Kweilin city was the gem of Ulan-Tze, a hub of art, culture, and civilization that was, in many ways, more impressive than the capitol city of Jiangmen in the Cradle of Heaven. Lord Yu's sensibilities had always been more militaristic than his wife's had been, choosing to protect his holdings occasionally at the cost of the natural beauty and physical esthetics of the planet upon which he lived. This was not to say that the Cradle of Heaven was ugly, but while the Feng Shui of Jiangmen was in balance there was an artifice to the land and its people.
The beauty of Jiangmen was a combination of the greatest works that could hope to be made by mortal men and gods working in concert, but Xiwangmu was of the opinion that the works of nature vastly outstripped the glories that any man or god could hope to match. The art of Feng Shui could never match the simple harmony of a forest grown by the will of fate alone.
The wide stump upon which she sat had been a favorite place of hers for nearly two millennia, a reminder of better times. She'd planted the tree with her beloved when they'd first colonized the world from a cutting taken from their garden on the First World as a reminder of the palace in Gongyi, the place she'd first kissed her beloved. The first place, for that matter, where she'd understood love.
The Goa'uld had been born without love in their hearts. Altruistic love was not something that came to the ancient predators naturally. The ancient spawning pools in which the first Goa'uld symbiotes had hunted the Unas had been places of violence and cruelty. One fed upon one's fellows, using them to benefit one's own immediate interests often at the cost of symbiotes who'd been ostensible allies for decades if not centuries.
That cruelty and brutality had spread out through the Empire as they'd reached out into the stars. Endless, calculating self-interest the primary motivator behind the Goa'ulds every action. It had been that cruel calculus that had first drawn the interest of the Furlings. Finally, they'd found a species as clever and capricious as they were.
It had not been till they came to the first world that Xiwangmu got a taste of love – true and pure. Xiwangmu and her beloved had entreated with a Hok'tar lord of ancient China, promising that they would protect his people from the predators of the ancient world in exchange for a merging of souls. They adopted the names and roles of their hosts – discarding their previous titles, treating their family lineage as their own and implanting their sons and daughters in the sons and daughters of Yu the Great. It was a shrewd political move, but in forging a partnership with a willing host, Xiwangmu got far more than she'd planned on.
The mortal Xiwangmu loved the mortal Yu with every fiber of her being. It had been overwhelming – something beyond anything the symbiote Xiwangmu had ever experienced. Pure, unselfish and intoxicating, Lady Xiwangmu knew that she would do anything to keep feeling like that. So, she'd done something she hadn't ever previously considered. She started listening to her host. The mortal Xiwangmu had been her closest confidant and friend to the point that when the two ascended into single personhood when she'd finally undergone the ritual of necromantic ascension, she'd gone into mourning for the loss of that friendship. Though, in honesty, she couldn't have begun to say if it was the mortal or immortal Xiwangmu who she mourned.
By that point their personalities had been so in sync that the binding of souls had been a mere formality. Since the terms had been imposed and she'd been broken back into the mortal and immortal, it was impossible to tell if a thought originated from host or symbiote. Xiwangmu was Xiwangmu, the combined wisdom and deviousness of two minds working in concert to ensure their beloved Lord Yu was victorious forever atop the Throne of Heaven.
The Goa'uld lady wiped a tear from the corner of her eye, clearing her throat reflexively to bite back the sob that felt closer and closer to breaking through as she looked at the visible veins upon her aging hands. She rubbed over the silken icon covering her belly, cursing the universe for having robbed her of youth. She was no longer the perfect porcelain doll that had warmed her beloved's bed and bore his children. Yu had never been monogamous, his bed regularly warmed by lesser wives and concubines, but it was not till she'd admitted her infertility to Lord Yu that Lady Xiwangmu realized the horrible truth.
For as much as Xiwangmu had Loved Yu for his strength and guile, Lord Yu had lusted for Xiwangmu's loveliness and the immortality of spreading his bloodline out across the stars. Once she was no longer able to provide for his needs, Lord Yu had quickly become absent from Xiwangmu's bed – and her life.
She'd cut down the tree in a fit of rage when Lord Yu had taken another Goa'uld queen to bed – a lesser queen that she in title, but one who could bear symbiotes with his memories. Her hands still ached in memory of having taken a Jaffa warrior's blade to the thick trunk, hacking till her fingers were bloody and blistered before pushing the reminder of the love that could no longer be hers into the sea below. She'd fallen to her knees atop the broken stump and openly wept that day, wishing that she'd had the courage to throw herself over the cliff as well before her First Prime had come up to her and embraced her.
It had been wholly inappropriate – the sort of thing that should have driven her into apoplectic rage, but she'd just embraced him back as he'd rocked her in his arms, cooing words of comfort to her till she recovered her wits.
He'd wiped away her tears, smiling fondly at his god as he said. "You are stronger than you know, my Lady. And you are worthier than any."
"You overstep your role." She'd sniffled as she took a flask from his hand, some sort of brandy that made her throat burn.
"Perhaps, milady. But if I should have to fall upon my blade from comforting your broken heart, I should welcome the act." He grinned, knowing full well she would ask for no such thing. She'd chosen to travel with her first prime in secret exactly to avoid any perception of weakness. "You have treated me with kindness and dignity for my entire life, have you not earned the same?"
She'd been especially fond of that Jaffa, even before that night, but he'd been the only Jaffa whose ashes she'd consented to have scattered from the outlook when he'd finally died from old age. Xiwangmu reached out to touch the Jaffa's gravestone, running her fingers over his name as she reminded herself, "I am worthy."
She was less prone to melancholy than once she'd been, but every once in a while she found it necessary to remember her love, and why she'd continued. Her love was true, even if it was unrequited. And as her Jaffa had said, she was worthy. She was likely worthier than her beloved could ever hope to know, for she'd been scrupulous in choosing the memories that she'd shared with her brood. Of the many millions of children she'd borne from her beloved, she'd chosen to share her love with them.
The brood of Xiwangmu was born with the memory of a mother's love. Love for her husband, love for her children, and love for her people. They were born with the calculation and cleverness of the Goa'uld, but it was tempered by the sense of duty and honor that the mortal Xiwangmu had carried with her. The brood of Xiwangmu were children of China, and in China family mattered above all else.
Lord Yu was the mind guiding of the Kingdom of Heaven, but Lady Xiwangmu was its heart. And it was the beating strength of the heart that kept the body of Heaven moving, even as the mind failed in its old age. For millennia the Goa'uld sub-lords and lieutenants of Yu had been his loving children, invested in his success by default rather than out of self-interest. Under Xiwangmu's subtle guidance and Lord Yu's strength, the Kingdom of Heaven had been so effective in just self-governance that the ultimate decision to leave the First World had been elective.
Unfortunately, the broods sired by Yu into his newest whores were growing in power. Quian, Chiang, and Lao-tsu were the perfect combination of greedy, ruthless, and ambitious that Xiwangmu knew that at least one, if not all, of them would make a grab for power soon. She had no evidence, of course. If she'd been able to present her beloved with even a scrap of fact to support the implication of disloyalty, Lord Yu would have his sons executed on principle. And as much as she would have been overjoyed to destroy a threat to her beloved, she couldn't bring herself to create artifice to doom them. As terrible as they were, they were the sons of her beloved.
Xiwangmu poured tea into two cups, an act that would have been considered blasphemously common if it had been witnessed by any member of her court, but a necessity given how she allowed no servants to enter the outlook. She was going to be hosting company, and it would have been unforgivable not to greet them with a cup of tea. Save her first prime and the women she planned to meet, entry upon the outlook was punishable by summary execution – likely at the blades of the women who walked the narrow path out to the outlook.
Hua Mulan was an oddity in the court of Lady Xiwangmu. She was bout to Xiwangmu only by friendship, the Lady of Ulan-tze having permitted her the freedom to travel Kingdom of Heaven under her banner without demanding an oath of eternal service. Mulan had been a warrior of great merit, earning distinction in the mortal Tang Emperor's armies. When the warrior woman taken her own life to avoid marriage to the Khan, Xiwangmu had resurrected her and offered Mulan and her sworn sister Xianniang the stars themselves. Mulan and her sworn sister had no pledge to Xiwangmu, but Xiwangmu knew them to be more loyal than any pledge might require.
The warrior woman looked much as she'd looked when first she'd come out of the Sarcophagus after her death, the combination of nanomachines and Hok'tar bloodlines having gifted her with exceptional longevity and youth. She was extremely magically weak, but blood was blood. Her face seemed no older than a woman of thirty-five though Xiwangmu knew her to be older than a millennium. Xianniang, of purely mortal stock, had not preserved nearly as well as her sworn sister.
Even with nanomachines to fight off the ravages of time, she seemed more like Mulan's grandmother than her peer. She moved with a warrior's grace, but her limbs were slower than once they'd been.
The two women fell to their knees before Xiwangmu, holding out their swords to her pommel first. Xiwangmu clucked her tongue at the symbolic offer of their own lives in disappointment. She wouldn't require their suicide, but she was annoyed that they'd failed in their task. "Put those away. Honestly, I haven't required your lives for failures much greater than this one."
"My Lady Xiwangmu." Mulan's long braid sent plumes of dust across the ground as she shook her head. "We were unable to prove your suspicions. Quian's patrols do stray close to Chrono's territory, but they appear to be barring his entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. Our spies haven't discovered any connection between his new troops and the Guard of Ages."
"They have to have come from somewhere." Xiwangmu growled in irritation, her eyes flashing. "Jaffa do not just appear from nowhere. Unless he has been breeding them in secret without any of my spies detecting his plans for twenty years, he has purchased new stock from someone."
"Yes milady, but even at a glance they are not of the Guard of Ages. Even if we were to assume that they were not bred from the stock of the Emperor's Hand, their bloodline seems close to the Imperial Guard of Amaterasu than the olive-skinned servants of the Titan." Spoke the elder warrior woman. "The are skilled with a blade, and seem confident in the martial arts of the Emperor's Hand in a way that the Guard of Ages cannot hope to match."
"Do not be so foolish as to assume that blood rules over all. Flesh can be altered, minds can be taught." Xiwangmu snarled, her eyes flashing even as she internally agreed with the women. The cost of surgically altering an entire army to superficially appear like the Emperor's Hand would have been prohibitively expensive. If Quian had the resources to achieve that, the wealth would be better spent just raising a large enough fleet to conquer Heaven or buy the loyalty of one of the great Dragons.
"Yes Lady Xiwangmu." Spoke both of the warrior women in unison as Xiwangmu shoved cups of piping tea into their hands. They waited for her to sip at her cup before drinking from theirs, the warm liquid passing the three women's lips in contemplative silence. The Goa'uld lady smiled wry enjoyment as the two warrior women sighed in utter contentment. Five thousand years of experience with the Beveridge led to truly heavenly cup of tea. She was confident that a single cup of her brew would calm the heart of even the most savage beasts of the galaxy.
"And what of the other concern?" Spoke Lady Xiwangmu as she refilled the warrior women's cups with more of her godly brew. "The Lord Warden?"
Dou Xianniang laughed out loud. "The Lord Warden is at war."
"Of course he is – he's been at war every second of every day since taking on his new mantle. Even Ares occasionally pauses for breath." Xiwangmu hissed in irritation as she stoked the device beneath her pot of tea, adjusting the heat to the desired temperature.
"A different war, this time, my Lady." The warrior woman replied in droll delight, still unable to keep hiccupping laughter from her voice. "You… you will enjoy this one greatly."
The Empress of Heaven arched her brow. The warrior women were not prone to girlish fits of giggles, and those few moments in which they indulged were rarely without cause. Even Mulan seemed to be having difficulty keeping a straight face at whatever it was that had tickled her sworn sister's fancy.
Dou Xianniang swallowed, hiccupping briefly as she struggled to maintain proper decorum. "The Lord Warden is at war with Moloch."
"Moloch…" The Empress replied, pursing her lips as she too had to resist the urge to let a fit of giggles overtake her. "The Madman who has done business with the Furlings and Red Court is unleashing the nightmare army on Moloch?"
"Indeed." Mulan replied, unable to keep herself from breaking down into outright hysterics. Her voice was barely comprehensible through a hyena like rip of laughter as she said. "He used a banner of truce as a trap to show up and kill Moloch's elite guard single handedly, forcing the loathsome letch to flee with his tail between his legs."
"Then Moloch actually tried to publicly denounce the Warden for being violent and untrustworthy. Moloch, accused someone else of being untrustworthy." Dou Xianniang wiped tears from her eyes. "Moloch, as though anyone would take his word! The warden could have annihilated the appointed meeting place from orbit and the System Lords would have considered it self-defense."
Xiwangmu shook her head sadly. "Good that he did not… I do not wish to face the repercussions of Moloch's death. Loathsome though he may be, he has seen fit to ensure that his death would cause more trouble than his continued survival. Ra and my beloved would have gladly killed the so called Lord of Gehenna if they could – likely with the Furling's blessing. But there are… consequences…"
The Warrior women nodded sadly, all too aware of the reasons they'd not been permitted to crush Moloch with the Armies of Heaven when Mulan had first discovered the disposition of Moloch's citizens. The Hok'tar general loathed Moloch almost has much as she'd hated the Khan. Xiwangmu found little error in her logic.
"The Lord Warden has proven remarkably immune to consequences." Don Xianniang's lips quirked.
"And remarkably dangerous, do not become enamored with the myth of the Warden. He is still Heka, the Dark Sorceror King who traded the Pantheon's divinity for their survival without asking our permission." Xiwangmu shook her head. "He was Moloch's ally and peer until a year ago, just because he's seen into the man's library deep enough to circumvent Moloch's failsafe does not mean that he is to be trusted. Not matter how good the legends he spawns might be."
"The romantic heroes of Nekheb are… intoxicating." Mulan agreed. "Heka's gift for poetry has proven an able tool in securing the loyalty of his forces."
"The man worked with my beloved to spread writing across the first world, of course he understands the value of words." Xiwangmu shook her head. "Though I will confess… his tales have adapted as of late."
Not just adapted. They'd changed entirely in a way that perhaps only Xiwangmu herself was equipped to understand. The Lord Warden's stories were, ultimately, love stories. They were stories in which the protagonist won, not because he was loyal to his god, but because he was loyal to his heart. The warrior Luke brought his father back from the service to the Dark Sorcerer-King for love. The spider man used his powers only for good in memory of the uncle he loved. The Batman fought for justice because he'd been robbed of love. His stories spoke to service of an ideal rather than submission to a god, and they'd become infectious for that.
There were romantic tales in the Kingdom of Heaven like those of Heka's new cult, but they never came from her beloved. They were folk stories and romanticized history, not allegory from their Immortal Emperor. Perhaps she would employ poets to ghost write similar allegory to be similarly attributed to her beloved.
"And what of his pirates?" Xiwangmu poured herself another cup.
"The Lucian Alliance grows with power, my Lady." Mulan's face lost any vestiges of amusement. "There are many worshippers of the Warden among them, but we haven't been able to secure any data to suggest direct military aid from Nekheb."
"Men do no follow a god who does not serve them." Xiwangmu shook her head. "The connection is there. And you will find it."
"I will find what exists." Mulan hedged, clearly uncomfortable. "But Netan's power structure is very fragmented. His Council of Seconds are largely self-governing and they're growing stronger by the day as they steal ships and weapons from the chaos of Sokar's realm."
"They're mortal Pirates. Find them, and crush them." Xiwangmu replied. "Is there anything else you have to report?"
"No, my lady." The warrior women replied, standing up in unison as she waved them away. The warrior women walked from the outcropping and out of view as Xiwangmu stared out across the sea. She paid them no mind as they left her, an Empress did not waste time on lesser once they'd been dismissed.
She balled her hands in the fabric of her dress as she rested her hand upon her first prime's headstone once again, leaning down to kiss the surface. "She will succeed, old friend. She too, is worthy."
Wiping tears from her eyes for the second time that day, Lady Xiwangmu started brewing another pot of tea.