Once, not so very long ago, Mother Chen was a plump, busy, happy woman with three sons. Then her sons, like most sons of the time, left home to fight in the emperor's army. Mother Chen didn't understand why they must fight or whom they were fighting. She only knew the emperor had called for her sons.
Mother Chen remained plump and busy. She did not speak of being unhappy.
Then word came to the village that Mother Chen's oldest son had died in the service of the emperor. Auntie Li watched her friend with unease. Auntie Li had once had a son, in addition to her four daughters. He too had gone to the emperor's army and would never return. Mother Chen had no daughters to comfort her. Her husband was dead and her other sons far away.
Mother Chen wept. She completed the rituals for her dead son. Then she kept busy with the village children, although Auntie Li watched her grow thinner.
Auntie Li was afraid again when Mother Chen's second son died. Again Mother Chen wept. She observed the proper rituals. Then she started cooking. All the children of the village were enticed to Mother Chen's hut by the smells that flowed forth. Mother Chen herself grew thinner still.
Mother Chen's youngest son, who had gone everywhere with laughter on his lips before the emperor called, did not die in the emperor's service. One winter, he returned to the village and his mother, or most of him did. One leg, diseased and useless, had remained with the surgeons.
Auntie Li watched Mother Chen more closely. She was uncertain how her neighbor would react to her last son's injury, but Mother Chen seemed to rally. She stayed busy, although the village children felt neglected. She spent all her energy tending her son in his illness. All her words were lavished on the happy future they would have when he was well.
More people than Auntie Li worried now. It was obvious to everyone except Mother Chen that her son grew worse. Perhaps Mother Chen knew too. For all her happy words, she kept getting thinner.
Most of the village was relieved when Mother Chen's son died and she quietly performed the rituals. She wasn't taken ill. She didn't weep. They gave her their words of sympathy and went back to their own lives. Many had their own sons in the emperor's army to worry over.
Auntie Li kept watch that night from a mat by her door. When Mother Chen left her hut shortly before dawn, Auntie Li stood. Mother Chen moved slowly, bowed as though she had become old overnight. When she turned toward the river, Auntie Li spoke. "Gracious Mother Chen, where do you travel this fine morning?"
Auntie Li had feared that the cold embrace of the water was her friend's destination, but Mother Chen's answer was far more terrifying. She turned. She did not bow in greeting, only blinked slowly with an expression Auntie Li couldn't read. "I am going to ask the emperor why he took my sons."
She squinted at Mother Chen in the pale pre-dawn light. Mother Chen wore no robe or kerchief, and she carried nothing. "You haven't even anything to eat on your journey." Auntie Li held out her hand. "Come with me."
Mother Chen paused, then nodded. "I will eat, but then I must go see the emperor."
Auntie Li seated Mother Chen by her fire, then roused her two youngest daughters. Like their sisters, they were old enough to go to their own homes, but the emperor's war had taken all the suitable men. One daughter helped Auntie Li while the other ran to Mother Chen's hut. In no time, already bundled into her winter robe, Mother Chen was finishing the last of her rice.
Auntie Li was similarly dressed. Several packets of rice and fish hung in a bundle off her sash. She wasn't sure why she went with her friend. She knew they would never see the emperor, would likely never reach the capital. But Mother Chen was in no condition to go alone. After giving instructions to her daughters, Auntie Li went.
As the village roused behind them, the two women forded the river. The water was frigid with snow melting higher in the hills. Mother Chen waded through without a flinch and walked on. She might have walked forever if Auntie Li hadn't called a rest for food at midday. Then, fingers sticky with rice, they walked again.
Lights bloomed ahead of them as the sky darkened. Auntie Li begged in the village for a warm place to sleep, but it was Mother Chen's declaration that she would see the emperor about her sons that bought them a hot dinner and a rapt audience. Those who spoke called the journey futile or suicidal. Auntie Li did not argue. Mother Chen said nothing.
When they left in the morning, two of the village women came with them. They too had dead sons to ask about.
Mother Chen paid them no more attention than she had paid Auntie Li the day before. Her goal was the emperor. She stopped only when Auntie Li reminded her to eat.
They reached a village shortly before dusk that day, and the two other mothers ran ahead to obtain food and shelter. Again, their purpose won them a warm welcome. When they left in the morning, they were seven. The next day, they were nine.
As they walked down out of the hills into spring, their numbers continued to grow. Auntie Li worried that they would become too many to feed, but they traveled now through more prosperous lands. And, always, there were mothers with dead sons. Those who still had something to keep them at home insisted on providing food or clean linens. Those who did not took up the journey.
By the time they reached the plain where the capital stood, it was full spring and they were the size of a small army. Mother Chen hadn't noticed. The other mothers followed behind her, and her eyes were always for what lay ahead.
Auntie Li had noticed, and the size of the group made her nervous. It might have struck the emperor's fancy to permit one woman to question him. Mercy may prevail where there is no threat. But with this many...well, who would believe they came only to question? Still, Mother Chen continued, so Auntie Li followed.
The towns around the city were less hospitable. While a few still thrilled to the call of their mission, more echoed Auntie Li's thoughts, shooting furtive looks toward the capital. Bellies grew leaner. More of their group began to look like Mother Chen, who had lost all trace of the plump and happy woman she had once been. But at every town, more women joined.
Finally, with Auntie Li so tired and hungry she thought they must stop, they reached the gates of the capital. They were closed, although the sun hung high above. Mother Chen walked until the door barred her way.
As Auntie Li approached the gate, she looked fearfully at the tall earthen walls to either side. Army though they were, the women were dwarfed by this small piece of the emperor's defenses. They all fit between the doors and the end of the walls where the road opened out. It would be a simple thing to trap them there for slaughter.
Instead, a harsh voice commanded from above. "Halt! State your business."
Mother Chen turned from the door toward the speaker. Auntie Li sought him too, and found him at the top of the wall. He was easy to find among the other soldiers, being the only one armed with a bow. The rest of the young men forming a wall of humanity atop the earthen wall carried spears, their heads pointed somewhat awkwardly at the women below.
Auntie Li groped for words to explain their presence and placate the soldiers, but Mother Chen called out first. "My sons! Oh my sons, what grace you show. What bearing and courage."
Auntie Li glanced at her friend. Tears wet Mother Chen's cheeks. She held her arms wide, as though she would embrace the entire line of soldiers. "So must my own sons have looked in the emperor's service. How proud. How noble!" Then she put her face in her hands and sobbed quietly.
Answering sobs came instantly from the women around her and, moments later, from the top of the wall. Auntie Li turned again to see wet faces and dropped spears. The line above her hadn't broken, but it was no longer even.
The soldier with the bow stood resolute, but his voice betrayed his uncertainty. "But what do you want?"
Auntie Li was the only woman not crying. She didn't understand why, but she knew it was her time to speak. She raised her voice above the sobbing crowd. "We wish only to ask the emperor to explain the war to us, to tell us why so many courageous and noble sons have had to die. Please, just take us to the emperor. We will ask our question and leave, go back to our lives and leave you to yours."
The soldier looked at her a long moment, and Auntie Li knew he understood no more than she did of what went on around them. Finally, he nodded. "Open the gates."
Weeping soldiers fell over themselves getting down from the walls and helping the women into the capital. The gate was barred again behind them, as all the soldiers insisted on accompanying the mothers. Their commander, for that was who he had to be, escorted Mother Chen and Auntie Li, a fixed expression of puzzlement on his face.
Still, when they were challenged at the gate to the palace, a more elaborate and less imposing structure than the city gate, he spoke resolutely. "They have sons in the army and want to see the emperor about the war. They are merely village women. What harm can it do to let them in?"
"None, I suppose." The guard shrugged and stood aside. "Unless the emperor takes offense at their bad taste in weeping in his court."
Auntie Li shivered. But she need not have worried. Whether the other women were overawed by the opulence of the palace, with its high, painted ceilings and carved columns, or whether the mood that had swept them was waning, they slowly ceased their cries. The soldiers had stopped once the gates were opened. Tears continued to trail down Mother Chen's cheeks, but she was silent.
Three times more the commander defended his decision to grant the gathering an audience. Each time, the story he presented diverged further from what Auntie Li had told him. At the door to the emperor's audience chamber, they had become heroines bringing grave intelligence. Auntie Li expected Mother Chen to argue, but she merely stopped when her way was barred and walked on once it was opened.
Then they were inside. Auntie Li couldn't find the emperor amidst all the finery and officiousness. After moving to where the commander pointed her, she prostrated herself on the floor. She tugged on the hem of Mother Chen's robes, but her friend remained standing. The women behind her stood as well, ignoring the pleas of the young soldiers on the floor beside them.
Murmurs, then gasps and shouts of outrage from the court rose over the soldiers' voices. Auntie Li covered her head with one hand and tugged harder with the other. Mother Chen didn't move.
Then silence. And a single voice. "Wait."
Curiosity overcoming her instinct for self-preservation, Auntie Li looked up. Following the gaze of the room, she found him. The emperor sat on a throne more elaborate than anything else in the palace, slouched inside layered robes stiff with embroidery, but Auntie Li noticed only one thing.
He was so young.
One of the joys of Auntie Li's life was the small amount of court gossip that filtered through the countryside, so she knew the emperor had been eleven when he'd ascended the throne three years before, but knowing the emperor was young and seeing a near-child on the throne were two different things.
She was still staring openmouthed when he spoke. "Why do you not bow to your emperor?"
Auntie Li found his open curiosity more terrible than anger would have been. Mother Chen ignored the question to finally ask her own. Her tears had stopped, and her voice was strong. "Why did you take my sons?"
The emperor sat up among his robes. "Your sons?"
Mother Chen stood straight too. "You took my sons for your army and sent back their corpses when you were done with them. I've come to ask why."
A man in robes almost as stiff as the emperor's arose behind the emperor's right shoulder. "Woman, how dare--" He stopped when the emperor turned to look at him. He sat back down.
The emperor faced Mother Chen again. "How many sons did you have?"
Mother Chen lifted her chin. "Three."
"And these others?"
Mother Chen looked confused. For all Auntie Li knew, Mother Chen thought she was alone with the emperor. Auntie Li swallowed her rapidly beating heart and answered for her friend. "I don't know. Many."
"All dead, I assume." The emperor's face bore lines too deep for his years. He looked at Mother Chen and sighed. "Your sons went to the army for the best of reasons. One of my ministers tells me it was to protect the trade we need to feed our people. Another says we would be overrun otherwise. Several say we must not appear weak before our neighbors."
He shrank back into his robes again. "Myself, I can only tell you that they died because I ordered that they go to war."
Auntie Li looked on in horror. This was the emperor? This tired boy who spoke passionlessly of war and death?
Mother Chen pressed the emperor, ignorant of any danger. "Did you not talk to your mother before sending other women's sons to war?"
Auntie Li tugged furiously on Mother Chen's robe. Did the woman not remember the scandal? The emperor's mother had lost her life to the executioner's sword just days before the old emperor died. Her son had ascended the throne in deep mourning.
Angry murmurs again rose from the court, but the emperor stilled them by lifting one hand. Then he raised his chin, though it wobbled as he spoke. "My mother is as dead as your sons."
"Dead?" Mother Chen's tears started again. "Oh, my poor child."
Auntie Li didn't know what she expected, except perhaps to die for Mother Chen's impertinence. Instead, Mother Chen's tears flowed again on the faces around her. The women who had followed them to the capital, the soldiers still prostrated on the ground, much of the court--all weeping. Auntie Li looked away quickly when she saw the emperor crying.
Here and there, she saw a face as dry as hers. The commander from the gate looked as perplexed as he had before. A few nobles stared at the emperor, fascinated, or averted their faces in embarrassment. Several of the ministers gaped at the crowd, startled and angry. Most just cried.
Then Mother Chen stretched her arms out, as at the gate, and moved toward the throne. "My poor, poor child."
Auntie Li expected the emperor to call a guard. Instead he stood. With a sob, he moved into the taller woman's embrace. She held the boy tightly, rocking him a little. "My poor boy. My poor, poor boy."
The emperor clenched his arms around Mother Chen and wept. His sobs echoed across the ceiling until he burrowed his face into her flattened breast. Auntie Li wondered how he could breathe, but he never struggled. Slowly, his heaving chest stilled. Then the emperor's grip relaxed, and his hands dropped to his side. Mother Chen continued to rock him long after he was past comforting, the weeping and her droning voice the only sounds in the room.
Auntie Li swallowed and forced herself not to scream. Still crouched on the floor, she backed slowly away from the throne. No one seemed to notice until she passed the commander, who nodded at her and followed. Only after they were clear of the room and far down the hall did she find the courage to speak. "What will happen now?"
The commander shrugged. "There will be another emperor. If I am lucky, he will reward the officer responsible for his ascension. I suspect I will be lucky."
"Lucky?" She didn't understand.
The commander stopped and looked at her. "I've been to the battlefields, but never before have I seen so much death in one place. We are lucky it didn't take us too."
Auntie Li was confused, but she had to protest. "They weren't dead. Only the emperor...." The emperor was dead, suffocated in Mother Chen's embrace. She swallowed.
"He was already dead. First his mother, then the war--sending the empire's sons to die. And your friends..." He cleared his throat. "They weren't mourning their sons. They were mourning themselves."
Auntie Li wanted to argue, but she remembered the look on Mother Chen's face the morning she had turned toward the river. Finally, she understood what she had hoped to save her friend from, now that she had failed. Now she felt tears on her cheeks.
The soldier's voice grew gentle. "Go. Mourn your friend--and your son--properly, and be grateful for whatever you have that has kept you alive. Go home."
Auntie Li went.