A thousand years can change everything, including the landscape. Queen Ming surveys her capital from the palace window. The panoramic view is like a great history book. The volcano towering in the distance, which used to spew clouds of smoke, went dormant 700 years ago. Once part of the sea, the inlet was reclaimed 500 years ago to become a village for the fisherfolk who spend their lives on the ocean. The River once arched grandly across the landscape, but the deluge that occurred 300 years ago became the occasion for major flood control construction in the form of a perfectly straight channel. Where the river used to curve there is now an oxbow lake in which reeds grow in profusion, and the banks provide people with a rich natural bounty. Even the area that was a barren, rock-strewn wasteland became a vast fruit-bearing garden thanks to the irrigation project that was undertaken 200 years ago.
The mountain that was the center of the people’s religious faith was enveloped in sky-scorching flames 100 years ago. Formerly swathed in a thick green covering and seen as the home of the gods, the towering peak was transformed into a bare rock pile by a forest fire that burned for three days and three nights. Almost everything that lived in the forest- birds, beasts, of course, but many people too- died in the flames. The people in the village below mourned the horrible transformation of their gods’ abode, but now, a hundred years later, the mountain is as green as ever.
The people of the village and the people of the mountain still tell the story of the fire, but today’s children can hardly imagine that the rich, green slopes were once charred and blackened. Restored though it is to its original green lushness, of course, the mountain could well be enveloped in flames again- a hundred years from now, two hundred years from now, or even tomorrow. Even if it should be charred bare again, however, trees would sprout anew, the birds and beasts and insects chased away by the fire would return to their homes, and, given enough time, the mountain would be covered in green as before. Such are the workings of nature.
Given enough time, dizzying stretches of time… But no. To become dizzy at the thought of vast stretches of time is a privilege of the ordinary folk- those who have no choice but to devote all their energies to living in the present. How fortunate that they are able to look back to the past of 1000 years ago like an old man telling a child a fairy tale, “Once upon a time, a long, long time ago…” And how truly fortunate one would be to be able to tell the story of their country’s future as a rosy dream the way children relate their own dreams of the future with flashing eyes, and to entrust that dream to the next reign! Ming stands next to the window like this every morning. It is a special time of day for her, when she thinks about the livelihood of her subjects, watches for signs of enemy intrusions, and ponders measures she might wish to adopt. She has done this every day without fail for the past thousand years. The country has flourished. The people no longer starve as they did when she took the throne.
Future historians will no doubt sing praises of Ming’s thousand-year reign. She will be extolled as “The Thousand Year Old Queen.” and her noble figure will be vividly engraved in people’s memories. Cherishing these memories of her, however, people will die before she does. The historians who praise her, too, instead of witnessing her reign to its end, will themselves become a part of history. Ming has been a queen for the past thousand years. And probably will be for the next thousand years as well. “Her Majesty is in excellent high spirits again this morning, I trust.” She hears the voice behind her. Her gaze still fixed on the streets of the city below, Ming answers. “You are early today.”
“Not so early if her majesty is already observing the smoke rising from the cauldrons of her people.” She need not turn to ascertain the identity of the smiling face behind her. It belongs to Nagram, her senior minister. The smile is courtly, genial. But deep within the narrowed eyes, she knows, there resides a dark gleam. “Today, I will accompany Her Majesty in the inspection of the troops.”
“Yes, owing to a slight change in assignments today.”
“Is that so?”
“I am hardly up to the task, but I will do my best if Her Majesty will allow me to serve her in this capacity. I beg her permission.”
With her back to Nagram, Ming gives a silent nod. ‘’Ah yes’’, she thinks to herself with a bitter smile. Their plan goes into action today. Ming has sensed for a very long time that Nagram is up to no good. He apparently has seized command of certain units of the royal guard. Scattered throughout the city, too, his people are lying low, waiting ready to set fires as soon as his orders come down. No doubt about it: today; when the regular ceremonial inspection of the troops is scheduled to take place, is the perfect day for a coup. When Nagram leaves, Ming enters her office and summons Hannes, the most senior of her ministers, a true elder statesman and her most trusted confidant. Hannes, who sports a luxurious beard, has served Ming for over forty years.
“Your Majesty, I understand Nagram was here earlier.”
“Yes, apparently he is to accompany me to the inspection of the troops.” This she has to tell him. Stroking his busy beard, Hannes says, “That means they’ve run out of patience.”
“I know, replies Ming. “I’m sure they can’t wait to get started.”
“What a fool Nagram is! He has absolutely no idea that Your Majesty has been letting him set his own trap.”
“If he were smart enough to realize that, he would be taking at least two more years to make his preparations.”
Then he would much more power at his disposal. He could link up not just with the royal guard but also the main body of the army and the police force. He could conspire with the external enemies and arrange for them to invade just when the ceremonies were getting underway. Then his coup would probably succeed. If he had the long-range vision to include the wealthy merchant and the intelligentsia among his allies, he might even be able to mount a revolution that would overthrow the monarchy itself. “This is what I would do if I were Nagram. As long as I was undertaking a coup, I would think about that much at least.”
Hannes’ smile could not hide the fact that all this talk of successful revolution was making him uncomfortable. “Her Majesty is unmatched by any enemy except one- her Majesty Herself!”
He May be right, Ming thinks. If she had an enemy with an eternal life like hers who was willing to devote all the time needed to planning a revolution- be it a whole century or even two- the result would surely go beyond revolution and develop into a full-scale civil war. Human lives, however, are limited in duration. And because of this limitation, humans rush to achieve results before they are ready. Nagram is one of them. If he could live two hundred years (to say nothing of a thousand), he would not be trying to take up arms at such an in-between point in time.
“Still,” says Hannes, “I have to admit that Nagram has extended his forces far more successfully than I ever imagined. What have I been doing all this time, I am utterly ashamed of myself.”
“Don’t let it bother you, Hannes. Thanks to your ‘inattention,’ we will probably be able to smoke out many more rats.” Ming gives a satisfied chuckle. Nor is this mere bravado on her part. They chose not to arrest Nagram at an earlier stage but allowed him to swim free for a while in order to take this opportunity to net the entire force of rebels both inside and outside the palace.
“Yes, I know,” Hannes replies and goes on to explain the plan for crushing the coup. His plans are impeccable. The coup has virtually no chance of succeeding. All they need to do is carry out a wholesale arrest of the rebel guard units that rise up in the palace and the partisans lurking in the city, and it will be some time before any more individuals with outsized ambitions show up again. “This will be our first purge in fifteen years,” Hannes remarks.
“Has it been that long?”
“It certainly has, Your Majesty. This fine beard of mine was jet black last time.”
Hannes commanded the troops that put down the coup fifteen years ago. Loyal, courageous, and cool-headed, he is the ideal staff officer. Without a doubt, he is one of the very best military advisors Ming has ever had in a thousand years on the throne.
“How selfish of me, Hannes. I should have let you retire years ago.”
“That is out of the question, Your Majesty. Serving you is my life. I am deeply honored to have this final opportunity to be of service.”
True, not even this superb retainer could be with her through all eternity. In another five years- ten at most- Hannes, like other loyal retainers of the past, would be laid to rest to the sound of military cannons. It is always like this. Just as the ambitious ones rush to make their mark because they cannot live forever, the loyal ones in whom she can place her complete confidence stake their very lives on serving her because they cannot live forever. They carve their names in a single line of history and then they depart from Ming for the rest of eternity. Ming herself though, goes on living. Eternal youth. Immortality. So this is the dream of humanity is it? None of them knows the loneliness of eternal life.
When Hannes next addresses Ming, there is a new urgency in his voice. “About the troops that will quell the uprising… I will command the ones outside the palace. Do I have Her Majesty’s permission to put command of the interior palace guards in the hands of my young protégé, Yan?”
“Ah yes, Yan…”
“He may be young, but he is extremely capable. I have nurtured him carefully. I know he will serve Her Majesty Splendidly after this old soldier is gone. I would like to give him the opportunity to distinguish himself in the current situation.” Ming herself is fully aware of Yan’s outstanding qualities. Young as he most certainly is, he far excels the other chamberlains in both the civil and military arts. He is undoubtedly the prime candidate to succeed Hannes as Ming’s top general.
“What are Her Majesty’s thoughts on the matter?”
“All right, then, Let him take charge.”
“Her Majesty has my unbounded thanks! I am sure Yan himself will be deeply moved to learn that he has earned Her Majesty’s confidence.”
Hannes all but prostrates himself before her, an expression of relief at having obtained Ming’s permission. “But still,” he continues, “Her Majesty has been wary of Nagram for a very long time.”
“True,” she says.
“Meanwhile, this old soldier of yours had no idea whatever that Nagram might be planning a rebellion. I am deeply ashamed to confess it now, but to me he seemed the very model of loyalty. How was it that Her Majesty was able to see Nagram’s actual disloyalty?” Ming only smiles without answering his question. “The same thing happened at the time of the coup fifteen years ago,” Hannes continues. “The only reason we were able to suppress the revolt before it even got started was that Her Majesty saw it coming before anyone else. Then as now I was blind to the traitors’ plot.”
“If you say so Hannes…”
“Has Her Majesty forgotten?”
“Well, it was long ago…” Ming tries to evade the issue. There is no way she could have forgotten. The ringleader of the coup fifteen years ago was her most trusted retainer. When she first broached the subject to Hannes and the others, warning them to be on guard against the man, all without exception insisted that he, above all, was beyond reproach. In the end, Ming’s suspicions proved to be correct. She knew. However faithfully he carried out her orders, however warmly he swore his loyalty, she knew. These days however, she has begun to wonder on occasion if that is something to be grateful for.
The landscape is not the only thing that changes in a thousand years. People’s hearts also change. After numberless meetings and partings over the centuries, Ming has come to realize the fragility- the evanescence of trust. She no longer trusts anything in words. Neither can she fully trust everything in action. She knows by looking at a person’s eyes. That way she can tell everything- to a mysterious and disheartening degree. In the eyes of those that would bring harm to this country, without exception, there is a dark gleam. It is there in all of them: the man plotting a coup, the man secretly involved with foreign enemies, the man fattening his purse with heavy taxes wrung from the people, the female spy who seduces high ministers to extract state secrets, the man who accepts huge bribes from merchants eager for the glory of becoming an official purveyor to the royal household.
Neither their words nor their deeds give them away. Often, the man himself has no idea of the misdeeds he will later commit. But Ming can tell. Only Ming, who has lived for a thousand years. The silent voices tell her: Be careful of this man. Don’t take your eyes off that woman. This was not the case in her youth. But having repeatedly tasted the bitter experience of betrayal, having been assailed by her own regrets and self-reproach, she has learned to doubt. Ming can see what no one else can- that dark gleam deep in the eyes. This has enabled her to ward off a variety of disasters before they could start. The kingdom has managed to flourish because Ming has more often chosen to doubt than to believe. This is the best course for her to follow as queen. It is however, an infinitely lonely way to live.
Nagram’s coup collapses in an instant. The rebel units of the royal guard, who draw out their swords against Ming during the inspection of troops in the plaza, become the prey of Yan and his men, who have been hiding around the perimeter. Meanwhile, the anti-rebel forces, under Hannes’ command, pounce on Nagram’s followers, who have been gathering to set fire to the city and arrest them without resistance. Poor Nagram grovels on the earth, begging for his life. To him, Ming says only, “I grant you the right to die with honor.” A soldier lays a sword before Nagram. Wordlessly, Ming conveys to Nagram that it is time for him to take his own life. She turns on her heels and returns to the palace under armed escort.
This will keep anyone from having thoughts of fomenting a rebellion- for a while, at least. The peace of the kingdom has been preserved, but it will not last forever. When the memory of Nagram’s coup begins to fade- ten years from now, or twenty, or even a hundred- another man with ambition will emerge as has happened many times before. It is the role of the queen to accept this endlessly repeating cycle, Ming tells herself, sighing. Ming is standing at the palace window, surveying the city streets below, when Yan enters the room.
“Your Majesty, I am here to report that Nagram successfully took his own life a short while ago.”
“Oh, did he dispatch himself with some dignity?”
“He did. Traitor though he was, he died in a way befitting a commanding general.”
“Return his body to his family with all due ceremony.” She turns and stares straight at Yan, whose spine stiffens under the onslaught of her gaze. And then she sees it- without a doubt. That dark gleam flashes deep within his eyes for one fleeting instant. So Yan is another one, is he? she thinks with a bitter smile. Unable to fathom the meaning of her smile, Yan is at a loss for words. “Thank you for all your efforts.” Ming says to him. Suppressing a sigh, she turns to the window again.
The sky stretches overhead in an expanse of blue. The only thing unchanged for the past thousand years is the blue of that sky. But still, I am the queen, Ming tells herself, meditating on her role. I am the only one who rules this country and maintains the people’s happiness. She gazes long and hard at the sky, rising to her full, proud height.
“Oh look, it’s Queen Ming!” A little boy in an alleyway below the castle spots Ming and begins waving at her wildly. “Queen Ming! Queen Ming!” A woman, the boy’s mother, no doubt- charges out of a doorway and, bowing humbly to Ming, begins to scold the boy for his rude behavior. Ming herself, however, waves back at him, a placid smile on her face. Smiling joyfully at this unexpected response form Her Majesty the Queen, the boy starts jumping up and down, shouting, “Long live Queen Ming! Long live Queen Ming!”
Ming stares again into the sky above. Unchanged though it has been for a thousand years, the blue of the sky penetrates more deeply into her eyes and her heart than it ever did in the days of her youth.