Half of the Empire
a short story
A young man from a fishing village once went to the Capital
to see what he would see. He left his little boat hove up on stony ground
beneath the docks, and he gave no thought to the possibility that someone
might steal it. He wandered the streets from the fish market to the
workshops and foundries, on toward the farm markets and dry markets.
The smells of vendors roasting nuts or searing meats made his mouth
water, but he had no money. He had only salted fish in his pouch, and
after he ate that he was still hungry. Although his stomach growled,
he savored the smells more than most men with money would have enjoyed
As he went farther and farther from the sea, he marveled at the clothes
that grew finer and finer and the manners that were more and more refined
until he scarcely knew his own countrymen. He kept going as the streets
widened and led into the hills toward the marvelous white palace, which
he stood before and admired for a time. The sun sank low in the sky,
and a haze settled over the city. When the young man looked back at
the way he had come, he could not see the sea.
As night fell, golden lanterns glowed on the streets. The paper windows
of the houses were lit from within. There was no beauty like this in
his village, though his village was comfortable enough and had a homely
beauty of its own. He had planned to sleep beneath his boat, but with
no waves beneath his feet and the stars hidden from view, he had turned
so many times that now he had lost his way.
He knocked at a door, thinking that he would ask his way to the docks.
He forgot what he meant to say, though, when the woman who answered
was the most beautiful he had ever seen. For all her beauty, she looked
sad, and her eyes were red as if from crying. Though she appeared to
be no older than he was, she met his stare, and when he did not speak
she said, "Why have you come?"
The young man said, "To, ah, to see...the master of the house."
"You will regret it," the woman said. She began to weep. "You should
turn around and go right back the way you came."
"But I can't," the young man said.
"Because you are so very brave," the woman said. "I know."
"Bravery has nothing to do with it," the young man said. "I'm lost
The woman's weeping ceased. She looked surprised. Indeed, she would
have looked no more surprised if the young man had suddenly turned himself
into an eel. "No one has ever said that before." Then she frowned. "But
you aren't prepared. You're empty handed and perhaps empty headed as
well. Are you sure you want to see the master?"
"I am sure."
She led him down a corridor and to a screen. Then she withdrew. As
she went away, he could hear her weeping again. "She seems to have sorrows
and worries aplenty," the young man said. "I wish I could do something
for her." Then he slid the screen aside and stepped into the room behind
In the middle of the room sat a giant roasting meat over a brazier.
He wore armor and two swords. When he saw the young man, he stood up,
unsheathed the longer sword and said, "Why have you come?"
"To see the master of the house. Are you him?"
"I am the master's captain, and to see him, you must come through
me. Prepare yourself."
The young man said, "If I have to fight you in order to see the master,
I might as well pass the night here instead. It's warm with the brazier
burning." The meat sizzled and smoked, and the young man's stomach growled.
"But haven't you come to see the master?"
"To tell you the truth, it's only by chance that I came here. I wanted
to see the city, and now that I have seen it, I am ready to go home.
But I got lost. When I came to the door, the woman who answered was
so beautiful that I forgot what I had meant to say and asked to see
the master. That woman is as sad as she is pretty. Do you know why?"
"She weeps for the men who come seeking to claim her. They all die
in this room at my sword."
"And have many such men come?"
"Dozens and dozens for years and years."
"I see why she's sad. They must love her very much."
"It's the power they want, for her dowry is half the Empire."
"She's a princess, then?"
"I am surprised that you hadn't heard."
"I'm not from around here," said the young man. "Will you tell me
The giant lowered his sword. He and the young man sat on either side
of the brazier, and the giant told how the princess had been enchanted
by the master, who was a powerful sorcerer. She had not aged, but neither
had she loved. Several times a year young men from the great cities
of the empire came to win her, even though every suitor before them
"She is very pretty," the young man said, "but at the moment
the thing I am most interested in is getting something to eat and having
a warm place to sleep."
"This is quite irregular," said the giant, "but since you didn't really
come to fight me, I suppose it would be all right if you stayed as my
guest." He drew the shorter sword and used it to cut the meat from the
bone, and he gave a portion to the young man. They ate, then sat talking
into the night about how to fight with a sword and how to cast a net.
"Ah, how this makes me long for my soldiering life," the giant said,
"when we would drink wine and talk like brothers, knowing that we might
die the next day."
"That's not so different from life in my village," the young man said,
"where we drink rice wine by the fire, and the next day one of us may
drown." They spoke of wines, then, of which were better, the dry ones
of rice or the sweet ones of fruit. The talk of wine made them as drowsy
as a drink of wine might have done. At long last, they both fell asleep.
The coals in the brazier burned themselves out. The room grew cold,
and the young man woke with the shivers. The giant snored. The cold
seemed not to bother him at all. The young man thought that rather than
waking the giant, he would see if he could find some more charcoal himself.
He slid open the screen to the next room, which was not really a room
at all, but a corridor like the one the woman had led him through. At
the far end another screen glowed dimly.
"How strange this place is," the young man said to himself. "In my
village, we build the rooms of a house next to one another." He walked
down the corridor and opened the screen at the other end. The room he
stepped into was very large, with wooden shelves lining the walls everywhere
except for the place where he had just come in and a screen on the other
side. Books and scrolls were stacked on the shelves, and they rose toward
a ceiling so high that the young man couldn't see it in the darkness.
The books might have gone up forever.
In the center of the room was a table where a bald man with a long
white beard sat reading by the light of a candle. The young man crossed
the room, and stood before the table. The white-haired man did not look
up. He rubbed his temples as he read.
"Are you the master?" the young man said.
The old man looked up with a start. "You're here!" he said. "No one
has ever come this far!" He patted himself as if to see if he were dreaming.
"The master? No, I'm not the master. I'm his librarian, and I hadn't
expected you. I haven't read quite all of them yet."
"I'd like some charcoal. The brazier has gone out," the young man
"Brazier? That's of no importance. You've come to the library seeking
the secret of the maze. Let me see, now. Which riddle shall I ask you?"
He carried the candle to one of the shelves and squinted as he held
the flame close to the bindings. He groaned. "The ink fades every year.
It gets harder and harder to read these."
"Perhaps the brazier doesn't matter to you," the young man said, "but
I'm quite cold sleeping in the other room."
"Pay no attention to the cold," the librarian said. "If you're to
see the master, it's the mind that matters. What a man wants is knowledge
and a sharp wit."
"What I want is fuel," the young man said. "Or a blanket."
The librarian was about to take a scroll from the shelf, then stopped
and looked at the young man. "From the provinces. Ho! I know the one.
You'll never get it." He crossed the room and selected a book. The binding
was tied closed, and the old man was some time plucking at the string
with his fingernails. At last he loosened the knot and opened the book.
He squinted at the page, rubbing his temples again. "How my head aches.
If only the candle burned a little brighter."
"I don't mind riddles," the young man said, "but what I really want..."
"Solve the riddle and you'll see the master," said the librarian,
"and the master will give you your heart's desire. Now listen." He bent
very close to the page until his nose almost touched. "The marks are
so very faint. Hardly there at all. 'I proceed until I am no more, but
there I am behind me once again.'"
The young man thought a moment and said, "A wave."
"No!" the librarian said. "It's the Emperor."
"Are you sure?" the young man said. "Is that what's in the book?"
The librarian looked at the page again. "To tell the truth, I can't
make it out, but I am sure I remember this one. It's the Emperor."
"But a wave is just as good an answer. Where I come from, it's a better
answer because we see waves every day, but we've never seen the Emperor."
The librarian frowned. "I picked this one because of course you haven't
seen the Emperor. It's supposed to be hard." He stroked his beard. "But
I suppose you are right. Not all wit or learning are already in books.
Some of it still needs thinking up and writing down. I could write in
the character for 'wave,' and then that would be the right answer and
I could tell you how to pass the maze." And that is what he did.
The young man opened the screen and went through the branching corridors
according to the librarian's directions. The corridors branched and
turned, turned and branched. The young man came at last to another screen.
He opened it, and there in the center of a large room, a brazier burned
with a yellow flame. Next to the brazier was a pile of charcoal. A great
heap of treasure gleamed in the firelight. There were rings and swords,
a robe suitable for an Emperor, coins and pearls, boxes of jewels. There
were other, more common things as well: a lamp, a mirror, a silken kerchief
and a jar of wine.
The flame grew brighter, and a voice from within it spoke and said,
"Take what you will."
The young man filled a sack with charcoal. Then he took up the lamp,
the kerchief and the wine. To the flame he said, "How do I find my way
to the docks beside the fish market?"
The flame told him the way to take. Then the young man retraced his
steps. He left the lamp with the librarian, who lit it and found that
it burned very bright indeed. How it would relieve his aching head!
In the captain's room, the young man rekindled the brazier and slept
near it until morning. He made a gift of wine to the giant, who was
as pleased as he was amazed. At the front door of the house, the young
man met the woman and gave her the silken kerchief, saying, "Dry your
tears. Not every story here is a sad one. I have seen the master, and
I did not die in the attempt." Then he made to leave.
"But if you have seen the master," the woman said, "then you have
become a great lord and half the Empire is yours." She knelt. "If what
you say is true, then I am to be your bride and Empress."
"I have never seen a woman more beautiful," said the young man, "but
I am not a man of the Capital or any city. My life is on the sea. It
is a hard life that would not suit you."
He left her. He followed the directions that the master of the house
had given him. He recovered his little boat from beneath the dock, and
he sailed home to his village. In time, he married a girl who had grown
up nearby and they had children. In time, they grew old and had grandchildren.
In time, they died.
Some say that the young man was a fool to turn down half the Empire.
Others say that if a mere fisherman had taken half the Empire, the
other half would have gone to war against his rule and he would have
come to ruin.
And a very few say that he had already possessed half the Empire before
this story began, and that what he had refused was the other
half. But the few who say this are strange. Very strange.
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