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.”

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.

The Closing of a Chapter

Happy New Year!

Those of you who have followed my blog for a while would have known that I pulled out of an anthology series before and well, this is the closure post on that. After all, to move forward, we need to close the chapter on some of the stuff from the past holding us back, right? This is what I have in mind in this post where I am going to talk about my plans for the two pieces of my work that was published in that anthology.

In the short term, I am going to publish both pieces on my blog. I think that is also as far as I want to take the collaborative piece (note: I posted an excerpt of this piece’s start earlier. The story is called the Labour of an Empress and my co-author had fully ceded this piece to me to do as I see fit) to.  While I am pleasantly surprised by how much further the collaboration took my initial idea (an idea that I was not too excited about) to, I have no further ambition for it so I am content to leave it as-is and move onto other projects.

As for my solo piece A Thread of Chance which I had been turning to a novella, I might turn it into a novel series one day (I do have ideas simmering for that that I have taken down scattered notes on). But it won’t be any time very recent in the future. And for the novella, I was playing with the idea of publishing it on Amazon but now I no longer have the energy or enthusiasm to do so.

Stay tuned for next week when I release the Labour of an Empress up on the blog! It’s not quite a standard short story and I’m curious about what you all think.

Official website for Excursions from the Citadel and closure

I’ve previously mentioned that I’m no longer associated with the publication titled Excursions from the Citadel but for completeness’s sake, I thought I should mention that there’s now an official website for the Excursions: http://www.exftc.com/. It is very unlikely that you have become a fan for this anthology series through this particular blog but on the off chance you are, please refer to this website from now on for official news. There is also a Facebook group for this publication if you are interested.

Progress Tracker on Thread (5)

Firstly, I’m back! And I thought I should sum this mini-blog series up before I move onto something else. The short is that I finished the first draft for this project on time or at least I said I finished on time. By this, I mean that I skipped over a chunk of the section that I was having a block on, the section that wasn’t in my plan but came about due to spontaneous writing. Nevertheless, I proclaim that the first draft is done and this project is now on the cooler.

I can’t say I have a definite timeline for actually releasing it to public eyes. But it will definitely come one day. I’m determined.

On the blog reconstruction front, I’ve now decluttered this blog by removing most of the non-writing related drop-downs. It will be a while before I put up my spin-off personal blog though.

 

Progress Tracker on Thread (4)

I went back to the drawing board this week to plan because it just came up that a loose end from previous chapters of Thread surfaced and I thought I should do something to tie it up. I’m not convinced that I resolved but it did give me an opportunity to further my pre-writing for later sections. I have to admit that I slacked off this week due to the grand final holiday we got for Friday which I leveraged to go shopping (mostly for my best friend) and then I didn’t really do anything on the long weekend. Plus the temptation of getting back into jigsaws, a childhood passion, proved to be too strong for me. It was to be a reward/motivation for me to keep to the schedule for novella conversion but then I told myself that there’s plenty of slack in it so the result is… ahem you get the picture.

The day to day break down is as follows:
Monday 26th September 2016: I just took today off, no sneaky start to the week.

Tuesday 27th Sept – I expanded out the 1st 2 paragraphs of scene 5, minimal work really but my planning week always involves relatively less work compared to writing, especially since I’m effectively working at draft 2 of Thread as a story (I actually wrote the ending already during the course of my involvement with the epub but feedback made me expand the story so basically the current round of writing is to fill in the gap between where the story left off from issue 2 and the original ending which I like and am not changing). In other words, it’s not really a new piece that I’m working on but rather all the character dynamics and plot arcs have been set already.

Wednesday 28th Sept – I had a major breakthrough today which was that I cleared up the clutter that I was originally going to write for the sidecast. But then I realised that it was just clutter, an artefact of the epub where I had to make what is now each chapter of Thread as a standalone even when everything is interconnected. Now that I’m converting into a novella, of course I don’t need to do that anymore but somehow my mindset hasn’t migrated fully away from the “mould of independence”. But I caught myself in time so all good.

Thursday 29th Sept – I quickly wrapped up planning for the week. Originally, I was going to forge back into writing from Friday but then the shopping trip threw me and in particular the temptation to finish the first jigsaw since my childhood (the prospect of conquering my first 1000 pieces) got too strong for me.

Progress Tracker on Thread (3)

This week, I ripped into actual writing, with a limit of 300 words per weekday and 500 per weekend day. The broad writing goal for this week was to get scene 1 and 2 finished (there are 7 scenes in total for this chapter and I’ve written the ending scene already way back when it was just going into the epub as a serial short story). At first I was going to work a straight 7-day week but I had been skimming through self-help books and the advice of leaving a day out of the week for yourself resonates with me so I decided to leave Monday out. Besides, Monday is ever my game-show watching day so I can’t really count on any work being done on Mondays anyway. *big grin with teeth showing*

The day to day break down is as follows:
Monday 19th September 2016: I actually got 236 words down straight after dinner on my home PC which also coincided with the end of the recorded episode of the game-show. This proved decisively to me the virtue of making this a day-off. I can sneak in extra words in case I have a slow day for a specific week.

Tuesday 20th Sept – Guess what? I really needed the sneaky Monday because today I only wrote on the train into work with pen and paper and also uncertainty kicked in from where the story leaves off from Monday. Word count was 184 words exactly.

Wednesday 21th Sept – Met the word count and outdone it by 10 words writing, on home PC a while after dinner. I finished scene 2 already! I had also had tracking my Words per Hour (WPH) and somehow Monday was actually the best speed for me possibly because it was the start of the Chapter and a complete blank slate for me to work on and plus it was supposed to be my day off. My WPH was 516 for Wed which isn’t bad for my standards but then I still had uncertainty dragging down my pace and also I got interrupted half way by Mum. Oh, I also started doing 5 minutes or less pre-writing straight before my writing session (yes, I can always expand my own pre-writings, I’m a bit of a planning freak but truth is I still under-plan always. I think I’m a hybrid planner-pantser in reality even though I self-classify myself as a planner, in that I cannot survive without planning but my planning can always do with more comprehensiveness.)

Thursday 22th Sept – I decided that one bit in scene 2 regarding the sidecast’s reactions didn’t ring true of his feelings at that point and his personality in previous Chapters. So I went back and expanded scene 2 and then I continued writing scene 3. Pre-writing was done at work before I left for the day. Actual writing was done around same time on Wed, just met daily word count and WPH was back on par with Monday at around 675.

Friday 23th Sept- Similar as Thurs in all circumstances but I had now gone up to the first real action scene in the story and I always procrastinate over them so WPH dropped to 463 but daily word count met. At the end of this session, I finally just decided to scrap out the action bits in scene 3 and replaced it with an alternative resolution for the conflict. When I was brainstorming for this chapter at the start, I didn’t know how the characters were going to get out of the fix and the resolution through action scene was actually what someone gave me when I asked for a brainstorming session which I accepted because I was so short of ideas but I knew it was going to be trouble for me in write up. As it turned out, being in the flow of the story this session told me that I could do without the resolution through action so of course I jumped this offer *smiles contendedly*.

Saturday 24th Sept- I wanted to trial a different time of the day to see how it affects my WPH but many things coincided such that I decided to take the day off to go back to planning instead. These things included: the 5 jigsaw puzzles I ordered arrived yesterday (I’m trying to reconnect with childhood passions just for the fun of it but also doing jigsaws increases my intuition skill and I want to further hone it), I had difficulty writing the current events for this session due to lack of personal knowledge, I just had procrastination urges setting in because scene 4 coming up is another action scene AND I told myself that I did well enough for the first week of writing to have gone up to scene 3 already which effectively reinforced my procrastination urge. But at least I stayed true to the commitment of planning out the remainder of scene 3 in further details. I didn’t touch scene 4 because I thought it was pre-written out to enough details and I couldn’t improve on it but maybe it would be different when it comes time. But one step at a time.

Sunday 25th Sept- I did start and stops but in between three sessions I got my requisite 500 word count done.  

Progress Tracker on Thread (2)

Again, I finished my set broad goal for this week ahead by one day! Technically I’m still in planning stage (my pre-writing is just blotting out how events occur in the story on a fine level plus notes to myself about key aspects to watch out for) so it’s to be expected but I’m learning to celebrate all of the small victories where possible. And actually, it’s not so small a victory this week as you will read in the breakdown below. So hurray!

The day to day break down is as follows:

Monday 12th September 2016: I got scene 1 partially done, was stuck with the reaction of the side cast

Tuesday 13th Sept – signal failure on my train line and I had to catch alternative transport, arrived at home just after 8p.m. and finished dinner by 9p.m. Cannot get any work done.

Wednesday 14th Sept – crossing accident that resulted in tragic death of two old ladies and another service disruption. This time got home almost an hour later than Tuesday (finished dinner and it’s almost 10 p.m.!) so again no work can get done.

Thursday 15th Sept – Pre-wrote up to scene 4 out of 6 scenes

Friday 16th Sept- got up to scene 5 where the hole I dug myself was and still couldn’t fill it up yet

Saturday 17th Sept- Filled up the hole and finished with pre-writing the final Chapter of the novella! Yay!

 

Progress Tracker on Thread (1)

Progress Tracker on Thread (1)

For the very first time, I’m trialling the method of setting an actual date for a solo piece that I’m going to publish as a standalone novella, my story A Thread of Chance of which the first three Chapters have already been published in the first 2 issues of the anthology series Excursions from the Citadel (Chapter 2 and 3 have been published jointly as part 2) Following advice from the Creative Penn, I’m setting the deadline to be a date memorable to me which is my birthday on 23 October. To be honest, I don’t really celebrate it anymore and mostly forget about it but at least it’s a date that will stick in my mind.

 

In conjunction with this date setting, I’ve printed out calendars with one month to one A4 page so that I can assign daily writing goals, mark down absolute deadlines for specific aspects of the story as well as other important commitments and colour code things. Up to the 18th of this month, I will be doing planning and what I call pre-writing (which is half way between an outline and actual writing, where I work out what I want and need to write in each scene, often constructed from some kind of scene skeleton that I always make). From the 19th, it would be a minimum word count of 300 on each weekday and 500 on weekends. This means that I will be writing 10,500 words for Chapter 3 of Thread if I finish exactly on the deadline which is clearly overkill. But I figure it’s good for morale if I start with a deadline that I can easily meet.

 

In addition to my personal efforts, I’m recruiting my friend as motivation partner to help me to stay on track with this deadline in the following way: we have a deal whereby I will make a small donation to her social business as penalty if I miss the deadline whereas I will make a bigger donation if I meet my deadline. This basically gives her an incentive to bug me so that I will meet the deadline. Finally, I’m putting up this particular serial post that will keep running over consecutive weeks starting from this week so that I have “invisible eyes” monitoring my progress. *wink* Feel free to whip me if I ever report departing from stated goals.

 

For this week, the broad goal is to get rough planning done and I finished it ahead of time yesterday. The breakdown of actual work done by day is as follows:

Monday 5th Sept – no work done, this is usually the day where my time after work is spent watching this game show I had been following on a weekly basis

Tuesday 6th Sept – started on the scene skeleton (basically sequence of events in each scene) but I dug a hole for myself that got me excited instead of depressed LOL

Wednesday 7th Sept – finished up on the scene skeleton and also finished up what I call a scene purpose outline for Chapter 4 that sketches out for every purpose the main events and the purpose for the specific scene

Thursday 8th Sept – Re-read Chapter 1 and 2 but before too close to completion of Chapters 2 and 3, gave up on re-reading

Friday 9th Sept- wrote the scene purpose document for Chapter 1 so that I can have it on hand for revision of draft 1 for Thread as a standalone novella, something I found immensely helpful while I was working on Thread as a serial short story with standalone parts

Saturday 10th Sept- refined scene skeleton for Chapter 4 done (hole still unfilled), ready to move into pre-writing next week