It’s not so much an excerpt as the scene I wrote for a creative writing paper and the inspiration behind the novel. By the time the novel reaches this point in the story, the scene will no doubt change. A lot. In the timeline of the story it occurs around the three-quarter mark.
The period it is set in, during the Boxer Rebellion, is a part of history that isn’t discussed much – not even in my Chinese History class – bookended for colonial powers by the Boer War and WWI. Yet, for an event – the actual conflict lasting only three months – set the stage for a radical change in Chinese Politics.
At the moment I’m almost at the halfway point of the novel (and need to seriously figure out how the HEA will occur), for the first draft.
Love in Rebellion
Captain Cartwright pointed his pistol at the man’s head, the barrel remaining steady as his body shook. The man didn’t flinch. He didn’t show any fear nor make a move to step out of harm’s way. And it only made Cartwright shake more. His gaze drifted upwards, finding eyes filled with sadness despite the defiant set of the man’s lips.
“Run. Leave,” Cartwright begged the man. His words laden with an unspoken emotion as his finger sat uneasily on the trigger, pistol cocked and primed to fire. “I don’t want to shoot you. Please, don’t make me shoot you.” He glanced around the narrow alley, one of many which connected Beijing’s maze of streets, afraid someone would find them. “But if someone comes, I will have no choice.”
The man continued to stand in front of him, barrel of the pistol millimeters from his head. Cartwright’s gaze drifted over him, memories of days past over laid with a present neither wanted. The man’s uniform once splendent in its bright coloured cloth, silk the ladies back home in Britain desired to possess for their dresses, now tarnished by the dust and blood of battles fought. Torn, tattered strips of cloth hung from his lithe body, barely distinguishing him from the beggars and thieves roaming Beijing’s back alleys. A stark contrast to the way he had meticulous kept each single thread in place before the conflict began.
Cartwright knew he was a distinguished military officer of the Qing Dynasty and devoted to the Empress – the government his own was now sought to destroy. In the eyes of the British he no longer held any power. No longer seen as being any different to the young men who filled the ranks of the rebellion.
His gun wavered as he fought back the tears no British officer, a Captain, should be seen crying. Still, they trickled down his cheeks, refusing to be held back. “Please, don’t make me.”
Cartwright knew the man understood his pleas, despite speaking in English. His eyes flickered, acknowledging the months spent teaching each other their native tongue, while working alongside each other to keep the peace Britain demanded. Sharing laughs, meals and more together as they stood shoulder to shoulder on the same battle line, against the same enemy.
Then the rules of the battlefield changed. The Empress, who this man served with devotion, changed sides as the rebels, who continued to garner popular support, increased in number and threatened her position. Her desperation to keep the support of her people and her tenuous grip on power, ripped them apart. Now they stood on opposite sides, with Cartwright’s pistol pointed at the head of the one man he didn’t want to kill.
Even here the stench of war, the rebellion, hung heavy in the air. Gunpowder and death lingered, waiting for the breeze to blow it away with the desert sands. Bullet holes littered the buildings, houses and shops alike. Wooden structures that had stood for centuries brought to their knees under a barrage of cannon fire, loud and regular as though it was keeping time itself instead of the clocks. Death walked amongst the carnage, hiding in the shadows as it stalked friend and foe alike, not discriminating in who it took. But here in this narrow alley paved in stone, surrounded by houses with washing stretched out above it, Death was not welcome. He would not be allowed to take anyone – not unless Cartwright’s hand was forced. Cartwright didn’t want to be placed in that position, not wanting to make a choice between his career and the life of this man.
“For goodness sake, Zhang… Xinyi,” lowering his weapon, removing his finger from the trigger as he un-cocked it. The rebellion sounded louder, gunfire echoed through the maze of alleys, no more than two streets away. “I don’t want you to die,” he uttered in English before switching to the Mandarin Zhang had taught him with great patience. “Wo ba bu yao ni si le,” closing the distance between them with hesitant steps, Cartwright reached up to brush away the dark strands of hair plastered to Zhang’s face.
“Alfred,” Zhang uttered, his voice marked with fear and emotions neither of them could openly admit to, even less so now they were on opposite sides of the battlefield. “You shouldn’t let me go,” his words came haltingly, constants and vowels marred, yet to Cartwright’s ears his English sounded beautiful. “If someone realises…. If someone finds out you let me go…”
Cartwright understood Zhang’s concern – the same concern for his life, he had for Zhang’s – but he was certain no one saw him give chase. No one noticed him chase after the man through Beijing’s maze of alleys, as the Chinese soldiers and rebels retreated under heavy British fire. But he’d still raised his weapon, pointed it at the man’s head fearing he might have been followed. A risk he was willing to take if it meant he could see Zhang, and speak with him once more.
“I know. That’s why you need to go, now,” he pleaded, the sounds of battle growing louder. Cannon balls landed nearby, rattling the buildings around them. “Go. Stay safe. Stay alive,” pressing their foreheads together and resisting the urge to do more. “I will come find you, when all this is finished.”
He needed Zhang to stay safe. Cartwright couldn’t have Zhang become one of the many officers, leaders of the rebellion who were made examples of. Heads displayed like trophies on top of city gates and walls, no longer considered men, but animals instead. He couldn’t stand the idea of finding Zhang’s head amongst them when the conflict ended. Cartwright needed him to survive until those in power grew weary of battle. To find Zhang anything but alive would kill him.
Feet pounded on the packed earth streets, closing in on where they stood. Dust filled the air along with the voices of soldiers and forced them apart. Cartwright stared once more over his shoulder, panic flooding his veins and for a moment he considered deserting, running away with Zhang far from the battle keeping them separated. But reality crushed his resolve, reminding him a price would soon be placed on his head and neither of them would be safe.
Buildings complained, tired and weary of the battle raging through the streets they lined. Groaning as the feet of soldiers continued to race between them and dragging the battle toward where he and Zhang stood. Desperate to drag them back to it. Cartwright grabbed a hold of Zhang pulling him close against him, desperate to feel the warmth of his body against his own one last time as the calls of “Captain Cartwright” became clear. His name drifting through the air, shouted by the frantic voices of the men under his command. Soon he would be discovered and he needed Zhang to be gone from here.
“Go. Run. I’ll find you again, I promise,” reluctant to let Zhang go, not knowing when they would see each other again.
“Don’t die either, Alfred,” Zhang’s hand warm against his neck and Cartwright wished the world, the battle raging around them would disappear, leaving them alone.
“Go. Go now,” shoving Zhang away, the voices of his men now loud enough for Cartwright to distinguish which men of his command they were. “Go.”
Cartwright raised his pistol wanting to point it in any direction but at Zhang. If he had to shoot; if his men discovered them before Zhang got away, he would shoot at the ground near his feet. This time Zhang didn’t hesitate to follow his request. Spinning on his heels Zhang headed toward the end of the alley where he could disappear into the maze and live.
Zhang stopped. His footsteps faltering as he turned back to face Cartwright and throwing him one final smile before disappearing. “Yongyuan ai ni.” I will love you forever.
“Yongyuan ai ni,” Cartwright whispered as Zhang disappeared from his sight and the men searching for him stumbled into the alley.