A Thread of Chance (2)

Chapter 2: A Belated Recollection

~ One who can tell fortunes cannot tell one’s own fortunes, the price is hundreds fold.

Heavenly secrets cannot be divulged, Fate comes to exact its vengeance. ~

While Xun Zhen sits swaying to the jolting rhythm of the horse-drawn carriage, he stares unfocused at the opposite side, at the Old Man, his former mentor. The Old Man has overrode all other concerns on his mind. He had come on this mission foremost because the fate of a kingdom—their kingdom, and their people, hung in the balance. Yet, he had also come seeking closure, which eludes him still. There is a void inside him that only a full reckoning with the Old Man will close; a reckoning to which he has full entitlement, and one that the Old Man is withholding.

He still remembers when the Old Man walked out on him. Every detail is imprinted on his mind, to torment him in his preciously few idle moments over all the intervening years. It is as if that day is not a part of his life that had passed, but rather a dislocated part always on the verge of pouncing to engulf him.

It was a treacherously bright day, with an open sky and a light breeze, the opposite of what I expect would accompany the greatest betrayal of my life. I had just come back from my trip of homage to Mt. Tai Hua, still in fascination over my transcendent experience. I rushed into the Old Man’s residence at the Imperial Palace brimming with words to describe my epiphanies. All I found was a great emptiness, a place withered without the presence of its rightful master. Thus sprang my shared bond with the place. I’m not sure I have shaken off the bond even now. We are two of a kind, both abandoned by the same heartless deserter.

I was in a daze, wandering aimlessly through the residence, brushing my hands along the furniture as if I could still hold on to what little warmth and sense of the Old Man lay within. But they were long cold. All I could conjure out of them were wisps of him, phantoms that wouldn’t bear sunlight and could only be enjoyed in the darkest abyss of my mind. They made me yearn for his presence all the more.

I found a letter addressed to me on the dining table. It was a circular table that only fit four at most, and only ever fitted us two for as long as I could remember. When I was a child, the Old Man would slowly sip his herbal tea and look upon me indulgently while I devoured all the food. When I turned into a young man, we would drink tea and dine together, talking of matters mundane and complex. He was the father that I never got the chance to know.

Numbly, I opened the envelope and took out a letter immaculately folded into exactly six equal portions. It was a curt announcement that the Old Man had resigned his position as the Imperial Master Geomancer, and that we would next see each other when Fate deems it right. Not a word more he had to say to me. He walked out, light as a breeze. I didn’t even get to see the sight of his back as he went off—without me.

A courtier came to summon me to the Council of Geomancers. We needed to select a replacement for the position vacated by the Old Man; one who had enough understanding over the Five Elements, and with the appropriate mettle in character and temperament.

In the subsequent buzz of activities leading to my succession, there was no place for my emotions. When they finally caught up to me, I knew I was owed an explanation.

When the Old Man took me away from Niang- Mother, he set me free to be who I truly am. At the same time, he had also raised me up to care about responsibility ahead of oneself. So what is he doing deserting his own duties without a valid reason? Who then am I to him except a convenient replacement for when he decides to shirk his own responsibilities? Is that all that I am to him? Are all the affection that I thought he had given me freely and of his heart actually given at a price, for his ulterior motive? The thought revolts me, makes me feel soiled.

A waterskin held in a weather-worn hand intrudes into Xun Zhen’s field of vision. It breaks up his internal seething.

“I thought you would be thirsty by now.” Yin Jiao says while motioning towards his partner who is passing a waterskin to the Old Man at the same time. The two of them had joined up with himself and the Old Man two days since at the village. Xun Zhen knows that Yin Jiao is already in his early forties. Occasionally, the two cross paths when Yin Jiao serves his duty as the Imperial Guard Captain at the Palace. Despite his age, Xun Zhen knows he is still a warrior in his prime, more than capable at his chosen calling.

Xun Zhen appreciates and respects such a man. So he politely declines the offer, struggling to prevent his inner turmoil from showing through in speech. He wouldn’t have suspected that the shrewd Yin Jiao has already detected the teacher-student feud.

Yin Jiao is troubled about this mission. As a warrior and a man, he only wants to be a Pure Retainer—one owing complete allegiance to the Emperor and no one else, whose sole focus is on the exercising of his own duty. And his duty it is to serve, not to question who shall or shall not rise to be his liege. So far, he has done very well in avoiding getting yoked under the banner of any single prince, not even the crown prince’s. He is the Emperor’s man and so he wishes to remain. Yet, his current mission will tip this delicate balance. He suspects it will drag him into the quagmire of succession intrigues that the princes and the Emperor all play against each other. Oh yes, he is fully aware of those games acting as a constant backdrop to the Imperial Court. Whether he wishes to be embroiled in such games is a different matter. He also doesn’t like this idea of sending a small party to retrieve the plant for the Crown Prince’s cure. The Emperor said that keeping the state of the crown prince a secret will prevent unrest from quarters outside the Imperial Palace. He does not agree with such logic.  It is just a ploy that will fool no one.

The Imperial Master Geomancer has already conferred with him about telling sights of an uprising that he saw on route to his mentor. Yin Jiao agrees that their timing would be too coincidental if they are not linked to their current mission.On top of that, he has got a sense that they are followed. With that in mind, Yin Jiao starts to appraise the carriage from a defensive perspective. The inside is hardly spacious, the four of them nearly brush each other’s knees as they sit two on each side. This is actually an aspect working in their favour as it forces attackers to board one at a time. Less ideal is the fact that one can alight this carriage from either the front or back door. But he is confident that he and Meng will be able to secure both entrances between the two of them if needed. He runs a critical eye across the carriage walls. Made of sturdy pine boards, a good bow or crossbow can nevertheless puncture through them. The same is true of the two carriage doors. He reaches to open the window on his side in order to assess the terrain outside when the Imperial Master Geomancer asks him, “What is the matter?”

“I want to check the terrain outside.”

Xun Zhen gives him a nod of understanding and then closes his eyes. He would better lay aside his feud with the Old Man to prepare for mishaps ahead.

Yin Jiaolooks at theImperial Master Geomancer and then his predecessor. He cannot help but notice the striking contrast in their appearances. The elder of them can be mistaken for a man in his prime if one disregards the colour of his hair and beard. In contrast, the Imperial Master Geomancer looks much older than he should have at the prime of thirty. He seems like a rock with every weather-worn sign showing clearly on its rough-hown surface. Yin Jiao wonders about the unrest between this teacher-student duo. He suspects that it will jeopardise their current mission. His warrior’s instinct certainly feels it in the same way as sensing physical dangers in advance.

He shifts his gaze to his protege, Wang Meng, brimming with energy and enthusiasm as his wont. One corner of Yin Jiao’s mouth turns up in amusement in observing Meng trying unsuccessfully to strike up a conversation with the senior Geomancer who obviously wants some time to himself. Yin Jiao motions to little Ferocious (as he himself affectionately calls him) to go back to vigilance.

Yin Jiao wonders what thoughts such a great one is turning over in his mind. Something mundane from the village that they departed a few days back? Or darker thoughts such as he himself was entertaining seconds ago? Or his student? Or something he cannot imagine…

Zhang, who held the title of Imperial Master Geomancer before Xun Zhen and once self-dubbed the Follower of Chance, is lost to his own reverie. His mind dives into a memory from at least a decade ago. Such a long time that he doesn’t feel like his younger self is the same person as he is now.

He was alone, sipping herbal tea. His heart fluttered ever so slightly. Following his Geomancer instinct, he divined his own future. The price is always steep on such an enterprise but his instinct was strong enough that he was willing to pay it. For the first and only time in his life.

It was a difficult reading, more difficult than he had expected from his overconfidence. He did not really think he had a penchant for overconfidence—it was more that the difficulty involved in reading one’s own future went substantially beyond his initial expectations.

The result… Zhang is jolted out of the recollection by Meng who taps him on the shoulder. When he looks across at the young man, he is surprised to see the finger-in-front-of-mouth sign for silence.

***

Via an exchange of hand movements with Meng, Yin Jiao steers the party to move into the best defensible position- with him and Meng guarding the two doors and the two mages in the middle. They have barely done so when the carriage lurches to a stop. This is succeeded by the thud of someone dismounting at the front and the shriek of a dying horse seconds later.

Yin Jiao does not want to risk opening a window to take a peek outside as what alerted him was the faint sound of a heavy object such as a human body falling off the front of the carriage. There must have been an archer amongst the ambushers who took out the carriage driver, else Little Ferocious would have picked it up as well, Yin Jiao thinks to himself. Therefore, he can only rely on his hearing to gauge the upcoming movements of the ambushers. They are converging on the carriage to form a loose ring around it. From the noise of their footsteps, he makes out that they are about eight or nine in number. There are two in particular who walk with a light tread, a sign that they are genuine warriors rather than mere rabble. This makes Yin Jiao more cautious about the upcoming encounter.

“Surrender all the valuables inside and we’ll let you go.” One of the ambushers calls out.

Bandits. Are all of them genuine bandits? “We don’t have much valuables. We are just travelling to visit relatives.” Yin Jiao pretends to stammer as he replies. 

“That’s what you say. Come out in the open and let us search through the carriage.”

Meng’s whisper cuts in before Yin Jiao can respond, “Captain, why are we pretending to be villagers? Can’t we polish these filth off the land of Xia while we are at it?”

“Remember that you are an Imperial Guard on a mission, not a vagabond warrior out to serve your own justice.” Yin Jiao reprimands Meng whilst still keeping his voice low so that the ambushers won’t overhear.

“But…” Meng doesn’t finish as he is glared down by the Captain.

“Concentrate. Be ready.” Yin Jiao whispers to Meng in a firm tone.

Still trying to keep up his pretense as a commoner in fear of a bandit encounter, Yin Jiao answers, “Pl…please, we are just villagers, we don’t have much but we will give you all that we have.” He pretends to gulp. “I… I heard the arrow. If we come out, how do I know you won’t just shoot us down?”

Raucous laughters echo outside. “You’ve got a sharp ear. Do you really think you have a choice in this?” The last few words are spoken in a growl.

“We just won’t… won’t come out. You can come in if you want.”

“Fine, wait in there. But you will want to come out soon.” The bandit makes a cackling laugh and then falls silent.

“We can’t just wait now.” Meng locks eyes with the Captain.

“I know that but we can’t rush out blind. So there are about four on each end of the carriage. Wang Meng, you run out into the open…”

“They are lighting a fire!” Meng declares as he sniffs the air.

The Captain continues, “and attract their attention. I will circle to the other side and remove the risk of the archer. Except we need to know which end of the carriage the archer is at.”

Xun Zhen looks across at the Old Man to see him putting his thumb and middle finger together at the tips. “The south east is a fortuitous direction for our undertaking, the north brings bad omens.” Zhang says.

Turning towards the two mages, Yin Jiao becomes indecisive. “Sirs, do you think you would be able to unobtrusively exit the carriage and hide from the bandits?”

“We can take care of ourselves.” Zhang assures them.

Yin Jiao tips his head towards the back exit and then hand signals the south-east. Meng hastens to carry out his assignment.

“Wait,” Xun Zhen stops Meng from speeding off. “I have a spell which will aid the two of you, especially the young lad here.”

The two warriors only see him closing his eyes momentarily before Xun Zhen signals he is done.

Meng races out of the back door. Yin Jiao waits until he hears an outcry from the bandits before stealing out. Outside, it seems as if a mist has descended. A warning bell toils in Yin Jiao’s mind that the bandits shouldn’t have been able to rise so much smoke so quickly. He angles for a little eastwards from the northern direction, following upon his hearing that has homed in on the bandits’ rough deployments.

Drawing his sword, he rushes forwards to arrive off the right side of a bandit facing away from him. Yin Jiao cleaves through the bandit’s mid-raff. The vermin looks up in shock, already partially bent over and clenching his stomach. Yin Jiao claps a hand over his mouth and lowers him to the ground, slitting his throat on the way.

His next target turns abruptly to face him head on. The bandit cries out. Yin Jiao aims a slash at his left hamstrings but has to give up to dance aside of the overhead chop attempted by the other bandit made alert. He scores deeply on the second bandit’s back who is still trapped in the momentum of his own failed chop. The bandit topples over. Yin Jiao trods on his neck just to be sure.

Whoosh. Yin Jiao turns to parry the cut aimed at his left side, retaliates with a quick jab and closes in on his quarry. The bandit looks towards the side as if to assess his chance of running away but Yin Jiao catches the upwards motion of his right hand as he throws a handful of dirt-like powder at Yin Jiao. Yin Jiao jumps out of range. Facing backwards, the bandit has already ran a few paces away. Yin Jiao closes the distance with two long strides, forcing the bandit to stop again. The bandit makes a desperate charge at him, tries to change direction in close quarters and brings about his own demise. Yin Jiao has spotted the trick well in advance and uses the opening in the bandit’s momentarily dropped guard to gut him.

Yin Jiao hears his own blood pounding in his ears. Almost reached my real target. Right ahead he sees his opponent standing at ease in front of the archer.  There is no mistaking that his posture bespeaks that it is dangerous to cross this man’s path. This is a real opponent for me. I need to go over his dead body to get at the archer. Yin Jiao thinks grimly as he strides forward.

***

From behind a bush, Xun Zhen observes Yin Jiao jumping back from an elegant thrust to the stomach delivered by his opponent. The two of them go back to circling and measuring each other for a while before Yin Jiao’s opponent abruptly cuts to the left. He makes a misstep as he meets the parry from Yin Jiao. Xun Zhen gives a silent cheer. Yet, instead of seeing Yin Jiao spring to claim the victory, he steps back in caution. What a pity. Oh no. Xun Zhen sees an arrow speeding towards and hitting home just below Yin Jiao’s right shoulder blade. Xun Zhen senses through his cast spell that the guard captain is tiring.

Xun Zhen becomes worried when the broadsword wielding bandit seizes upon Yin Jiao’s state of unbalance to make a cut, breathes a sigh of relief as Yin Jiao jerks back just in time at the price of a thin line scored on his lower arm. Xun Zhen knows such an injury is insignificant under the boosted defense that his spell grants to the two warriors. However, he is worried about the light ripples he can detect on the surface of Yin Jiao’s mind. Must be his arrow wound. And in common with us Geomancers, balance in one’s mental state is a matter of life and death for warriors, especially in a duel between two masters. I must act now.

Xun Zhen reaches out to those ripples and pacifies them, turning Yin Jiao’s mind back into a still lake. He is gratified in seeing Yin Jiao becoming his own master again. The succeeding series of exchanges between Yin Jiao and the bandit is a flurry occurring too quick for Xun Zhen to follow. However, it almost appears to him that the two of them are engaging constantly in a deadly game of give and take. Xun Zhen’s heart travels up and down his throat like a heavily used bucket along a well. He swipes his right hand across his forehead to clear away the perspiration. Xun Zhen’s eyes light up. Yin Jiao has clearly gained the upper hand, forcing his opponent to step back. Even Xun Zhen’s ameteur eyes picks up that the bandit is now off balance. The battle ends with Yin Jiao’ sword piercing the heart of his foe. Finishing off the unprotected archer is short work after that.

Yin Jiao starts panting. The aftermath of his previous battle is catching up with him. Despite this, his gaze is already turning towards Little Ferocious.

***

Wang Meng is facing off against two opponents, one who is a real challenge for him and the other a skill-less vermin with a knack for lending his hands at treacherous moments. He hasn’t come to anything amounting to a real injury yet but sweat is beading on his forehead. The hilt of his broadsword is getting slippery in his hands. He no longer feels the strength and vibrancy lent to him by the spell the mage cast.

The more challenging of the two bandits comes at his right side with a straight extension of the arm. Captain has noted repeatedly that is where I have a natural tendency to leave unguarded, can he have noted that as well, so soon? His body moves reflexively to block while his mind is still arrested by apprehension. 

Too late Meng realises that it was a feint. He can only turn sideways but his oversight still earns him a long gash along his elbow. Out of the corner of his eyes, he sees the other bandit scurrying forward unbelievably fast towards a side bush. The two mages! Meng turns and sprints for his charges. 

“Beware!” Meng hears the Captain’s shout. He feels a rush of air on his back and hears a groan. A weight presses lightly but stays firm upon Meng’s back before finally sliding off. He turns around and sees the Captain on his knees, smiling placidly at him. A trickle of blood starts leaking from one corner of the Captain’s mouth. “No!” Meng shouts in fury and denial.

The outer corners of Meng’s eyes have turned upwards and the surrounding skin are pulling so taut that it hurts. Such miniscule pain does not even register on Meng’s consciousness. He glares at the bandit who robbed him of his Captain, comrade and mentor and who is now trying to dislodge his own broadsword from where it is stuck inside the Captain. Meng charges him like a mad bull, broadsword sweeping out rapidly and haphazard. When he lopes off the head of the bandit, he stares vacantly at the headless body standing in front of him for seemingly eons.

What rouses him is the wail of the wind, seemingly to mourn with him of the Captain’s passing. And then he remembers the two mages! He hurries towards the direction in which he saw the bandit darting off to but it is already too late. He can only watch in horror as the vermin makes a fatal chop at the elderly Geomancer. Nevertheless, his feet continue rushing forward. “ARGH!” Meng bellows, purely in the hope that it will unsettle the vermin and cause some delay in his movements.

Meng is exuberantly surprised at what unfolds. The Imperial Master Geomancer pushes the old mage out of harm’s way. Seizing the moment of the bandit’s temporary unbalance, he gets in a fatal stab at the bandit’s neck with his dagger. Even though he does not come away fully unscathed, the injury is only a minor cut on the hand. Meng’s breath comes out.

Satisfied of the mages’ safety, Meng rushes back to his Captain. He hears two sets of footsteps behind him but he cannot spare a single thought for them yet.

“Captain.” Meng clasps the hand of his mentor, bending down to his level to hear his parting words.

Yin Jiao reaches into the clasp of his robe and pulls out a signet ring that he wears on a thong around his neck. It is dark throughout with a single golden character engraved on it: Shadow. The keepsake belonging to the leader of the Emperor’s Shadow Bodyguards. Momentous power coming with it and equally more responsibilities. He hands it over to Meng. “Assassins. Take this. Tr… trust no one. Du…” His voice trails off. I am proud of you, his smiling eyes convey the words that he doesn’t have time to say before his eyelids fall shut. The mission will succeed because I’ve left it in good hands. It must.

***

They all get out of the carriage to walk. Luckily, they are only a few days from their destination, a mountain where the Nine-Ringed Balsam still grows.

Meng carries the body of his Captain from the carriage and lays it carefully on the ground. He gets to work digging out the resting place for the Captain silently and furiously. He knows that he has only the duration of the digging to mourn. An Imperial Order overrides all, that is the doctrine for all court officials including Imperial Guards. He must not let his personal feelings distract him from duty.

Meng feels a hand on his shoulder. He glances up and sees the Imperial Master Geomancer looking on him kindly.

“The best resting place for a warrior is on a battlefield. Yin Jiao has done honour to himself both as a warrior and the faithful retainer of the Emperor.” Xun Zhen offers in consolation. He knows that it would be inadequate. How could any consolation ever be adequate for the sudden loss of a close one? How could anyone not experiencing it for themselves know the anguish? But it is the best that he can offer under their pressing mission. Each of them bears an responsibility for seeing this mission to success. Success. We must have success. The prices in blood and lives are too steep otherwise, for us individually and for the kingdom to bear.

Feeling a slight quiver under his touch as the only response, Xun Zhen steps back several paces to afford the younger man some solitary space. Xun Zhen looks back, but doesn’t find the Old Man as he expects. Just when he feels puzzled and slightly worried, he senses a gentle tug at his sleeves. The Old Man is looking at him in the same way as all those years ago when news arrived that Niang had passed away. He had always thought that fortune smiled upon him when the Old Man took him away from his birth village and away from Niang’s care. It wasn’t that Niang mistreated him in any way. Only he found Niang’s supervision suffocating, or at least dampening on his character. It’s something he only came to realise when the Old Man became his guardian instead. Yet when he heard about Niang, he could not believe it at first. He wasn’t ready to face loss. Even though he had lost his father early, he had simply taken that as a given fact while he grew up. You don’t mourn a fact of your everyday life. But Niang was different. Much as he felt liberated in the absence of Niang, he had expected that she would carry on her mundane life at the village while he studied Geomancy to their mutual contentment. Her sudden departure—the sudden realisation that he would be all alone in the world without the last who shared a bond of blood with him—robbed him of comprehension and consciousness entirely. Everything of that subsequent time was a blur until he looked into the eyes of the Old Man. Until that pair of eyes told him that he would not be alone, he would be safe and never abandoned. A lie.

Pang. Pang Pang. The loud impact of a hard object against the ground disturbs Xun Zhen from his introspection.

Done with the three kowtows to the Captain, Meng stands and turns back to his two charges. His gaze goes to the Imperial Master Geomancer first.

Xun Zhen gives him a bow from the waist up, which takes Meng by surprise. Then comprehension dawns. Meng realises that the mage is treating him as if he is one of the Captain’s family members. And why shouldn’t I be? Who else is there? With such a thought in mind, he promptly returns the bow as custom dictates. 

Xun Zhen looks at the unmarked grave of Yin Jiao and sighs. A batch of yellow soil is all that remains, how long can stubborn convictions trapped in a mortal coil remain?

Zhang walks up to the unmarked grave of Yin Jiao and bows. Unconsciously, Xun Zhen follows him.

Zhang turns towards Meng and the expression in his eyes brings Xun Zhen back again to all those years ago, to the pair of eyes that is burned onto his memory. Strangely, he is no longer reliving the memory as himself but rather seeing things as if he is a disembodied spirit. In this peculiar state, he cannot hear, or maybe does not perceive, any sound. And yet he attains an inexplicable fascination for that which produces sound. His spectral gaze is riveted to the moving lips of the Old Man.

Even though he cannot read lips, he feels driven to try. Vaguely, he feels that something more than curiosity is at work. Is Tu Er-Student- what he just said? Or is he calling me by my birth name- Chu Er? Tu Lao as in being in vain? Or is it entirely a mistaken interpretation on my part? What is he saying?

A thunderous toll such as those ringing in temples vibrates in the air. Xun Zhen is jolted back to the present, but half of his consciousness remains trapped in the spectral body, still engaged in an intense scrutiny of the Old Man’s lips. A vibration sounds directly within his spectral ears and his hearing comes back in a flash. “What is important to you—the ones dearest to you—will stay within. They are called memories. No one, nothing can take them away from you. They will stay with you for as long as you desire and honour them.”

The spectral Xun Zhen sees himself looking up towards the Old Man in his memory just as he himself does the same in the physical world. He stares at the Old Man in disbelief. He realises that the Old Man had spoken the same words to him all those years ago. Only they did not register on his consciousness. Not until now.

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