive then that means off our party of twenty-three, we only lost two. I never did learn the name of Zheng Ziaosong’s manservant. Whatever it was, the man always seemed to be smiling. He will be missed. Even more, I will miss Jiao Guangqi. That young man had been full of enthusiasm and intelligence. He was the one who put this group together and it breaks my heart to know he will never reach the finish line.
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We have finally left that infernal city behind us. For the next few days, it will be slow going but it is good to finally be back on the road (that is not a road). I cannot believe now that I ever was dreading riding a horse early on in this journey. At this point, I feel like it is second nature. I don’t know what I will do when the confines of Chang’an will prevent me from this pleasure of riding out in the open wilderness.
Those of Jushi’s group that have traveled with us have tried the local remedy for this sickness we have all suffered under. It is called Redey or Ridhi or something like that. This is made from the seed of poppy and takes away the pain of the illness as well as reducing the fever. At least that is what the Redey sellers claim. All I see is that it seems to take away all fear and replaces it with a lethargic bliss. Bian Que remains skeptical of the medicine’s value and I have also noticed that all four men are continuing to use the “cure” even though the sickness has passed from them. Perhaps they are fearful of a relapse.
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We are finally about to embark on the last leg of this journey. We will be spending two days in this city called Beroea before heading directly south. We have crossed the length of a kingdom called Parthia and entered into the kingdom of Rum ruled by a distant senator called Kaisar the August One. They say this Rum was once a Republic but is now an Empire. I do not know what a republic means and the attempts by the locals to explain make no sense to me. I think something is being lost in translation.
The eagerness has returned to our party. There has been a cloud hanging over our group ever since we walked into that epidemic back in Heravia. But now as we are growing close to the end of our journey, the excitement has been fanned back into flame. It helps that our group has swelled during our travel through Parthia. Apparently, their astrologers have seen other signs in the heavens that led them to the same conclusion. Our original party now makes up barely more than half the full retinue. I wonder what the local King, Herod I believe he is called, will make of this mixed company from so many lands. In three weeks, we will find out.
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We stopped early today about five kilometers from our destination. Three days past a squad of Roman soldiers joined us and have since served as our escort. Their language is strange and their bathing rituals are very different from what we are used to, (they smell of sweat and olives). That said, I do have to admit that I am impressed with the discipline of these soldiers.
Tomorrow is the day. Tomorrow we will meet with this King Herod and request that he introduce us to the newly born emperor who is destined to shake the whole earth. I can barely pause to write even this short entry in my travel log. Honestly, I am brimming over with anticipation. What will he be like? Does he already have the regal bearing of his destined nobility or will he simply look and act like any other babe? Tomorrow I will know. But I do not think I will be able to sleep tonight.