Writing what I Read: A Brief Reflection

I don’t consider myself widely read in that I mainly read three genres (fantasy, mystery and historical fiction) and I only write in the genre of Chinese fantasy (actually I do have ideas pertaining to traditional fantasy but Chinese fantasy is what has my attention right now). In that sense, I think Chinese fantasy certainly encapsulates both the fantasy and historical fiction part of my reading diet.

Now, how does mystery figure into my writing? A few years ago, I would have told you that it doesn’t. But now I would say that it creeps into my outlining process. Those who has followed my blog for a while knows that my outlines are plot or at least events-centric so basically I have the tendency of adding something to the story (could be a minor character, could be an item, could be an event) that hangs there for a while. And it’s funny how I never spotted that before until I showed one of my writer friends that abandoned trial novel attempt and he actually commented that ‘hiding stuff from readers seems to be my style’.

Now, every writer is different. I know a writer who’s never read a murder mystery but is currently writing one (although it has a literary fiction bend and might yet be classified as one yet). How about you, my writer readers? Feel free to let me know in comments.

Moonlake’s Book Discoveries- March 2019

River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

Firstly, as an ethnic Chinese reading this novel, I commend Kay on his research and besides minor quibbles, I really think his fictional Northern Song Chinese setting came across as authentic and compelling.

I had never read him or Chinese historical fantasy before so I had little expectations of what I will be getting. I was pleased to learn that this is a tale where Kay re-imagines history in a fantasy setting even though the fantasy element is on the slight side. Nevertheless, since my one true love in reading remains fantasy and I know of the major history events that this book relates this does capture my interest. I’m also satisfied with the open-ended ending which leaves me with some hope that Ren Daiyan, the fictional equivalent of Yue Fei, potentially did not meet his bad end (I doubt it given his character but at least the ending dangles some hope in front of you). There was one point where I hoped the ending would be more positive towards Ren Daiyan but I think the current ending fits the book better so I’m content.

Overall, I think Kay is a writer that I will want to add to my list of favourite authors. I think he has a good handle of the omniscient voice even though it made the opening (specifically chapter 1, I definitely started getting into the book after chapter 2 when Lin Shan appeared) a bit slow and at times I felt like the omniscient voice was interference (but other times it felt insightful and deep). I also appreciate his prose- lyrical and full of imagery. However, the main characters (Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan) are only a part of this epic tale, small vehicles in some sense. I do like epic tales and I like this aspect of this book well enough but this does stop me from bonding with the characters and does take away from this book.

Songs of Insurrection by JC Kang

I DNFed this book, the start of the Dragon Songs Saga. I got to the half way mark and then I just didn’t feel like I have the patience to keep on reading it. Perhaps because I came to this straight after River of Stars, I had high expectations of a Chinese fantasy series written by a fellow ethnic Chinese. But I think why I DNFed it was partially this high expectations, partially I was the wrong reader for this series and partially I just had issues with various aspects of the story or the writer’s way of doing things.

Firstly, I didn’t feel like this story really needed to be set in a fictional ancient China and in fact, this story was more like ancient China and a bunch of ethnic Chinese characters shoved into the conventional fantasy setting than an authentic Chinese fantasy story like River of Stars. Specifically, I felt like the conveyance of Chinese elements were primarily delivered through scattered Chinese terms emphasised via italics and sometimes the interchangeable use of specific Chinese terms and their meaning in English just seemed completely random to me. Perhaps that’s my unique experience as a Chinese and this book is really targeted at the ESB market so I’m just the wrong audience for this.

The other aspect in which I think I’m mismatched with this book is that the portrayal of the female protagonist Princess Kaiya mainly resulted in my boredom and disbelief. I felt like perhaps this book should be labelled under romance as a large part of the first half of the book seemed to concern Princess Kaiya being smitten with this foreign prince. This does have a narrative purpose in making readers question whether her actions are really decided by her or she was under undue influence but an unfortunate side-effect was that she was always feeling like her stomach was full of butterflies or other similar wording which really got to the point of being repetitive. Also, Princess Kaiya came across as a sheltered wall-flower who kept second-guessing her own actions and then stick to them anyway. I do get it on one level- it’s a reflection of her being a teenager and/or the Chinese upbringing where you have a fear of going against rules. But again it gets repetitive when she keeps doing that. The same goes for her emotional range-she’s forever fluctuating between determination and doubt/apprehension, even when she’s supposedly drunk (I don’t drink alcohol so I have no first hand experience to relate to but I felt like her thought pattern is the same whether she’s sober or drunk which just doesn’t seem right. I also feel like in this story she fluctuates between being sober and drunk within the span of three or four hours or that’s the way it appears to me). So all in all, whenever we arrived in a chapter in the princess’s POV, I felt an urge to skip it except for the event of the chapter. The pacing of the chapters is nice and quick, that’s the main merit I see in this book and why I stick to the half way mark. That and the other story line with Tian and Jie who were portrayed a bit better in that I couldn’t find direct fault with them but there was nothing to endear them to me either.

The above were my main disconnect from this book but some other nitpicks I also have included: the tendency for readers to get confused when a scene contains multiple sidecasts and the author’s attempt to make them distinct through coupling names and physical attributes don’t always work; world building tidbits like there being three moons and their usage in time measurement that came into the story and then had little narrative functions and sometimes only caused confusion or just in general diverted attention from the story.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind

Picked this up for my overseas holiday read and I think it’s a good choice- The chapters are short enough that I can breeze through it. As for the story itself, I do think it has all the qualities of a classic. While the omnipotent voice creates distance compared to contemporary novels, I am still captivated by the anti-hero of the story enough to look him up and learn that he is completely fictional. I am also impressed by the depiction of the sense of smell that is central to this novel which then branches out to the other senses. Overall, a good choice for long time readers of the mystery genre looking for a high quality light read.

A Thread of Chance (4)

Note: I am already on a 5 week holiday when this post becomes alive. I shall come back in the first week of April. And then I won’t be going away for a year and more.

Chapter 4: An Everlasting Companionship

Doom is approaching. Meng knows that he can never win against that many riders descending on them. While the two mages have shown that they can look out for themselves in single combats, he does not expect that they will fare as well with the current odds. Yet, he is getting an inch to do something, to release the pent up energy inside himself.

He hears a disturbance behind him amongst the two mages. He ignores it. If he is going down, he is going down as a man. Facing his enemies with unflinching gaze.

“Xun Zhen… Your Imperial Master Geomancer has fainted.”

What? Not now, we don’t need this. But what does it matter? We’re all going to die anyway. The mission, the mission the Captain entrusted to my hands, will be a failure. But so be it. The Captain and I, neither of us will outlive the mission. Let history make of us, and the mission, what it may. Probably just a small pen stroke if even that. Meng thinks as he glares ahead into the thundering horde speeding towards them like an unerring arrow.

The muscles around his eyes feel overworked. He can feel them twitching, disobeying his will for them to be still. He is not going to show visible signs of weakness to a band of ruffians. His honour as a warrior and an Imperial Guard dictates that he does not.

Suddenly, the riders pull up their reins, stopping just close enough to the party to display their leers. There is a taunting glint in their eyes, as if they are urging, “Come on. We will like to see you trying to run, preys.”

Meng feels a sting at the corner of his right eye as a twig-like line of sweat sashays down his forehead. He feels his pent up energy curling into a tight ball and rising to his chest where it is ready to burst any second. Captain, why must you leave? Leaving me alone with sole responsibility? How am I to properly repay your trust, now?

A trill of laughter rings out, surprisingly clear in a piercing way. “The rabbits are too scared to run. There won’t be even a chase. Not a very exciting hunt, is it?” A youth with a scar running across his left cheekbone astray a piebald mare remarks to another ruffian who has pulled up a stride behind him.

Rabbits they think us, do they? Meng’s temper explodes. I will show them how ‘timid’ we can be.

***

“Quick, take the weight of Xun Zhen off me, so that I can prepare our means of escape.” Zhang urges Meng.

Meng turn backs to hold the comatose Xun Zhen aloof by one arm. “What is the point of escape? We will be run down like game to hunters. If we are going to die at any rate, I do not want to die a coward’s death.”

“We are not dying, lad. We have the mission to complete…”

“The mission is doomed already.”

“It is not, yet.” Zhang reproaches Meng.

“Yes, yet. They don’t want to close in for the kill yet. They want to herd us and taunt us as they chase us down. They want to humiliate an Imperial Guard and take a warrior’s honour before they take his life.”

“Calm down, lad. What you say won’t happen.”

“Did you just make another divination? Is that what the omens tell you? Did the omens tell you about the Captain earlier?”

“That’s enough. Stop talking and watch. Surely you do not want your Captain to die in vain?”

Zhang takes out two small figurines of a galloping horse from his right robe sleeve. No more than inches wide on either side, they are cut out from fine cloth. They are of a strange yellow colour, like those paper charms that Daoists make to ward against ghosts and other things belonging to the nether realm. There are immaculately fine details on each of the figurines, from the facial expression of each horse as they hold their heads aloft to the way their mane bends with their movements.

Zhang throws the two figurines in the air. “Ta Sha Lao Jun Ji Ji Ru Lu Ling,” Zhang mumbles as he closes his palms together and lines up the top three fingers of each hand in a straight line while allowing the bottom two fingers to cross over to the other side. The figurines appear as if buffeted by winds and they fill up, acquiring a soul in moments, as they rapidly expand into the size of real horses. They give a loud nicker as they paw the ground, eager to be off.

Zhang mounts the one closer to himself. When he looks in front again, Meng is already astray with the body of Xun Zhen slung over in front. Together, the two of them swerve around the group of ruffians.

Meng turns his head back briefly to look at their would-be slayers. He feels maliciously satisfied with the slack jaws that he sees on quite a few faces among them. 

***

Meng looks back to measure the distance between themselves and their pursuers. This is already the sixth time? Or the seventh? He has lost count already. Their pursuers are determined and what little mirth he had at their expense earlier is already overtaken by dread. He feels regret and shame. If only he can hold onto a semblance of mind presence, he would not have delayed them so much. Now the riders on their tail seems unshakeable. It is all his fault. He has besmirched the Captain’s name and memory.

The old mage is right. The Captain nearly died in vain and all because of my own incompetence. How could I have given up so easily? Fallen so completely into the way of an empty-headed warrior only driven by fighting instincts? That is the anathema of all the training the Captain took us through.

Zhang observes the young warrior hunched over in despondency and feels for him. “Lad, your Captain is watching from the Heavens. He would not wish you grief. Let him gaze upon you in your full dignity.”

“I already lost my dignity. I was trained as an Imperial Guard but I acted like a broadsword wielding ruffian who knows nothing except kill or be killed. The Captain would feel ashamed of and for me if he is watching from the Heavens.”

“We all have lapses, there is no need to feel ashamed. Learn your lessons and move on. The Captain would understand. He will feel compassion for you rather than shame.”

“How can you know? You are not the Captain.” Meng cannot help but look back again and is alarmed at seeing the closing pursuit.

“I am a mentor too. I also have a protege that I am willing to lay down my life for. We are two of a kind, your Captain and I.”

“Thank you.” Meng blurts out with his in-held breath. “They are closing with us. We need to shake them. Can we increase speed? I am not sure how to control this horse I am riding. It does not respond to my spurrings?”

“You are approaching it the wrong way. You merely need to will it for the horse to obey. But your ego has come to the fore, interposing itself between your true will and the horse.”

“Listen to me,” Zhang speaks in a serene voice, urging Meng to relax. “Empty your mind. Get into contact with your deep conscious.”

Meng inhales and exhales rhythmically, a practice that aligns his body with his warrior’s psyche.

“Build a bridge between your wish and the steed you are riding. Think of it as a real creature of flesh and blood.” The words come to him on a breeze, easily seeping into him.

He pictures himself on his own steed, Wind-rider. He ruffles Wind-rider’s mane affectionately and gives it a firm pat on the neck. Wind-rider half-turns to look back at him and makes a soft nicker. Meng gently urges it forward with his knees and Wind-rider glides into a gallop with its powerful forelegs.

The winds tickle Meng’s face in greeting as they rush past.

“The deed is done.” Meng opens his eyes and looks back. Indeed he cannot see any more riders on their tails.

***

Puffs of dusky yellow smoke are churning in the distance. Approaching riders and a fair number of them.

Meng meets eyes with the old mage riding half a horse’s stride back at his right shoulder. Too much coincidence. He starts to swerve left but his peripheral vision has caught movement. He hears his trusted whisper that says Wait.

Turning his gaze a little to the left and training in on this direction, he sees movement resolving into another large cluster of approaching riders. Between the two bands converging on them, they will be hemmed in.

Meng looks across at the old mage who doesn’t seem perturbed. “What would you have us do?”

“Remember what I told you about control of these horses? Your will is what counts. Simply wish for a way out and it will be done. Wait and see for yourself.”

Meng is frustrated. Why can’t these mages ever talk straight? What does he mean by wait and see for myself? To see what? The horses suddenly developing wings and flying us out of here?

“We don’t change course?” Meng asks skeptically.

“No, it is not needed.”

Silently, they ride towards a closing snare. Meng looks back over his shoulder and idly wonders whether they can backtrack to avoid the trap ahead.

“What about we backtrack? Surely we have shaken off the pursuit already.”

“Have you ever wondered about the ambushes and traps lying in wait for us? This is a secret mission, why are our opponents always a step ahead of us?”

“I… no, I never thought about that,” Meng concedes, “But what has that got to do with the situation now?”

“Do you really think that we will have shaken off the pursuit so easily given what we already experienced?”

Meng is lost for words.

“Have you thought about how they kept getting in front of us?”

“You mean there’s a traitor amongst us? But that’s impossible!”

“I said no such thing. They don’t need a traitor when they can pay the right mage to cast the right spell so they can keep track of us.”

“Can you do something about this? You know, counter their magic with yours?”

“You don’t understand magic at all, lad, do you? We mages are not immortals. Magic is only something we mages wield like you wield a weapon. Can you ask any swordsman to intercept an arrow and somehow cut it?”

The two of them stop. Meng turns his mount in a quarter circle so that he can glance to the left or right, what was front or back to them, at will. His heart sinks when a dust cloud rises on his right. The old mage is right. There must have been a leak somewhere. His hands clench into a fist.

Despite the old mage’s assurance, Meng cannot help craning his neck continuously between the left and right. The first figure to emerge from the blur at the left is a gaunt, almost stick-like man with a deathly pallor. His cheeks are completely sunken in as if they have collapsed inwards. Belying such apparent weakness, however, a mad gleam shines forth like rays of light focused through a small opening. His warrior instinct tells him that it is not just any mere madness, the man will be trouble in a fight. Over to the right, he cannot yet distinguish any figures yet.

Time seems to be warped. It passes disportionately slow relative to the distance and the speed of the riders. Tong tong tong tong. Meng worries that his heart is going to fall out of his chest any minute as he continues observing the two group of riders converging on them. Like two stake boards closing in to impale them as if they are tomb raiders. The mount under him starts fidgeting as if in response to his own wish to… to do something other than stand still.

He gazes to the right. Now he can see that the band of riders as being relatively larger in size compared to the group approaching from the left. Two men ride in the front. One is a muscular thug with a beard that juts out like needles. The other almost makes Meng laugh if not for the tension he feels- a comical figure with a bald head and a pockmarked face who looks like a toad.

Meng almost feels impatient as he waits to be snapped up by the two closing jaws. He turns back to the band of riders closer to them, counting out the estimated distance to them. Fifty miles, forty, thirty, twenty, ten. Suddenly, he feels a lurch as the mount under him steps onto the air as if scaling an invisible mountain track.  It keeps climbing steadily as Meng feels disbelief. It is as good as the horses having really grown wings, he thinks as they fly out of the grasp of the closing noose.

***

Despite the passing wind scratching at Meng’s face, he is exhilarated beyond what a good ride provides him with. He is captivated by the sights he sees of the earth that they usually trod on as he looks down while flying on horseback. How amazing it is, to see as birds would see! To see the contours of the land undulating like waves or meandering like a lazy carp! Meng sees patterns from particular landmarks, a prancing rabbit here, two quiet maidens combing their hair by a river over there. It is like when he was a child when he used to see picture from clouds, a long-lost skills suddenly reacquired.

As Zhang observes the unconscious upturn in the corners of the young warrior’s mouth, he feels a temporary sense of relief. The young lad is a simple man, after all. The best cure for a wound is simply to not remember, however temporary. Besides, who is to say that frequent moments of temporary non-remembrance won’t make it into a resemblance of continuity? Zhang smiles too, unbeknownst to himself. The two have a lot of similarities, Xun Zhen and the lad. Both so simple at core. So pure. Alas, not to last. He is saddened again as his eyes light on the unconscious figure lying prone across the young warrior’s Jia Ma or Horse of Jia.

“Have you ever flown before?” Zhang turns towards the voice and a pair of eyes full of thirst for knowledge and enthusiasm greets him.

“I did not hear what you just said.” Zhang replies.

“Oh, I asked whether you had flown before.”

“Yes, once.” The pair of bright eyes eagerly proclaims Tell me more. Zhang cannot help but give in to the request.

“I was not much older than you back then, I was a student myself. We were journeying to explore a ruin and my mentor introduced me to flying just like how you were introduced.” Zhang chuckles at the recollection, “I thought he was making fun of me by not giving me prior warning and watching me fumble instead. We had some good times together, my teacher and I, and he wasn’t above pulling a trick or two on his students. But no, he wasn’t being playful that time. If he had told me earlier my misapprehension might have interfered with these horses taking to the air in the first place.”

“I almost forgot, I better teach you the incantation for these horses. You never know, it might become useful later on.”

The horses pause in mid-air and hang motionless. “What is happening?” Meng looks at the old mage quizzically.

“The horses cannot fly any higher. They’ve reached their limit.”

“Oh, then what do we do now?”

Zhang smiles, “It’s time for us to use our feet again.”

The two of them dismount after the horses spiral down from the air to trod upon the ground. Meng uprights the still comatose figure of the Imperial Master Geomancer and holds him up under his left elbow. Meng abruptly stops. He senses killing intent coalescing into a sharp needle ahead of them. “We’ve been fighting and running without rest for a long time now, let us rest a while here.” Meng suggests offhandedly as he flops on the ground.

Zhang frowns. Meng signals with his eyes for Zhang to sit next to him.

Before Zhang can speak, Meng whispers under his breath, “There is an ambush ahead. I can sense the killing intent.” Out loud, his words are completely different. “It’s been an arduous journey but we are finally safe now. Let them try to catch up with us again.” He pretends to snort contemptuously.

Meng feels his insides churning like a stew simmering in a pot. Here is another trap descending upon them, like a cage falling down atop our heads. This time it might be too late to side-step or even roll aside.

***

Xun Zhen feels his own consciousness emerging from amidst fog clouds, white as newly made cotton and as thick. He opens his eyelids and sits up. Completely confused over the surroundings, the words slip out of him, “Where am I?”

Zhang sees Xun Zhen sitting up and feels a pang. The last stage of Morning Dew, like the recovery before the final departure from the mortal realm. It is all destined, no one can truly escape from the Threads of Fate.

“We are almost there. Taking a much needed break.” Meng proclaims in a booming voice. This is followed by a small twitch that his left eye makes.

Xun Zhen is puzzled. “W…”

Meng signals him to silence and then promptly changes hand gestures to encourage him to speak up. “From here on, we can start watching out for the plant. It likes to grow in moist places out of the sun. Look among cracks between boulders, under shades of other plants.”

Meng whispers, “Is it true what you are saying?”

Xun Zhen shakes his head, once, so slightly that Meng almost misses it. What is going on? Xun Zhen mouths.

Ambush. Meng mouths back. “Right, we will start looking then.”

The three of them pretend to spread out to start a search. “What does the plant look like?” Meng calls over his shoulder as he bends to examine the plants growing on the side of the mountain more closely.

“As its name indicates, each of its flowers has nine rings on the periphery of its petals. Its flowering season has already gone past so we are looking for its plant stalk. One with thorns protruding out from the central stem….”

“They all look pretty alike to me.” Meng says in frustration after doing some careful shuffling of the plants in front of him. “Wait, what about this one? Is this it?” He suddenly makes a loud exclamation.

The two mages converge on the ‘discovery’. “So what do we do now?” Meng whispers urgently. “By the way, is that description real?”

Zhang, knowing that his own powers are useless, does not speak. He gazes at Xun Zhen who will take this on hand.  Meng follows his gaze.

“Yes, it is, they will know something’s up otherwise. Can I have the crystal I gave you back?”

“Oh,” Meng sets to searching for the crystal on his own body, finally finding it being tucked into his waistband, “here it is.” He hands it over to the Imperial Master Geomancer. He waits expectantly to see what the mage would do with the crystal.

Xun Zhen puts the crystal in between his palms and closes his eyes. After an interminable pause when he reopens his palms, a dull gray prism lies on it. He motions for the three of them to squat down and gather closer together and then closes his eyes again.

“I have turned us invisible. We just need to be careful about not making noise.”

“What about the horses?” Meng whispers.

Xiu (Put Away).” Zhang pronounces and the two horses shrink unbelievably fast into their original size and then flutter back into the palms of the old mage, so quick that Meng can hardly register the transition. “The next time you want to summon them again, just say the word Hui (Return) and they will appear again.” Zhang tells Meng, handing over the fabric figures of the two horses onto Meng’s safekeeping. Something within Meng flutters but he puts them away as ordered.

The three of them carefully creep past the ambushers. Meng can feel his muscles seizing up due to apprehension

[over the two mages even though they have proved themselves to be experienced
in moving efficiently and silently across mountain terrain]

.  After what seems like years, they make it past the ambushers. Meng looks back and breathes out a sigh of relief when he sees the ambushers still squatting down among the foliage with backs turned to them.

***

They’ve already spent two hours climbing the mountain and equally as long in searching for the plant they need. In that time, Meng’s mind cannot help but drift off, to where his Captain now lies. They didn’t have time for a proper burial, being on the road and given the urgency of their mission. Meng wonders how far along the Huang Quan Lu (Path of the Yellow Fountain), the path leading to the nether realm, the Captain has walked. Has he already climbed the Wang Xiang Tai (Observatory of Homeland) and gazed upon where he has been raised and his family back there? But then the Captain wouldn’t have seen him there. Mayhaps he will still be able to make it to the Captain’s mortal home when he comes back to visit on the Seventh Day. So that they can have a final parting.

“This is what we have come for.” The old Geomancer announces, nodding towards a plant that has already withered. It is the only one of its kind as far as Meng can see.

Meng nearly trips over himself as he backs away from where he stands. Is that what they have come for? A withered plant?

“Look more carefully.” The kindly mage tells him, pointing at a spot next to the withered plant where a new sapling can be seen.

“But we need a grown plant, not a sapling for the cure.” The Imperial Master Geomancer dampens Meng’s hopes. Is the Captain’s life to go to waste?

Zhang turns to his student. “The time has come. I left because I wanted to grasp the single Thread of Chance for us. I did not want to lose that most dear to me- you, the pupil that I’m proudest of. I would have liked to give you more time to fit into the place that I vacated. I see that you have not adjusted easily and I’m sorry for the grief caused you by my oversight- I never planned for such lack of time between us. But Fate has his own will and he is a trickster who doesn’t like to be bested. Thus we come to here and now. The cycle of events started with me, I shall complete it.”

Having said those words, Zhang starts pulsating with a green light that shrouds his entire being. Then the light becomes him. At first, the light is a shade of dark green akin to old leaves on a ficus tree. Then it begins to grow lighter and lighter in shade, as the sapling steadily grows.

When the sapling has fully matured, Zhang the being of light is almost transparent. He waves to the two of them before he finally winks out of existence altogether. Meng stares agape at the empty space where he occupied just seconds ago, frozen.

Xun Zhen moves forward reverently and carefully works to separate each of the plant’s roots from the soil so as to not harm it in any way. Just as he is about to clear the last of its roots and lift it up, a single drop of dew that somehow manages to cling to the inner edge of one leaf falls down into the space recently vacated by the Nine-ringed Balsam. It turns into a seed, the seed for the precious plant that he had just attained.

Xun Zhen places the prize of their mission into a rectangular container with a clasp, to protect its potency. He hand this over to Meng. “Bring this back to the Palace. I will not be coming back with you. Bury me with my mentor so that I can forever be close by and remember his wisdom even in my after life.” He slowly sits down with a content smile.

THE END

A Thread of Chance (3)

Chapter 3: A Dawning Comprehension

Zhang looks at the glazed-over eyes of the young warrior Meng and knows that he still needs more time. Time, the ultimate cure for all pains. He shakes his head bitterly. Pity it doesn’t work on everyone. He looks across at Xun Zhen and sees his student deep in thought. Xun Zhen looks up at him and gives him an absent nod.

Xun Zhen suddenly feels a tiny prick like a mosquito bite on his right hand. He puts his left hand into his right sleeve to retrieve his handkerchief. He can’t find it. A different handkerchief appears in front of him.

He glances at the Old Man as he takes the handkerchief and looks down again. He is not quite sure how to act around the Old Man. Absently, he lifts his right hand and he notices the scab where there should have been a dripping cut from that slash by the bandit aimed at the Old Man. His face blanches.

He looks up and the two of them locks eyes. He knows the Old Man has seen it too. “Why? Can you tell me now, the full truth? Final wish to a dying man?” Xun Zhen asks his mentor, without any anger. He finally realises that the only reason for him to cling onto his grudge with the Old Man is because he still cares deeply for his mentor. He smiles a little ironically to himself. He had come seeking closure and now he has attained it partially. His predominant wish is for their final parting to be in dignity and unblemished in every single way. Yet, he still has a burning need to know what had driven the Old Man to leave him all those years ago. He must have had a stronger reason that what he had revealed, a reason the Old Man thought I would be better off not knowing. But I can’t take this sense of unknowing into the grave with me.  He gazes at the Old Man in all earnestness.

Zhang stares dumbfounded at the back of Xun Zhen’s right hand. Morning Dew? The infamous Mage’s Bane- a slow acting poison that will only kill mages but kill them with certainty, turning the store of magic in their very blood into poison. Moreover, the beauty of it is that it is completely undetectable afterwards. No means to trace back to the mastermind who so irks the School of Magic.

Finally he knows from whence his dread really came from that he dismissed as the common fault to all mortals: the fear of passing on. What a fool he was, in thinking that he himself will be the one that Fate finally catches up with. Not Xun Zhen, his most precious pupil, the son he never had. How could he have read the omens so wrong? Aye, the Fickleness of Heaven, the make and doom of them all.

Hearing Xun Zhen’s dying request, his interrupted recollection of the fateful reading years ago rushes to the fore of his mind and takes him completely.

He had attained a result. He wished he hadn’t. Losing what he most values is worse than losing his own life. Pupils he had aplenty but none as fit to succeed him in the all right ways or in one key element only: Integrity. Xun Zhen, his pride and hope. No, he will preserve it at all costs.

He made another divination a few days later, to search for the single Thread of Chance out of such a dire situation. Leave, it urged him. Leave everything behind you, let you and what you hold most dear never cross path again and both shall be safe. So Fate beckoned him and he followed.

Zhang is about to lay all bare but a feeling stops him short, telling him Not Yet. “The Time is not right but it is not long away. Your wish shall be satisfied.”

“So be it.” Xun Zhen knows that the Old Man will reveal all in due time. He just needs to hang on till then.

Xun Zhen walks over to the newly promoted Yin Yi (Shadow One). He hands over a single blue crystal. “Keep this on your person. It will protect you on your journey back.” Without me, Xun Zhen adds to himself in his own mind. There is no need to further burden the young man with unexpected departures.

Meng simply nods in acknowledgement, still in too much of a stupor to observe the right courtesy to the Imperial Master Geomancer.

***

Meng arranges for the three of them to walk in single file towards the east and puts the more vulnerable- the more elderly- of his two charges in the middle. They are now travelling along a dilapidated road worn in by human traffic as opposed to being built. To either side of them sprawl dense foliage and odd boulders that provide ample room for ambushers to hide in. Meng doesn’t like it. He tries to keep his eyes trained on every shadowy alcove he can see ahead but he can feel his concentration being not as sharp as usual. He unconsciously frowns as he keep his ears cocked for odd disturbances from behind.  Threats can be creeping up on them any time.

“Stop,” Zhang suddenly speaks up. This takes Meng by surprise. He turns to Zhang in puzzlement.

“We have walked into a zhan– a formation. We are not truly going anywhere.” Zhang announces gravely.

“What?” Meng stares at him without comprehension.

“I see you have never heard the story of Xu Shu breaking through the Formation of the Eight Doors with Golden Locks. Never mind, we don’t have time to go into it. Just know that we are trapped via magic.” Our mission is on the brink of failure, Xun Zhen thinks gravely to himself and promptly follows on with the summary for Meng, “Of the eight doors out of the formation, we need to choose one of the right ones- the Doors of Life- to enter.” Then he turns to the Old Man. “How many Doors of Life would you say there are in this particular formation?”

“More than one for sure. They wouldn’t dare use a life and death formation. The signs would be too telling that our demise did not come by via accidents.” Zhang surmises, exchanging a quick look with Xun Zhen when he comes to the word telling. “Besides, I doubt that they can find any Geomancer reckless or foolhardy enough to not fear the backlash from a life and death formation in the scenario that it is broken by those trapped inside.”

Meng is bewildered by the exchange between the two Geomancers, which shows on his face.

“Worry not, lad, we will take care of this business.” Zhang tells Meng.

Xun Zhen doubts the remark. “How are we to identify a Door of Life?”

“We don’t have to. There is another way.”

“You mean….”

Zhang nods. “Find the Eye of the Formation and break it, thus breaking the formation.” Stroking his thin elegant beard, Zhang follows on with his conjecture. “The best way our opponents can use a formation for is to trap us with the main goal of delay. After all, we don’t just need a Nine-Ringed Balsam, we need a fully grown one. And it is nearly fall such that a small delay can mean that we will arrive at our destination only to find a withered plant. That will serve our opponents better than having us all slain. Even ‘accidental deaths’ can be looked at askance when the stake is so high. A failed mission, on the other hand, is much less prone to suspicions. Chances are that this formation was set up such that it would expire after a few days so that the mission’s failure would be rather close and therefore convincing.”

“Old Man, time is slipping by.” Time that is critical to this mission and the whole kingdom. Xun Zhen feels that his blood is pulsing with urgency even as a tinge of affection creeps into his voice.

“Very well,” Focus returns to Zhang’s eyes and his face tightens up into a state of concentration as he promptly concludes, “A formation designed to trap us will be one for which finding a Door of Life is difficult. So we do what they did not anticipate.”

“How do we find the Eye of the Formation? We can’t tell the way while trapped.” 

“Ah, but we can. Our eyes are tricked while we are inside but we can rely on some of our other senses.”

***

At the behest of the Old Man, they start to blindfold themselves. Meng stops them. “Can you hear a plea of help? It is faint, from a distance away.”

“Ignore it. It is a trick.” Zhang tells him.

“I thought you said only our eyes will trick us.”

“Mainly your eyes, yes, but things you hear from a distance will also be tricks.”

“Then what can we rely upon?”

“It depends on the ones trapped within. Sight and hearing are the most untrustworthy of all senses in any formation. The other ones should operate as usual. However, if one’s mind is convinced enough of a certain reality that the formation wishes to enforce, then the mind might conjure from memory what is not there to enforce the illusion.”

Meng sniffs, “I can smell a faint trace of blood coming from the right.”

“I think you are detecting the direction of our carriage. Since the entry point to this formation lies close to it, the Eye of the Formation will not be in the same vicinity. We should definitely not head towards the right.”

“Which direction should we move in then?”

Zhang looks across at Xun Zhen.

“Why me?” Xun Zhen looks uncertain. Am I the most suitable to lead? When so much depends on me? Can I trust myself to lead this mission towards success, to save a kingdom teetering on the edge of mayhem and innocent blood from being shed?

He is reminded of the sense of disorientation he felt in the aftermath of the Old Man’s departure, when responsibility was suddenly thrust upon him. He wasn’t ready for that set of responsibility. He tried his best to bear it, to lead in the best way he could. But he knew in his heart that he was not born to lead. All he had reaped from leadership was exhaustion. He abhorred leadership, abhorred the thought that he would have responsibility for more than himself.

Fate is a trickster, the Old Man was fond of saying. What Xun Zhen personally experienced indeed proved the statement correct and here comes around the second time that he will be thrust into a leadership role.

Zhang looks at the deep impressions between Xun Zhen’s brows that mimic the character of Chuan– three vertical lines with the leftmost having a tiny curve leftwards at the end. His shoulders are not strong enough for the burdens he needs to bear, Zhang reflects, just as mine aren’t. Zhang sighs. An object rots and then worms burrow holes in it. So it is with the Imperial Court. A pity that those who unavoidably suffer and often suffer first are not the ones who create the rot but the innocent populace. Those who toil endlessly but whose labors go more towards feeding the privileged rather than themselves. I couldn’t have stood by and let the innocent suffer just to preserve Xun Zhen. It was Fate.

Zhang glances at Xun Zhen again, who is still lost in his own agitation. Should I hold back any longer? Xun Zhen, he is a truth seeker. Not knowing genuinely gives him pain. Should I tempt Fate?

“Do you know why I picked you out to be my pupil?” Xun Zhen is shaken out of his reverie by his mentor’s question. He looks at the Old Man with curiosity.

“Because you have clear eyes that cleave to the heart of the matter. And it is not just your eyes, it’s an inborn sense that you have of the truth of things. That is why I gave you your name.” Zhang answers him.

“But you are the one more familiar with the Art of Qi Men Dun Jia that underlies formations such as this one?”

“Useless in terms of helping find the way within the formation. That is why I suggest we tackle the formation by searching for the Eye of the Formation instead of a Door of Life. You are our only hope out of this.”

“Are we sure that there won’t be ambushes waiting for us somewhere within this formation?” Meng asks hesitantly when Xun Zhen walks up to him to ask that the two of them change positions.

“Unless they have the one who set up this formation actually directing the ambush within it, any ambushers would be as trapped as we are. And no mage would be willing to stay within a formation he has set up because the backlash would be fatal if the formation is ever broken.” Zhang assures him.

Meng casts Zhang a somewhat doubtful look but acquiesces to have Xun Zhen leading them instead. Each of them blindfolds himself briskly and puts his hands on the shoulder of the person in front of him so that they would not be separated.

“Which way to go?” Xun Zhen mumbles at the front of the three-man queue. He can’t get his feet off the ground.

“Don’t think. Just move.” The Old Man’s voice speaks close to his ears, calming him.

Xun Zhen follows the directions, gingerly. Emptying himself as if in preparation for a spell, he sets forth towards the left.

As they have given up their sights, their other senses have grown sharper, unnaturally so. All manners of sounds conjured by the formation come to them as they plod on at a crawling pace- some as mundane as the louds calls of business from mirror polishers and other common peddlers, others eerie, unsettling or downright incomprehensible. They do their best to ignore the cacophony but an urge to hurry have built up within each of them. Xun Zhen keeps a tight rein over his. The poison seeping through his being and weakening him physically is actually helping him in this regards. He is taking full advantage of it to make sure he is truly leading them where he feels it right to go.

Yet, as time goes on, Xun Zhen feels that sleep is an imminently attractive prospect. The still alert part of him knows his time is running out. When his mind is totally given over to such lethargy, he will fade into oblivion.

***

“Have we found the Eye already?” Meng’s interjection makes Xun Zhen realise that he has actually stopped moving. He almost tips over. He bites hard on his lips and the pain allows him to concentrate hard enough so that he can still stand upright. Yet, when he tries to step forward, a series of quivers runs through the muscles of his legs. Doubts start to surface in his mind. Would the Old Man’s trust in my instincts prove wrong? How could he be so certain when I myself am unsure?

“Steady. Discard all your thoughts.” The opportune advice comes from the Old Man.

“Are you sure that I….” Xun Zhen finds it hard to finish his sentence.

“Nothing is sure until after the fact. When the present becomes the past.”

“I…”

“Just concentrate on leading us forwards. Let your feet move of their own accords.”

“Surely it doesn’t have to be me who leads. There are three of us.”

“It’s too late to change leadership.” Zhang says pointedly.

“I can’t go on. How can you be so sure when I’m not?” Xun Zhen bursts out.

“Because we have no better choice.”

“What about you? Why can’t you lead us?”

“Do you sincerely believe that I can lead us out of here? You know truth has never been my pursuit. I follow Chance and nothing else.”

“You are uncertain because you have become lost in thoughts of your inadequacies and secondary details. Focus on making the next step forwards in the right direction and you will be fine. Remember what is at stake if we fail.” Zhang concludes.

Xun Zhen does not reply. They trudge on.

***

“Ought ought ought ought”. The chorus of the roosters announce the start of yet another day. Another day of the endlessly repeating days at a village.

Village? I haven’t been back here for a long time. What’s all the commotion about? The air buzzes. It buzzes with excitement, excitement for whatever breaks in on the incessant monotony of a village life.

I become curious. I look around at the faces standing close to me. My memories are stirring but no concrete image arises for me to associate it with a name. Idly I run through the list of names I can still remember. My best friends Da Niu (Big Cow) and Sha Wa (Third Child), one with a crooked tooth and the other able to clamber up a tree unbelievably fast on his stubby legs. Xiao Liu, the one who constantly whimpers about being bullied to his mother, the Widow Chen who will subsequently make a scene in front of someone’s front yard. That girl- I can’t even remember her name now- always wearing a red bit of cloth on her hair and constantly playing with it so that everyone will notice it….

As a thought trails off and another one is yet to form, I detect a change in the way the air buzzes. Now, it is permeated by a sense of anticipation, anticipation of something dramatic, something bad.

I cringe. I get an urge to run away. Instead, my feet glide forward as if pulled. I shouldn’t have been able to move so quickly amongst the crowd converging upon the scene. But people part before me like reeds bending to the wind.

A sense of familiarity settles in, as if I am experiencing something that I have already been through many times before. Dread is shouting at me to get back. I don’t want to see the upcoming sight, it screeches. 

The first thing that I notice is the colour of dried blood. I’ve always thought it to be a rather unpleasant colour, much more so than fresh blood. It is a dead colour. Strangely, the expression of the corpse is not contorted. This is rather unlike many of those who had perished through violence and quite a few mortals who hadn’t but had deemed that death had come upon them when they are not ready. Mortals are never ready for death, even though they know that such an eventuality will come.

The real unsettling sight about the corpse is his eyes because of the emotions captured in them. I see layers that lie underneath the sense of accusation that I always remember and is the only thing that I really remember of them. In a flash, I know why this pair of eyes stayed with me all throughout the years. Instead of making you so guilty that you look away, the gaze contains just enough compassion and empathy that you want to continue looking into them. It makes you ask “Why? Why are we born to such a time, a time meant for tragedies?” It’s a pair of eyes that you get lost in, lost in the vortex of emotions in them that also get evoked and reflected in yourself.

Xun Zhen ‘wakes up’ from his recurring nightmare- he realises that he is still within the formation, with everyone depending on him to lead them out. Unlike all preceding occasions when he lives through the scene of the dead soldier brought back to his village again, there is no cold sweat and no pounding heart. All there is is determination. In how many other villages did similar or maybe even the exact same scene occur? How many lives were touched as mine had been?

He recalls his personal resolution that there be no repeat occurrence of the scene anywhere on the lands of Xia. That is why the mission cannot fail and he cannot personally fail. For that end, he cannot afford to be weak. With that in mind, he sets his steps firmly forwards.

***

Xun Zhen is just about to make the last step forward, with relief. A warning rises sharp and poignant within him, stopping him.

This is not right. Xun Zhen thinks. But…is this what truly arise within myself, or is that what the formation wants me to believe?

Xun Zhen ponders this for a moment with no resolution. I need to feel it again. He decides. “Let’s take a step back when I count to three.” They do so without mishaps.

Xun Zhen reaches his leg forwards with deliberate slowness. Nothing, nothing, a twitch of fear from within and then the warning. He smiles. The smile wilts just as fast. His physical weakness is pursuing him relentlessly and it has caught up again. I can’t give up yet. I can’t afford to. Therefore, I shall go on. Except, to where? Xun Zhen feels as if his entire being has turned into individual sand particles that rub against and bruise each other. He cannot think nor feel anything. How do I go on?

Once Again, Xun Zhen is drawn into a reflection on their mission. He has never allowed himself to contemplate the possibility of failure but now they are standing half a step away from failing. He feels strangely indifferent. Or rather, he is too exhausted to care anymore. He tried his best and what more can he do? What more can one do when one is only a single individual, a speck of dust among a multitude? That’s all that we mortals are, be us commoners or nobles, mundane people or Geomancers.

Regret rises sharp as a needle and pricks Xun Zhen. He should have done more for himself. He toiled day and night for the Xia kingdom and its people yet everything is on the verge of unwinding. If he knew that would be the outcome he would have sought out the Old Man straight away rather than waiting. He is still waiting. I won’t willing rest till I know the truth.

From this thought a spark springs. Only a third of a finger tall, it burns white hot, transforming the sand granules that make up Xun Zhen into liquid within heartbeats. When this liquid cools down, Xun Zhen feels as if he has been reforged into a crystalline being with newfound clarity. He feels a sense of beckoning, as if he is receiving a signal from the tapestry of the world itself that moving an inch to the right is the right way to go.

He trusts this signal and strides boldly onwards. One Pace. Two Pace. Three Paces. Four Paces. He bends down and picks up a small piece of flat rock. It buzzes in his hands as he crashes it into powder.

Xun Zhen takes off his blindfold. Looking around, he notices that they can still see their abandoned carriage from where they are standing now. The formation can indeed warp distances. “We have broken the formation.” he informs his companions. “Let’s hurry.”

“Wait.” Meng halts them with a whisper.

Xun Zhen looks at him questioningly but is too tired to speak.

“I think there is another surprise awaiting us.” Meng glances ahead pointedly. As if on cue, a band of ruffians ride into the party’s line of vision. They grin maliciously and their eyes shout “Prey!”

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.

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.”

Remarkable Women in Ancient China (2)- Empress Dou

Who is she:

  • Wife to Emperor Wen, mother to Emperor Jing and grandmother to Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD)
  • A woman who has risen from a root of poverty to have influence across three different reigns

Notable life events:

  • Born into a poor family in the province of Qinghe in the year just before the founding of the Han dynasty. Her name was commonly thought of as being Yi Fong but might be just Yi or unknown
  • Recruited to the Imperial Court as a lady in waiting for Dowager Empress Lu at about the age of 13
  • Gifted as lady in waiting to her future husband at the age of 15 by mistake (she asked to be put on the list going to her home province but the one in charge of allocating ladies in waiting to different Lords forgot and put her on the wrong list)
  • Made Empress at the age of 18 on the basis of having birthed Emperor Jing’s eldest son (later Emperor Jing)
  • Transferred her belief in the Taoist philosophy to the Emperor across the three consecutive reigns that she personally experienced; her death marked the ushering in an era where Confucianism held supreme over all other schools of thought in Imperial China (at least as far as the Imperial Court is concerned).

Why is she remarkable:

  • She had heavy political influence across three different reigns and her reign marked the end of a ruling regime that was generous towards the populace as pertaining to the  ‘action without intention’ and other principles of Taoism
  • Clearly, hers is a rags-to-riches story on an epic scale

Moonlake’s thoughts on her:

I don’t really like her or dislike her but I think she is a dynamic character and her actions create unconventional consequences For example, on the one hand, she meddled heavily in politics and was known for elevating those from her birth family which normally leads to corruption. Yet, the Taosim regime that she was instrumental in creating or at least encouraging was seen as inseparable from the prosperity of her husband and son’s reigns.

What am I not writing?

Yes, you’ve read it correctly, in this post I am going to talk about what I am not writing. This is my attempt to set out expectations for my future/prospective readers *wink*

Let’s start with genre (and for those who need a reminder, mine is Chinese fantasy or fantasy in a Chinese setting with Chinese characters): I am not writing Chinese historical fiction but more like fantasy vaguely inspired by Chinese history. Basically, I am ‘stealing’ bits of real ancient China as a setting to fit into my story and then giving full reins to my imagination to modify or even change completely. And I am not definitely not writing any genre combination that involves romance (don’t get me wrong, I don’t have ‘a thing’ against the romance genre per se other than that it’s not part of my reading diet) since romance is one of the two elements that will get me into procrastination mode whenever I have them in my story.

The second part relates to style. I am not writing a page turner. That does not mean I’m writing a slow-paced novel necessarily but I am not writing something that is full of ‘hooks’ to get the readers interested in what’s going to happen next and has no other merit to it other than this momentum. I also do not necessarily write succinctly (I actually like what I call flowing prose which others might call verbose. I do not love long sentences for their own sakes but sometimes prose/description I especially like just happen to be full of semi-colons or made up of long sentences) nor do I write graphically (that is related to this aphantasia condition that I talked about earlier that I only recently found out is a thing and that I have, instead I go for what I call impressionistic/atmospheric writing).

And that’s it today. Next week, the second of my Remarkable Women in Ancient China serial comes up and then I will be releasing my novella A Thread of Chance over the reminder of February. So stay tuned.

Chinese (Oriental) Fantasy year

Besides my Broadening Horizon reads and others that took my whims, I’ve dubbed this year my Chinese (Oriental) Fantasy year. In short, this year I am going to read up on all the key Chinese fantasy novels there are (those I’ve identified anyway). I might or might not branch into Japanese fantasy, hence the bracket around Oriental.

Why? Because I am sussing out competition in my chosen sub-genre of Chinese fantasy which is entirely self-named but that doesn’t mean there aren’t already books (mostly from the historical fiction genre) that are based on the same or similar general setting.

So far, I’ve put down the following novels to read for this year:

Chinese:  

  • Under Heaven and River of Stars by Guy Gabriel Kay
  • Dandelion Dynasty by Ken Liu
  • The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox ‘trilogy’ by Barry Hughart
  • Cradle series by Will Wright
  • Dragon Songs Saga by JC Kang

Japanese:

  • Tales of the Otori trilogy by Liam Hearn
  • Ascendant trilogy by K. Arsenault Rivera
  • The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

I doubt I will get through them all. But then I am going to not stick with each series till the end like I usually do (well, it’s not like I haven’t ditched series before but it’s a rarity since I almost exclusively pick books based on back cover blurbs).

Labour of an Empress by Christine Ku & Robert K Peterson Sr.

“Gnats

Giant gnats in stately robes

calling Me to this and that

Buzzing

sapping my will

‘Lady, You Must….’

‘But the Flood…..’

‘The coffers are nearly……!’

‘You must judge…..’

I slam the doors shut

The roar of the fire

The Smells of the Forge

The Gnats hammer at the doors

‘Lady….’

‘Lady….’

Nothing will clear my head

Nothing will calm my body

I shake in frustration and rage

I see it!

My old friend

Worn and Mighty

I touch the Hammer softly,

Caress the head

Finally I grasp the wood!”

The Empress strides with purpose to the anvil, sparing barely a glance for the scribe frantically scribbling down her newly composed poem in a far corner. She feels suffused by nervous energy and adrenaline at the same time. Her fingers grasp and then twist around each other like vines. The discomfort makes her look down towards her hands. The feeling grows but isn’t physical pain, not yet. She ignores it.

Two sparrow-sized birds fly into her field of vision. The colour of a forge fire roaring in vitality and triumph, they fly heedless of each other. Yet, it is as if they are conspiring to create an unearthly dance of grace. She watches the sight mesmerized until she is handed a leather apron to put over the simple chemise she is wearing. Still in a daze but she manages to tie up the knots at her back in seconds. That recalls to her the Craft Master’s identity.

Greeting her ex-craft-master, now partner, with a simple nod, the Empress lifts up Temper- her hammer and faithful companion. It is lighter than most smithing hammers but otherwise plain. Out of habit, she runs her fingers over the emblem carved on the bottom of the handle. Instead of the royal insignia, she had ordered that a small circle containing the Celestial Smith Throft’s symbol – a hammer lying on an anvil- be carved there. The ire that had built up around her like a woolen coat during morning Court unweaves itself into threads of vapour and evaporates. Ah, the joy of immersing oneself in a craft of the moment, of the infinitesimal present!

Her partner informs her, “The Magus Nightingales have been fed the necessary ingredients. Pending the final ritual, they are ready to be released.” He is a master swordsmith in his own right but here in the forge he has no name, neither has she. Names and titles matter naught, not in this sacred place. They wait in reverent silence.

The doors open with nary a creak. The court mage enters with a dignified amble, punctuated by solid thunks from his mage staff. He raises his arms with lassitude. The birds that had previously been circling the room lazily or randomly alighting on various tools heed to him as a flock. The mage begins intoning an enchantment. The birds squawk as one but then fall strangely silent. When the mage finishes, the birds become immobile and yet strangely suspended in the air. Like puppets hanging on invisible threads. Finishing his work, the mage fastens his gaze on the Empress. “Beauty comes not from entrapment but from liberation. Freedom comes not from immersion but from transcendance.” Not waiting for a response, he turns his back and leaves.

The Empress’s mouth forms into a pout, in puzzlement of the mage’s parting words. But she shrugs it off. Naught is more pressing than her work ! And exhilarating!

CLANG. The rhythm of Temper’s fall fills her soul with joy. Wait! Just now, the way the metal quivered when Temper strikes it feels wrong. That completely shatters her Craft Master mindset. What have I done wrong? Am I doomed to fail, despite toiling day and night? Am I not worthy of a Craft Master’s integrity, the honour of crafting a masterpiece? No! No, that cannot be! She shakes her head furiously. Perspiration flies out in an arc from her forehead.

She feels a firm hand on her shoulder. The reassuring familiar weight calms her. She glances up at her partner while her hands continue their work. “Wrong quiver,” she told him.

He shakes his head. I don’t know either. “Ylarn nei ceth warchna.” That means going with one’s impulse in smith tongue.

She once again takes in the awe that is the Magus Nightingales, to fill her heart with the promise of both her purpose and her task.

Her eyes lock onto the white crystalline powder glittering within one of the many bowls on the work table. It came from a vein of dark iron underneath the Cavern of Koth. There she found a type of rock of a light sulphurous colour that she had never seen on any other mineral veins. And the powder didn’t come from grinding, the rock naturally dissolves with time it seems. She didn’t have an inkling of how she would eventually use this powder but now she knows. It belongs with this sword that she’s forging now.

She sprinkles the powder onto the quivering metal. The metal quiets, then it starts chiming with Temper’s song. She breathes a sigh of relief.

“Bird.” The Empress motions to one of the servants in the forge. He casually plucks a nightingale out of the air and places it on the searing metal where she indicates.The Empress brings Temper down on it. It disappears into the still shapeless metal.

The metal begins to squirm. The Empress nearly drops Temper. This has never happened before! Could it be the powder? No no no, it felt right and besides, didn’t the metal agree with her decision? She bites her lips. I will not fail! “Quicken the process.” she orders.

Obediently, each of the servants seizes up a bird in either hand and lines up so that the nightingales can be hammered into the sword as fast as she deems right.

“Now

The Hammer betrays,

The metal betrays,

My comfort deserts me

My peace shatters

The rhythm of the beats

off this living metal

Tires me

Sweat burns my eyes

Doubts assail my mind

A girl of small frame again

Sitting on the high throne

Mere puppet to politics

Entrapped and thwarted

Wallowing in own incompetence

escaping to the forge

solace and comfort found

Self reforged

NO, no more yielding

In this forge, here and now

The Will is Ultimate

I Will!”

The force of the Empress’ will subdues the metal. She is drenched in sweat, her arms have become lead. A servant scurries forward to mop her brow, what he would have done minutes ago for her father and any other Lord. But that is not her way. She doesn’t like to be disturbed when she’s working. The craft is everything. And she made that her decreed.

The last bird is placed on the anvil. As she is about to hammer it into the nearly forged sword, it shakes off the state of thrall and flutters back into the air. The nineteen other Magus Nightingales erupt from the sword as one, each trailing a thread of hot metal back to the anvil. In an instant, everything around her changes.

She is no longer in her palace but rather a familiar sylvan glade with just Temper, her anvil and the sword lying atop it. The Nightingales are fanning out in front of her, flicking their tails of liquid fire in menace, still tethered to the incomplete sword.

This glade is where the Nightingales were caught! A deer looks at her and runs off. The magic of the glade keeps her rooted in place, just like the single time she stumbled upon it. To her, this glade was the epitome of beauty. The greatest sight here was that of the Nightingales unconsciously dancing as a group. It was a liberating beauty that shook her core. There and then she resolved to embark on crafting a masterpiece to prove herself- a sword of freedom and beauty representing this glade.

The thought brings her eyes back down to the nearly completed sword. Her labour of joy and love starts wavering on the anvil as its very form is about to become undone, becoming nothing. She narrows her eyes, vexed. She strikes the sword and its form becomes a little bit more solid.

The birds swoop in, lashing her with their tails of searing heat. Her leather apron and blouse cling to her skin by bare strips now and her flesh sizzles here and there. Yet, her will is stronger than her pain. She continues to hammer! Nineteen pinpricks of light flash and she finds herself in another place again.

The Empress is now standing in some nether hell. Steps away from her, a cluster of demons attacks another of their kind, swarming mercilessly, rending it into bloody shreds with their impossibly long claws. The victim does not bleed like a mortal creature. Instead, the slashes on its body shed an unearthly light of blood-red hue that shines through the wounds.

Amidst the fray, one of the attackers who has dropped his guard is jumped from behind and given the same treatment as the original target. Soon, this snowballs into a fatal brawl for all. Total chaos, that is the only term that the Empress can think of to describe such a sight.

The entire tableau of mayhem freezes. One of the demons has spotted her! As one, they pounce. But such is their chaotic nature that they end up getting in each other’s ways. A demon’s talon scores her left arm, tearing a long gash that runs up to her elbows. A scream is ripped from her throat. She continues to hammer. The world flashes in colors of deepest blue and purple, transporting her again.

Back in the room where Court is held, somehow. On a throne too high for her, forcing her to dangle her feet uncomfortably off the ground. She feels hemmed in, even the air here is heavy enough to press her down. Courtiers and nobles talk over each other, outwardly to vie for her attention but it’s only a facade for the incessant bickering among her fragmented court.

“What kind of Lady……”

“Most unbecoming….”

“…she’s that bored she should take a lover.”

The gnats gnaw away at her. This court of insects!

It was never truly hers to begin with, she reflects bitterly. Nor does she truly want it, what has she ever reaped from it except inaptitude and belittlement? She feels the weight of Temper resting reassuredly in her hands; a warmth diffuses outwards from her palms and loosens her rigid muscles. That reminds her: she’s got work to do still and she can’t bear all these droning voices.

“Silence,” she shouts. All in the room obey but the nightingales, flying chaotically with all the majesty she wishes to capture. She looks up upon the Court in satisfaction. Two men whose faces have been worn down by time- one still with a lustrous mane of chestnut but one already gray-haired, stand in the fore front, facing off from each other in their respective gestures of confrontation and yet frozen in an identical gape. Behind them stand their lackeys, also in shock.

“I am no longer the clueless child that can be pulled on strings hither and thither. The puppet masters of yonder years are merely tired old men!” She declares, waving around wildly. “This hammer is the perfection of craft,” raising Temper above her head she continues, “and with it, a masterpiece awaits!”

I was never inept here in Court. Just as she must grasp Temper firmly to ply her craft, so must she grasp her birthright to become mistress rather than prey to the unfeeling wheel of politics. The air suddenly feels as welcoming as that in her forge, she can smell the faint perfume of jasmine wafting in from the royal garden. She smiles, content. She continues working at her masterpiece, arms moving as if reinvigorated by magic. She feels the birds pulling her rapidly into the sky, a swirl of clouds and landscapes, for a moment she feels as if she is everywhere in her empire.

Standing high on a cloud, she can see the panorama of her entire kingdom. The breathtaking view of the contours of the land in its raw beauty and grandness embraces her with open arms. Entranced, she stares at a plain of whiteness stretching to the north as far as she can see. She is surprised to find that the view in front of her opens up as if she is steadily moving closer to it. She sees a crystalline realm. Tall oaken guardians draped in white armor reach out their regal limbs towards each other and link up in impregnable formation. Snow squirrels like fluffy fur-balls skip from branch to branch among the oak-guardians; a single fur-ball, smaller than all the rest, suddenly lose balance and fall down into the snow-carpet, proceeding to happily roll back and forth on the ground. Amused, she lets out an especially girlish giggle that surprises herself. She hasn’t heard it in years, she thought she could no longer make it.

An impulse comes over her to look at another scene. Her gaze roams to the easterly direction. There stands a set of mountain range firm and proud, standing aloof and yet enfolding and safeguarding all under its shadow. She sweeps her eyes across the entire landscape and finds that it is indeed the tallest. Strangely, here it is summer. The slopes are lush with greens. The view again opens up, she can even pick out clusters of a few late blooms that add pastels and deep blues and violets to the mix of colours. She does not see any movements but there is a vibrant beauty here that moves her. She browses several more locations, drifting at will. Everywhere she turns to, she finds beauty. Each unique and equally moving.

She hears a flap of wings. Instead of the nineteen nightingales, she sees a flawless bird the colour of newborn snow. She stares in awe at its head, adorned with feathers that fan out in exactly the colors of the rainbow. The right and left most feather erupt from the rest like red and violet horns, emphasizing its majesty rather than being heralds of wars. It would not attack her, that she knows in her heart. Rather, it holds its head high on its graceful neck and looks down upon her with its earnest gaze. “I understand now.” she shouts in epiphany. The Phoenix nods. She reaches out her bare hands to grasp the trail of metal that is the Phoenix’s foot-long graceful tail and swiftly gathers it into a lump. She sees her hands wreathed by the molten metal but they are not searing to the touch as they should have been but rather cool and comforting. It is the gift of the Phoenix to her, to seal their pact. She hammers it into the blade. A flash and she is back in her forge.

The last nightingale stands motionless on the blade, its gaze searing into her. She gives it a nod and then hammers it into her masterpiece. Immediately, a sheath of white flame, hotter than any mortal fire, settles over the blade. She plunges the blade into water. It is magnificent! So light, so balanced, so beautiful. It rips free of her grasp and turns into the Phoenix she just saw moment ago. It soars out of the palace from the section of the wall burned through by the flames that bathe the length of its body.

“Lady, shall I…”

The Empress motions the servant to silence. Together with her craft partner, the two of them pad to the window and watch it fly away.

“I look

at these hands

An empress’ hands

A Smith’s hands

I did it

I created beauty,

out of beauty

My labour

In the afternoon sun

its majesty is wonderous

A Supreme Blade

A magnificent creature

My arms ache

My flesh is seared

sweat envelops me

My Soul enraptured”

A single tear falls down the empress’ cheek as she slowly walks away from the window.