Author's note: This story has a HEA (happily ever after). I'll also be adding historical notes and translations at the bottom of each chapter (You can skip them). Will give it my best shot at accuracy but I'm neither a history major nor a native speaker of Chinese/Latin (just an internet surfer extraordinaire) so there might be mistakes. I've also taken quite a bit of artistic license. These lovely people helped me with the first version of the story. I'm working on the extended version alone, so any mistakes are my own. I'm open to corrections! :-)
Special thanks to
Betas EdwardsFirstKiss, dollarbanks and LX for her help with Chinese
Pre-readers lazyncrazy, ggb-luma
Li Rong (丽容): lasting beauty, a feminine Chinese name
Serica (of silk): China and the eastern regions, as known to the Romans
Seres (the people of the land of silk): The people of Serica, as known to the Romans
Da Qin (大秦, the Great Qin): The Roman Empire, as known to the Chinese
Rinan: present-day Vietnam, previously under Chinese rule
Concubine: A woman who lives with a man but has a lower status than his wife. The higher the status of the man, the more concubines he is likely to have. In ancient China, the emperor can have thousands, and they are ranked according to his favour and whether or not they bear sons.
Eunuch: A castrated man employed to guard the living quarters of women in the imperial court
166 A.D.: The year when the first recorded emissary from Rome arrived in China
She hadn't known what it meant, initially.
The name had been a gift, the pretty sound tumbling from his lips like a waterfall. His Chinese had been simple, broken, and the musical language he'd spoken was a mystery. Even now she didn't know where it was from.
She stared at the cold steel above her, closing her eyes. So many times, he'd drawn a map on the wet earth, trying to teach her, to help her understand his origins.
Sea, far, very far, he'd finally managed to say, after several weeks of painstaking exchanges with the local traders. When understanding lit her eyes, he'd smiled brightly, his lips forming a euphony of syllables, only two of which she'd understood.
By a funny twist of fate, it had the same meaning as her original name: Bella. Li Rong. Beautiful. It was what everyone had said when they saw her as a child. Na me mei! They'd exclaimed, their eyes bright. How beautiful she is!
The goddess of beauty had moulded Li Rong with her golden fingers, people sighed. As she'd grown, tales of her loveliness had spread, and artists flocked to paint her classically beautiful features: wide doe-eyes, clear skin and a tiny mouth. The local poets penned extravagant praises for her. She puts the flowers to shame. She entices the birds to fall, and the fish to sink—so exquisite is she.
Among thousands and thousands of girls who'd gone to Luoyang for the selection, she'd been plucked out of the crowd like a ripe fruit. She'd passed the inspection easily—the endless arbitrary requirements. Slender. A straight nose bridge. Sloping shoulders. Long narrow eyebrows. Lustrous hair. No birthmarks or scars. Check, check, check.
All of it had been for nothing.
Her tightly bound hands closed into fists as she bore the pain. Her kneecaps and ankles ached fiercely from kneeling. Rope bit into already tender skin, cutting off most of her breathing as it looped over her shoulders and tied off at her back. The palace guards knew how to mete out pain with frightening accuracy.
Bella, he'd whispered.
It was her beauty that was going to kill her, after all. It was her beauty that had driven her mother to take her own life in a plea for hers. It was her beauty that would've killed him, had she not forced him to leave.
She'd been foolish.
So, so foolish.
Of course the eunuchs had been spying on her. There were eyes everywhere within the palace walls. Concubines belonged to the emperor. It didn't matter that he had four thousand of them. It didn't matter that he barely remembered her face, let alone her name. It didn't matter that her mother had done nothing wrong.
All that mattered was that she, a common girl from a modest village, had been chosen as one of the emperor's esteemed concubines—a privileged position many would die for—and she'd thrown it away for a man with whom she had no future. A man she'd never see again.
She'd disgraced herself, she'd disgraced her family, and worst of all, she'd disgraced the emperor himself—the Son of Heaven. She'd soiled his reputation, trampled on it as though it were mud.
And for that, she had to pay with her life.
Sea, far, very far.
She hoped it was where he was now, far away from the emperor's wrath. As she heard the command ordering her end, she bowed her head, the vivid blue waters swimming crystal clear before her eyes.
Three months earlier
"Currite!" Marcus roared, lashing his steed.
The horses brayed, hooves thundering as their small company fled from the Rinan bandits. They ran for their lives, but the gifts they carried—rhinoceros horns, ivory and tortoise shell acquired during their trade along the Silk Road— slowed them down.
One of the bandits clambered onto their carriage and brandished his curved blade, clearly intending to cut it free from the horses and pillage its contents.
Marcus unsheathed his sword but Eduardus had already released his arrow. It caught the man in the shoulder and he cried out in pain before losing his balance, bouncing and rolling several times along the hard gravel.
"Vadete celerius!" Marcus yelled, urging the men to go faster.
The rush was mad. Overworked horses were whipped, more arrows were fired, all this under the relentless glare of the sun. By the time they were safely across the border, Eduardus' shirt was soaked from the exertion, his heart pounding in his ears.
Despite the bandits, spirits were high. They had reached Serica and were finally nearing their destination, the capital Luoyang. Their most skilled navigator had estimated an optimistic two months.
The journey had been gruelling. They'd travelled for so many years that Eduardus had grown from a boy to a man along the way. His father, the original emissary, had died of an illness while they were still at sea. Marcus had taken over.
The older man flashed him an approving grin as they slowed, passing him a flask of water with his coarse, vein-rough hands. He'd been a fine surrogate father to Eduardus, caring for the boy and teaching him the way around weapons.
Eduardus wasn't large, coming up just to Marcus' ear. Although agile, his growth had been stunted by the lack of food during their travels. As a result, he'd come to favour the bow and arrow over the sword; accuracy and speed over strength. A deadly archer, he could hit targets accurately from astonishing distances and had saved many of their men that way.
"Aquam indigemus," Marcus murmured, as they passed through a mid-sized Serican settlement. We need water.
It was Eduardus' turn to ask. He slid down from his horse, glad to be on his feet again. His muscles were sore from the endless riding.
The village was teeming with people bustling about their daily life.
Farmers ploughed the fields, toiling despite the heat, and he heard loud clanking from the blacksmiths. Smoke escaped from the chimney of a large stone structure sitting on a raised platform.
He took it in with wonder. As they'd sailed, they'd seen the Kushans and the Parthians during the refuelling along the coast. They'd seen the Rinans, and passed many villages and towns, but he'd never seen such a sophisticated structure. Such a thing didn't exist in Rome, he mused, as he watched the blacksmith scoop molten metal from the large pit, pour it into a mould and begin to hammer.
If they had blacksmiths, they had water. But where? And how could he ask? The further they'd travelled, the more widely the language began to deviate from Latin. 'Nước' had been the Rinan word for water, but what was the word for it here?
"Nước?" he tried asking a passerby, but only received a puzzled look. "Aqua?" he tried again, this time in Latin. The man scratched his head and walked away after giving him a strange look.
Eduardus wandered along the marketplace, searching for someone to ask.
People were busy with their labour, spinning, farming, hammering, hardly taking any notice of him.
That was when he saw her—a girl with a bucket of water. Water!
He approached her cautiously. Here, men and women seemed to mingle freely but he'd experienced enough to be wary.
"Me excusa," he said tentatively. "Me excusa, domina..."
She stopped, and his heart nearly stopped as well.
Even barefaced and in simple clothes, the peasant girl was arresting. Her features were exquisitely feminine, beautiful, seeming to belong in a painting or on a doll. That she was living and breathing before him was a shock.
He blinked at her dumbly and she tilted her head, confused by his behaviour.
The movement made him catch himself, made him realise that he was acting like a fool seeing the sky for the first time. He cleared his throat, regaining his bearings. Water. He needed water.
"Aqua." He gestured at her filled bucket. "Ubi?"
She squinted at him.
"Ni yao shen me a?" she asked.
"Aqua," he repeated. Exaggeratedly, he mimed slurping water from his hands.
The look of disgust flitting over her features was a clear sign that she'd misunderstood.
"Non, non," he said hastily, realising that his gesture could be seen as lewd, but a beefy blacksmith had stepped in front of her, glaring at Eduardus.
He took a step back, raising his hands in surrender.
"Aqua," he repeated. Mehercle! He just wanted water! He pointed at the bucket and mimed drinking again—this time from a cup.
Understanding lit up in the girl's eyes, but the blacksmith was already yelling at him, saying something he couldn't understand. Within seconds, more men had gathered around him, distrust and antagonism in their eyes.
This was bad. This was very bad. Where was Marcus?
Eduardus looked around but realised he'd wandered too far into the village centre, out of sight of the others.
There was more yelling, and he could see that the crowd around him was getting angrier and angrier. The girl tried to say something, but no one was paying attention to her.
Faex, faex, faex!
Eduardus cursed to himself, wanting to leave but unable to do so with so many people surrounding him. Out of nowhere, someone's fist shot out, catching him hard in the jaw. The blacksmith. He hurled another punch and Eduardus threw his hands before his face, not daring to fight back for fear of escalation.
As he backed away, he slammed into a man in the crowd, unintentionally elbowing him in the nose. It was the only spark they needed. There was a cry of rage and then blows began to rain down on him from all directions. He fell to the ground, stars exploding before his eyes, tasting blood in his mouth.
On the other side of the commotion, Li Rong watched with dismay.
"Bie da le!" she shouted, grabbing onto blacksmith Wen. "Bie da le!" Stop fighting!
But no one was listening to her.
Determined to stop them, she grabbed her bucket of cold water, throwing it over the furious men. It surprised them enough that they paused.
She seized the chance to speak. Stop hitting him! It was a misunderstanding. He was asking for water!
Blacksmith Wen glared at her. Don't be foolish! These outsiders are all the same. All they do is steal and pester our women! Just look at the Rinan thieves. We gave them our hospitality and they plunder our livestock!
He doesn't look like he's from Rinan, she argued back. And thieves don't steal in broad daylight.
There were murmurs as people weren't sure whether or not to believe her. The argument was interrupted by the clacking of wood against stone.
Now, now, what's going on here?
It was old lady Xiu. The crowd parted, giving way to the village elder as she hobbled towards them with her stick. Her shrewd eyes took in the battered traveller. What are you doing?
He was harassing Li Rong! The blacksmith said heatedly.
He wasn't, Li Rong countered. It was a misunderstanding. He wanted water.
Old lady Xiu shook her head. Listen to the girl. Do you know that his companions are outside?
Blacksmith Wen seemed unhappy, but no one dared to argue with old lady Xiu.
There were murmured apologies. Someone helped the traveller up, another gave him a damp cloth. Someone else passed him some medicine. The crowd dispersed, the disorder dissolving as quickly as it had come.
Old lady Xiu gave Li Rong a nudge with her stick. You're too beautiful for your own good. I keep telling your mother to send you for the selection, but she's stubborn as a mule. She eyed the traveller, who seemed confused by the crowd's sudden change in attitude. Be careful when you show him where the water is. His lot has many weapons. Li Rong nodded her head respectfully to the elder as she limped towards Li Rong's home, no doubt to nag Li Rong's mother about the selection again.
The traveller's eye was swelling, his lip split. He seemed wary of speaking to her. Despite having done nothing wrong, Li Rong felt a twinge of guilt. Cautiously, she reached for the damp cloth and medicine in his hands, taking them and gesturing for him to follow her.
Eduardus was anxious about following the girl. His ribs ached from where they'd kicked him, and he was sore everywhere else. But she tapped her bucket, clearly indicating that she was going to show him where the water was. He glanced around and saw that people had returned to their work, having lost interest in the spectacle.
He'd come this far, he might as well find out where the water was.
Guardedly, he followed her down a winding path to a well. Without him having to ask, she lowered the bucket into the well before hoisting it up with the handle, showing him how the mechanism worked.
Then she dipped her fingers into the water.
"Shui," she said.
"Shui," she repeated patiently, dipping her fingers into the water again. He couldn't help himself from noticing how beautiful her hands were—long, elegant fingers and a delicate wrist.
"Shui," he echoed. The Serican word for water.
But she shook her head. "Shuuiii," she made a downwards and then an upwards motion with her finger, baffling him.
"Shui," he repeated, unable to tell the difference, and she only smiled, an enthralling smile. He expected her to leave, but she stayed with what was unmistakeably guilt in her eyes.
She emptied the bucket and turned it upside down, gesturing for him to sit as she took out the cloth and ointment from her pocket.
Eduardus remained standing, not wanting a repetition of the market incident, but the girl was insistent. With a forwardness and strength that surprised him, she took him by the shoulders, pushing him down to sit. Then without asking for permission, she dabbed the medicine over his eyelid and the cuts on his face.
Bemused, he managed to thank her. "Gracias tibi ago."
She paused, obviously unsure of what he'd just said. He shook his head to indicate it wasn't important, rising, and she gave him the ointment and strips of cloth, gesturing at his shirt.
She was asking him to apply it to the rest of his body. She seemed as though she wanted to say more but someone was yelling.
She turned, calling out something he couldn't understand and then looked back at him. Eyes earnest, she pressed the bucket into his hands and without another word, she disappeared into the market crowd.
Was that her name? A term of address? A request?
He had no way of knowing.
He looked down at the empty bucket in his hands, the girl's lovely countenance still burning brightly in his mind.
'Bella' doesn't actually mean beautiful in Latin, it means war! (here is where artistic license come in handy)
"She puts the flowers to shame. She entices the birds to fall, and the fish to sink – so exquisite is she." – This may sound rather funny when translated into English but I adapted it from two Chinese idioms based on real historical beauties. (贵妃羞花 Guifei shames the flowers, 西施沉鱼 Xi Shi sinks the fish)
'The Son of Heaven' with reference to the emperor – the Chinese used to refer to their emperor as a deity or otherwise chosen by the higher powers.
Eduardus had 'never seen such a sophisticated structure' – the ancient Chinese used blast furnaces (our current technology) to make cast iron about 1500 years before Rome, however the iron they made were brittle and used for decorative objects instead of weapons.
Luoyang was one of China's old capitals.
Although Li Rong is portrayed here as speaking Mandarin (=Beijing dialect, now spoken by almost everyone in China on top of their own local dialects), a girl in her time most likely did not speak Mandarin but a different Chinese dialect. Fun fact: speakers of different Chinese dialects usually cannot understand each other!
Vadete celerius!: Go faster!
Aquam indigemus: We need water
Me excusa, domina...: Excuse me, miss...
Mehercle!: By Hercules!
Gracias tibi ago: Thank you
Na me mei!（那么美！）: How beautiful!
Ni yao shen me a? （你要什么啊？）: What do you need?
Bie da le!（别打了！）: Stop fighting!