A Thread of Chance (1)

Chapter 1: An Overdue Reunion

~ Each Mortal is bound by a Limit, a Geomancer is also a Mortal.

Every Reading comes with a Price, Know the Worth of the Price.

Every Situation is accompanied by Chance, a single Thread of Chance. ~

It is the idle season. Clusters of women gather to gossip under the rows of willow trees at the village front. A stranger catches their eyes, garbed as he is in a cotton robe worthy of an entire year’s upkeep for a family of three generations.  Their gazes track him as far as they can follow: he’s heading for the rear of the village towards the lodging of Xian Sheng, the Teacher. He walks on the mud track with a stroll which proclaims that he belongs elsewhere, to the wide expandless world beyond the village that is both exciting and frightening. The sight brings the villagers into a state of awe. They had never seen such prestige projected through so simple a motion.

The stranger, Xun Zhen whose name means Seeking Truth, creases his brows in reflection over what he had seen on the way to this village. The prices for staple food have gone up in all the towns but there isn’t a drought in the surrounding regions. That usually means someone has been stockpiling them. Could news of my mission have already leaked out? To whom?  Xun Zhen shudders to contemplatethe possibility.

Xun Zhen feels anticipation building within himself for the upcoming encounter. Quickly overtaking, and prevailing over it, however, is a feeling of unresolved mystery resurfacing. Why had He left? Why did He choose this way, of all possible ways? Unwilling to relinquish his grudge, Xun Zhen refuses to refer to the Old Man as anything other than a generic He. He’s no longer worthy of being anything other than a faceless being in my world. He abandoned me along with all that He was, why should the Deserter earn any respect from me let alone still have my affection? Xun Zhen wishes that that he has come today to simply collect his due from Him rather than an actual mission. Least of all his mission today.

Reluctant to move further, he stops on the mud track, which is still a fair distance from a bamboo fence enclosing a grass hut standing aloof and lonely. He can only see the structures from where he stands but his instincts tell him that this most ordinary residence is his destination.

Sa Sa Sa. His gaze turns to the left where a gale is sashaying among the bamboo forest. Despite the wind, no single bamboo stalk bows. The sight recollects to him the words once spoken by the Old Man while viewing a similar scene. “That’s how a man of virtue needs to be. That‘s how We need to be. Break rather than bend.” That is why He chose here. It is the fitting abode for His character.

Xun Zhen moves forwards towards His hut.

“This is Two,” a cultured voice states. It comes from a man who is all white in hair and beard but with a visage of one in his thirties.  He is sitting cross-legged in the middle of the front yard on a seat of stone that the Elements seem to have crafted specifically for him. About a dozen or so children of various ages, wearing patched clothes, sit facing him in the same posture. A surprisingly orderly sight for young children of this social class.

The Old Man has always had that effect, He imbues his unique aura onto everything he touches. I could have been, no, I was one of these children sitting in rapt attention.

Xun Zhen’s mind wanders back to his own childhood, to the first meeting between him and the Old Man.

He looks exactly like the first time I saw him except his hair and beard were the color of ink rather than snow. “Mischievous One, would you like to go with me?” He asked. I thought he looked very ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. I cocked my head to one side as I pondered this puzzle. My eyes roamed across the stranger from head to foot in that way that got Niang – Mother – scowling at me whenever she caught me.

He was wearing a Daoist robe. It fitted him in somewhat but not quite with those men with white beards that they stroked as they prattled about things that we common people don’t, and won’t, know. I didn’t really have a concept of what it meant to be part of the common people, it was just what Niang said I was. So I wasn’t as in awe of Daoists as most of my playmates but more curious.

I stuck out my tongue at him. “Old Man,” I called in retort. I went with him but the name stuck as my special term of endearment for him. He taught me to read and write. He gave me the name of Xun Zhen. “Zhen, Truth, is the core to every being and object. Life is the search for Zhen within and without. Do honour onto the name by never forgetting the meaning behind it,” He said when he gave it to me.  He raised me to be who I am.

So why did He betray me by leaving the way He did? Xun Zhen’s hands clench up into fists.

Xun Zhen watches Him draw three horizontal lines on the muddy ground with a twig, each lower line successively longer than the one above it. The Teacher points to what he just drew, “This is Three.” Next to it, he draws a rectangle from the top of which dangles two short curved lines heading towards left and right respectively. “This is Four.” He continues drawing until Ten, a horizontal line dissected by a vertical one.

“Nine is the ultimate number rather than ten. Does anyone know why?” the Teacher asks his students.

The children all shake their heads and look at him expectantly.

“Because Heaven always leaves a single Thread of Chance. Thus we should always leave a single thread of chance for ourselves and others in any situation.”

Xun Zhen enters. “Well said, I come precisely for a Thread of Chance, Teacher.” He put emphasis onto the last word to mock the Deserter.

***

Entrance to the hut brings Xun Zhen directly into the sitting room. Spaces might have been cramped for a normal family at the village but this hut only has a single master and an additional visitor today can just as easily roam to his heart’s content if he is in the mood. Instead, Xun Zhen roams his eyes across the layout of the room: a wooden cabinet standing in a corner, a low table with various sitting mats thrown haphazardly around it. It isn’t much different from the setup at the visitor’s room at His old residence within the Imperial Palace. Except for the rough craftsmanship and, precisely because of it, a more authentic feel. But the biggest difference between this sitting room and the one at the Imperial Palace is that this one is teeming with life from the mere presence of its master and the other lies wilted and forgotten like himself.

He glances briefly towards the piece of indigo colored cloth hanging a few inches off the ceiling and floor, that separates the sitting room from the private section of the hut, its secret heart. But the master of the hut snares his gaze in the next heartbeat. Xun Zhen stares at his former mentor, searching for the answer his heart so urgently needs from the unaged visage.

The Teacher is also considering the face in front of him. He can still recall when it was full of the awkwardness and hesitancy of youth, now he has become a grown man. Time frowns upon him, leaving strokes of ash amongst his sideburns and layers of exhaustion in his gaze. Time flits through one’s fingertips.

Teacher speaks before his student, no, formerstudent he’s already become, “I left yesterday behind me. Now, I’m merely Teacher Zhang or just Teacher.”  It is a calm but irrefutable statement.

Why? The word bubbles to Xun Zhen’s mouth. Yet, his mission intrudes and he replaces it with, “Teacher, I come seeking a Thread of Chance. You took upon yourself the title of Sui Ji. You are the Follower of Chance, who else should I seek if not you?”

“Why do you seek It?” Underneath the voluminous sleeves of his robes, Teacher Zhang feels his nails biting into the centre of his palms. A spasm starts to rack his clenched hands at this unplanned reunion with his former student. However, the force of his will ensures that not a ripple shows on the outside.

“The Crown Prince has fallen to the malady of the Heavenly Bloom. The only known cure lists the Nine Ringed Balsam as a key ingredient. As you know, it hasn’t been sighted since the time of Emperor Yan.” He looks on his former teacher with an unflinching gaze.

“So you come to me.” The Follower of Chance, who now calls himself Teacher Zhang, gazes back at him nonchalantly. The two come to an impasse as they lock eyes in a silent debate over whether it is right for Teacher Zhang to be sought out on this business involving the Crown Prince.

Shra Shra. A strong wind had come to visit the bamboo forest.

“Break rather than Bend. A pity that mortals cannot emulate it in full. If one does not bend from what is without, heart’s desires will make one bend.” Teacher Zhang remarks as a self reflection.

Xun Zhen is silent for a few moments. He feels a solid mass gathering in his chest that will erupt any time. The suppressed words burst out like an army of invaders rushing through a breach. “Why did you leave?”

“To follow Chance,” Teacher Zhang shrugs. To seek the one Thread of Chance for myself. His hands shake further.

“And that leads to you shrugging aside everything so you can live amongst the bamboo like you’ve always wanted whilst we toil day and night in your stead?”

“Each man’s path is his own to make. I neither asked you to take my place nor placed you where you are now.”

“You cast away the position of Imperial Master Geomancer. Do you now cast aside your identity as one of the Xia people?” Xun Zhen challenges.

“I cast away nothing that is not mine to cast. I shall not cast aside any that is mine to bear.” 

“Then you agree…”

“Stars shift, dynasties fall and rise.” Zhang raises a placating hand to stop Xun Zhen’s rebuke, “Passing of Crown Princes are ill omens. History has shown us time and again that a ill prepared for vacancy is naught but a precursor to anarchy. And I have no wish to bear that on my conscience. Nevertheless, I need to find the right Time to search for the Thread of Chance.”

“The right Time is already upon us. The Shapeshifter has shown its true form.” Xun Zhen gazes up steadfastly at a specific constellation. His mind meanders off to the vibrant forest of his past again, to roughly the same time of the year as now.  

I waited expectantly on the appointed night, the same as I’ve waited for the past three years. There is a voice telling me to look up but I dare not. Niang had drilled into me that it isn’t right for us common people to gaze upon the transformation of the Shapeshifter. It does not like mortal eyes peeking at it while it is turning from a happy carp swimming within the Celestial River back to its true form. And we common people have to obey rather than tempting immortals to throw their wraths at us. An interminable time would pass while I fought with the itch within my heart that grew as Niang kept her stern scrutiny of me to ensure that I would keep my head down. When she gave me her verbal permission to look up again,  I never failed to gasp at the true form of the Shapeshifter. Which was daunting and yet eerily magnificent too. Yet, my heart would scream its dissatisfaction, at being cheated of the chance to watch the entire transformation as it progresses. In that first year, when I settled with the Old Man within the Imperial Palace, he said the words that I had dreamed of Niang saying in the past three years when I lowered my chin instinctively, “Look up, Xun Zhen, watch the splendour of the Transformation as it occurs.” And I did. First, the Carp shed some of the scales on its body as glittering pinpricks of starlight. Then it swished its tail and stretched and transformed itself all at the same time, unbelievably fast. It was every bit as breathtaking as I would imagine it to be and more.  

“Heaven is at its most fickle. It is an opportune time for seeking out the single Thread of Chance.” Xun Zhen hears these words that were spoken by his mentor back at the time of his recollection and that voice overlaps with his own as he repeats after it.

Without even looking up, Zhang feels, knows that his former student is right. Nevertheless, he feels his gaze being drawn helplessly upwards to the night sky like one witnessing the befalling of his own doom. The Dragon has unfurled itself in full splendour, turning to gaze contemptuously down upon the mortals. Zhang feels the full brunt of that contempt on himself. A coward fleeing from his own past.After shedding the burden of Court life, I no longer follow the Stars diligently, he reflects with a pang.

Zhang walks away towards the brazier, putting Xun Zhen behind him. He sticks sixteen fresh incense sticks into the brazier, lining them up in four neat rows. He shall be back from the reading in four hours. Or it shall be his last four hours. I would hardly miss anything of this corporeal body when I shed it, even if that’s what others define me by. This thought of the other lives tangled up with his own makes him waver in his indifference against mortality. Moreover, it creates in him an impulse to look behind. He wrests with it and wins, this time. He lights the first stick of incense.

“Wait here.” The Follower of Chance orders. Without waiting for any acknowledgements, he strides into the heart of his domain.

***

The Follower of Chance moves with purpose towards the wicker case that holds his meager collection of personal valuables: two sets of unassuming cotton robes for summer and an equal number of winter robes. He lays all these to one side and carefully extracts a bundle resting underneath.

He takes it with him to the wall of curtains that cordons off the left side of his bedroom. Chanting the Hymn of Calm, he lifts up a section of the curtain with shaky fingers.  Fate is hard to outpace, it will catch up with you sooner or later. He enters. Five paces away stands an octagonal table with a vividly carved symbol of the polar duality of Yin-Yang in the center. A circle inside of which swims the tadpole-like Twin Fishes head-to-tail alongside each other, one black and the other white.

Zhang unwraps the bundle on the table. A wooden box sits within. Plain and emanating a compelling sense of character- aloof and beyond much of the mortal coil. He opens the lid and lifts out a black bag that just fits within his right palm. From within the bag, he starts to remove each item with the care of a master herbalist tending to a beloved sapling.

The first item that his fingers brush is curved with some grimy grains clinging to it. The seed for the Sobbing Sycamore, which can lie dormant for nine centuries waiting for the right condition to sprout while remaining unharmed from both fire and water.  It is the reservoir item for the Element of Wood.

Gentle as Wood could be in its manifestation of the Xun or Wind symbol, it could also be as volatile as its Zhen or Thunder manifestation. He passes by the seed. It is better to start with the Element of Earth with its acceptance and embracing of all. It does not really matter to one with the skill of Zhang but it is his nature to proceed with caution under all circumstances. He moves his fingers until they come across something that yields to them if only slightly. He extracts the piece of clay that was part of the Yellow Earth Plain. It was created after the legendary Fu Xi made the Great Flood subside by slaying Qu Chi and mortally wounding Xie Tse, two of the Nine Offsprings of the Dragon. He places it on the table exactly nine niches above the Yin-Yang symbol to obtain the most potent effect.

Next comes the element of Metal that Earth gives birth to. Zhang encloses his palm around a pebble-sized chunk of quartz-like mineral. Thus he retracts his hand and proceeds to arrange the ore so that it sits nine inches to the right of an invisible line dissecting the Yin-Yang symbol in half.

The Element of Water next. He brings out a piece of coral shining almost golden under the morning sun, holding onto its base so that he would not create fractures in any part of the delicate object. It goes opposite the metal ore, nine inches to the left of the Yin-Yang.

Now is the time for the seed. He places it as the right bottom anchor of the pentagon around Yin-Yang. Finally, he puts in place the left anchor, the fur from the rodents living near the volcano of Huo from which the famous Cloth of Flame Cleansing is made. Thus, the Cycle of Birth is complete, ensuring the divination will run on its course even if he expires. 

But that is not all. Zhang pulls out the Twin Coins of Fate, identical to conventional coins except that the Twin Fishes of Yin-Yang swim within the hollow square in their centres as opposed to emptiness. He places them exactly over the eye of each Fish of the Yin-Yang.

The time has come to choose the The Pedestal of Insight – in which of the eight directions he shall sit facing to undertake the divination. With an ill chosen Pedestal, even the most positive omen can turn bitter. He closes his eyes and tries to empty himself, from within and without. Everything in their own times, leave them. A clear sense of worry intrudes, a culmination of his emotions since Xun Zhen has re-entered his life. He cannot shake it off and the divination cannot occur until he is in the right mindset. Yet, time waits for no one. He isolates the nagging lump of anxiety from himself and it forms into a brownish puddle of slush. He buries it deep within a cobwebbed corner of his mind. It will have to do for now. He lets himself be pulled into wherever it feels right to go, around the table. He stops when it feels right, at one of the eight seats. The Thunder position. The Position of Volatility. A fitting one for his current enterprise.

He sits down. Imagining that only a silk veil separates him from the tangled shreds of The Heavenly Will and that he is peeling it back to take a peek, he sets his hands over but not touching the Coins of Fate, then right atop the left in a pattern of wings. He slowly pulls his hands apart and across a horizontal line of nothingness. In the centre of the Coins of Fate, The Black Fish (Yin) stands triumphant over the White (Yang). Twice. On both coins simultaneously, black washes over the White Fish, staining it ebony as the night. Two Yins.

Once More. The Twin Fishes make a draw this time. One Yin and one Yang.

The third time now. The veil over the Heavenly Shreds becomes thicker and Zhang is only able to peel it back with visible efforts. Two Yangs.

Thrice more. Additional layers of veils materialise, growing successively heavier as he approaches what he seeks. He prevails each time.

The penultimate round. He feels a jolt under foot and he is deposited amidst a world of mist, a heavy mist shrouding everything. He puts his hands forth and the curtain of mist falls away, to reveal yet another layer of mist. He peels back layer after layer, becoming more frantic in his actions, clawing at the insubstantial figments and cutting swathes of scarlet in his own palms. Ah, here’s the object of my pursuit! Then his fingers accidentally brush something that unnerves and threatens fatally to break his concentration. But he manages to throw aside the final obstacle and corner his quarry of this round.

Arriving at the last gate to success. The mist coalesces into viscosity now. He is no longer the hunter but the prey, prey of the misty-hued current that he has to swim against else be pulled under. His hands are already shaking from prior efforts. He feels a spasm about to unmask its fangs and mark his doom.

Outside of his mental world, the reservoir items begin cracking one by one. Small cracks but the Coins of Fate start losing their lustre, rusts start materialising as if time spins hundreds times faster within the dome over the octagonal table.

***

Within the sitting room, Xun Zhen reflects upon the conversation that just occurred. He feels cheated. Of all the possible reasons he conjured of his mentor’s departure, he had never dreamed that he had left on a whim. To Follow Chance? Who was He kidding? The Old Man’s the one who had taught him that Chances move with the Heart. That a Master seizes Chance born of the Heart in hand rather than let Chance seek him out and seize him in hand. What He just said were lies, all lies, excuses concocted to brush him aside as one would a speck of dust.

Why? That is all he wants to know. Why isn’t he even graced with the truth, even if only for pity of what he had gone through in the aftermath of His walking out? Xun Zhen feels himself turning into a red hot brazier, fed by the fuel of anger in his belly which flare into embers that grow tall within seconds and erupt into steam rising off his scalp.

Xun Zhen glances at the brazier and the almost burned out stub of the second incense stick. It feels like more time has gone past, at least two hours by his own reckoning. He walks restlessly up and down.

He glances over to the brazier again and sees that the stub has gone out. He lopes over and lights a new one. Four hours… that is not a promising omen. It is the Old Man’s- from all he knows, it might be any mortal’s- limit. The Old Man had only taught him the basics of divination that any Geomancer can learn. But he isn’t chosen by Fate to know it as intimately as the Old Man or the handful others who have affinity to the Qian (Heavenly) Symbol. And the Old Man was- is, the best. The others couldn’t even attempt the search for the Thread of Chance. Not wouldn’t as in the majority of cases when they claimed they couldn’t. Which really meant that they weren’t willing to pay for the price for making a divination. The words that the Old Man used when describing the price exacted on divinations resounded in Xun Zhen’s ears. “Fate doesn’t like having his tricks revealed before time. That’s why there is a price exacted on those of us with affinity to the Qian Symbol who can sometimes read into his tricks before he can spring it onto us mortals.” But that’s not how it is with the other QianGeomancers this time. They genuinely couldn’t. That much a fellow Geomancer can tell even if his affinity is for any of the seven alternative Symbols of the Bagua or the Eight Portents.

The well-being of the Crown Prince depends on the Old Man finding what Xun Zhen has come to sought. Else unrest and bloodshed would not be long to follow. Character development, harmony within the family and then management of the kingdom, past sages counsell that is how we should prioritise in terms of attaining order in as an individual. Yet, without the kingdom, where shall families and individuals find safe havens in?  Xun Zhen doesn’t remember his own father but he remembers the shade of ugly red jutting out on the corpse of someone his father’s age from his village and those bulging eyes staring in accusation of the conflict-ridden times that he had the misfortune of being born to. He starts seeing that face vividly in his dreams again not long after the Crown Prince had fallen ill. Xun Zhen has no wish for the soul of any other child than himself to become forever besmirched by a similar sight.

Everything hinges on the Single Thread of Chance now. Would the Old Man find It? The Single Thread of Chance… It always exists in theory but elusive as it is, finding it is an altogether different matter. Please, Old Man, you must find It! You are our last beacon of hope.

He sits back down to meditate. He closes his eyes in concentration, to lean his will to the chance that the Old Man will chase down his quarry.

Millennia drift past and his heart flutters. A wisp of disturbance onto the stillness of his core. He opens up his eyes. His legs act on a will of their own. He stands up. He paces in mincing steps back and forth, back and forth, with his hands twisting together like a coil of rope behind his back. The Old Man must not fail, The Old Man must not fail, he chants to himself. He dreads to think of the consequences at Court otherwise.

Xun Zhen seethes as he plops himself back down. What would the Old Man care of the consequences? He had washed his own hands of the Court. Even if he failed at the reading, the Old Man would say He has done his part in this business and begone from his life! Do not come disturb his ideal idyllic life again!  “Princes vying against each other for the Seat of the Dragon? Courtiers and nobles scrambling to fall into line behind the right master of their eyes? The wheel of politics turning furiously and wrested back and forth between factions, bloods of innocents shed and worse done in the meantime? What business are those of mine?” He would say. None, none for Teacher Zhang who simply walked away from it all. As final as that, like a slap in my face.

He bows his head and would have cried out in anguish if he could. But he can only smile bitterly to himself.

***

Zhang is splayed out on an island. It can barely be called that, being not much bigger than the total of himself, stretched out. He can’t move a single muscle. He tries to make his taut muscles relax, knowing that he does not have long to tarry.

He feels the ground heaving as finger-width cracks come into being directly below him. The movement not only hurls him back out to the sea of congealed mist but also makes his mind spin enough such that the buried puddle of anxiety oozes out. Moments later, jagged lines appear in the Heaven. Where they converge, whole sections of the world fall away. Lost to me forever, the instinct of Sui Ji speaks. Mere seconds later, more and more streaks form in the sky, faster and faster. The world disintegrating into shreds.

No! I can’t let this happen,Zhang the Follower of Chance roars. I’m done with running, let Fate claim me if He wishes but until then, I am the Master of my own destiny. These are all illusions. With the power of his mind, he cleaves a way through it all. A single veil blocks his way still, cordoning off the entirety of this world as if it is a single room. He tries to lift a section of it and the veil turns into a block of ice the size of himself, with chill rising off it that he can see with his naked eyes. He pushes. It wouldn’t budge. He already feels the first sign of frostbite- a numb yet tingling feeling spreading downwards from his fingertips. He wills it to not be and yet it remains. He inhales a long breath and embraces the ice. The cold penetrates to his marrow. And yet, he feels the ice yielding to him as he becomes soaked with icy water. Or maybe he is yielding to the icy water as they materialise. He doesn’t know. He only knows to hold on. Hold On. Hold…on. Hold…..

The ice has melted. Out of frost-encrusted lids, he gazes upon the hard-won omen lying in front of him. Relief flushes through his veins. Then uncertainty creeps in. There seems more to the portent than that he has been able to make sense of. There is something that keeps eluding his grasp and that creates a sense of dread underneath the relief he feels. A sense of deep dread if he delves into it. But he shrugs it off as an instinct born of mortality.  If it is Fate, so be it. Also, Xun Zhen is waiting. The time of closure between himself and his student is drawing close, he can feel it. If he pauses to ponder things a little longer now, he might have avoided the regret of having committed one of the largest oversights of his life.

Zhang walks out from his bedroom to where Xun Zhen sits waiting with the last of the incense sticks just about to expire. He smiles serenely to himself and on his former student but it contains just the slightest tinge of uncertainty.  

“The Reading?”

“I have obtained what we need.”

A visible sigh of relief escapes into the air.

“I will accompany the party in retrieving the Nine-ringed Balsam. That is the Thread of Chance you come to seek.”

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