I fed the letter to the flames, and Jie Han’s words turned to smoke. The embers drifted into the breeze and painted the gardens with the perfume of cinders. While summer danced in the air and in the trees, I watched the paper burn in the brazier. It was Jie Han’s third letter since he left, and he’d already changed.
“Ming Zhi,” he wrote, “don’t worry about me. The Mongol does not know the nature of the dragon he has stirred. By winter, China will be safe, and I will be home.”
The ink sat ill on the page. I knew Jie Han’s writing—his calligraphy, the play of his brush on paper—and this was wrong. Still his, but wrong. I wanted to believe him, so I waited for winter. I must’ve been the only girl in China who thought winter couldn’t have come sooner.
I raked my lungs with a breath and looked to the trees. Summer was a good time for war. Spirits would be high, and the skies would be in our favour. Jie Han explained this all to me before he left. “We will meet the Mongol under golden skies and drive him from our lands.”
The air tasted of autumn. The further I strolled into the gardens, the more the changing of the seasons weighed on it all. Where flowers once danced, they now shivered. Had the winds changed so much already?
I ran my fingers along Jie Han’s fourth letter. The leaves around me had turned red like blood in the garden. With a sigh, I opened the letter and drew my gaze along the brushstrokes. Jie Han’s ink scratched from corner to corner. “Ming Zhi,” he wrote, “I am fine. Write a poem for me before I return home.”
I continued into the gardens, leaving his letter in the crook of a leafless tree. The air bit into me. The skies had tinted themselves pink overhead. Naked branches stretched above me like the talons of vultures, waiting for my final breath. I would not yield it to them. Not before winter—not before Jie Han’s return. Instead, the branches seized the lifeblood of summer. Autumn descended.
The gardens whirled around me, the trees like skeletons reaching for the last drips of sunlight. I pulled Jie Han’s fifth letter from my sleeve and sat on a stump to read it. “Ming Zhi,” he wrote, “Ling Han is dead. Write a poem for him, too.” Winter came too quickly. I waited for winter, but winter did not wait for Jie Han.
I had already lost a brother to the Mongol, and I feared the loss of a second. Snow choked the gardens, and no letters came. I barely saw the palace through the trees. Wind swooped in from the canopy and gnawed at my heart. Winter was a bad time for war.
I tightened the furs around my shoulders and let the snow crunch underfoot. I missed Jie Han’s letters. Even those that were written so poorly, so hastily, so messily. Even if they bore bad news, whether openly or hidden behind my brother’s scrawled ink, it was something. I craved bad news over silence.
I struggled through knee-deep snow at the heart of the gardens. My bones ached and my hair froze against my cheeks. Jie Han’s sixth letter sat in my palm. “Ming Zhi,” he wrote, “winter is hell, and the Mongol is a demon with fire for blood. But do not worry. China will stand resolute. When the winter fades, we will strike at the heart of the Mongol. This war will be over soon.” The words melted down the page. I could barely read his writing.
When the war began, I wished winter would come right away. But winter came, and my brother was still out there. To the north, the city of Zhongdu burned to the ground. Could my brother have been there? Dark stories from the capital drifted among us. Blood painted the roads, and bones rose in piles like mountains. The Emperor had never lost a battle before. The Mongol had taken the gem on China’s crown.
Winter held its grip tight. Moonlight glowed on the snow. The gardens whispered solemn prayers in the wind. I did not know what to wait for anymore. Winter left me disappointed, and I doubted even the breath of spring could brighten me. I could only wait for more letters.