Kenji stared forlornly at the young woman at the center of the village square.
Like all Han women, she was lithe and fair of skin, with dark hair that spilled to her mid-back over her long ceremonial robes. Kenji was not the only one who gazed upon her. Shinoto, the shopkeeper’s daughter, was well known throughout Han village for her grace and beauty. Even now she smiled with giddy excitement and had even waved to him before taking her place within the center of the square.
Anyone else would perhaps be wracked with nerves and frozen with fear for what she was about to do. But not Shinoto. Bright and fearless as always, Kenji thought. She was perhaps more special to Kenji than anyone else. But that specialness would end today. Today was the day that Shinoto would cease to be simply his friend and equal, and forever become his better.
The shame of it crept up Kenji’s spine like a snake coiling a tree. A sickness churned in the pit of his stomach, reminding him of the one thing that separated him from everyone else in the village.
And it would now separate him from Shinoto as well.
Kenji sat at the back of the village assembly, with the other children of the village. Even while seated crossed legged in lotus position, he was a head taller than his peers. But they were peers in terms of ability only. Those next to him were boys who were eight and nine; only just starting in their ascension ranks, learning the basics of how to cultivate Qi by channeling the vital essence present in all things and storing it within their doma.
It was a skill Kenji had still yet to grasp, much less master.
In terms of age, Kenji’s last true peer was now in the middle of the square—Shinoto—17 years old, as he was.
But soon even that would change.
The other village members sat closer to the edge of the ceremony, where a large reversal rope lay coiled in the middle of the square. The rope was thick, and dyed the bright yellow of a ten year braid. Kenji knew the ropes well. Both their color and thickness were important, second only to the rune charms painstakingly woven into the thick braids of the rope itself. The thin pieces of red parchment were etched with fine brush strokes of the old language, servings as conduits to channel sacred energies to activate the rope itself.
The village elders sat upon stools at the edge of the square. To an outsider it would perhaps seem a farce. The elders were perhaps only ten or twelve years old in appearance, but their true age was well beyond that. While not truly immortal like the mystic warriors of legend, the secret rebirthing techniques of the Han clan could make one live over a dozen childhoods.
Master Wu, the village chief was one such as that. Kenji did not know his true age, but it was rumored he had reached the eight level of ascension more than ten times, and each time within only a decade. That meant that he had only ever aged to perhaps fourteen or fifteen, before undergoing a rebirth again.
Currently master Wu appeared as a twelve year old boy, but to observe him for only a moment, one would notice the distinct mannerisms of a much older soul. The other elders of the village were likewise youthful but wizened, including Kenji’s father, Xian Lu, who sat an adolescent of perhaps 14 on the Chief’s far left.
His hair was long and tied in a traditional top knot fashion, as was proper for a village elder. His robes too, were trimmed with an edge of jade, signifying an 8th tier mastery and with four stripes of gold. This instantly distinguishing him for any normal 14 year old, who would be privileged to wear even a violet trimmed robe of 6th tier ascension at fourteen.
Kenji’s robe, at seventeen, was still trimmed with the base tier of off white.
Kenji tried to make eye contact with his father, but as was usually the case when it came to ceremonies, Xian Lu glanced away, perhaps preferring to not be reminded of the shame that was his son—sat within the ranks of those unskilled in the mystic arts.
Kenji looked instead to the other members of the village. The higher ranked families sat closer to the front. Like some of the elders, a few among them were advanced enough in their ascension ranks to have been rebirthed at a very young age, some even now appearing as only teenagers while well into their middle years.
Others, sat behind them, made up the majority of the Han clan; normal folks who reached ascension at a far more casual pace and appeared in their perpetual 30s, rebirthing perhaps once every twenty years and regressing for as many years as they could afford.
Rapid advancement and regression came at a price, both in terms of training and divine materials. Only those with wealth to spare could afford the exotic pills and potions that could double or triple ones advancement. And regression was no different.
The yellow, ten-year rope prepared for Shinoto, which was now being tied about her waist, had no doubt cost her parents over ten taels of silver to procure. To accumulate that much wealth, Kenji would need to work the orchards for over a year. But being from a merchant family, the cost was perhaps not so burdensome for her.
His heart sunk yet again. He had thought to ask Shinoto to the harvest festival in the fall. But a stray thought was all it was now. He was perhaps a fool to even think that he could ever court someone as well stationed as Shinoto, much less afford her dowry.
Although Kenji’s father could certainly afford it.
As a village elder and a seasoned rebirther, Xian Lu oversaw the creation of all reversal ropes. But even if he was generous enough to loan Kenji such a sum, which he most certainly was not, there was another far more insurmountable gulf that separated himself from Shinoto in terms of station.
Even now, Kenji envied her as she sat upon her knees in seiza position, channeling her Qi. She breathed deeply while working her arms back and forth with each breath, as if pushing the air itself with her palms. A taiko drum banged rhythmically in the backdrop, in time with her breathing; both as encouragement and to give gravity to the auspiciousness of the occasion.
The Han clan was famous throughout the entire Zhou region for their secret rebirthing techniques, fabled to have been passed down by the great goddess of Time herself. And while most of their trade was in producing the Qi concentrated fruits used by the Zhou Empire to create the powerful pills and potions to advance ascension, what truly made them famous was what they were about to witness today.
As his father would say, ‘To rebirth an orange tree is mundane, but to rebirth a child is to create a gift from the heavens itself.’
So like him, Kenji though, smirking up at his father. So full of poetry when it came to his work, but so little when it came to anything else.
Long minutes passed as the drumbeat steadily increased and a sweat broke on Shinoto’s delicate brow. Heat and steam escaped in a vapor from within her robes as she cycled the Qi from within her body and channeled it into the yellow rope bound about her waist. The rune scripts began to glow with luminescence and the rope constricted. Then in movements as slow as the motion of her arms, Shinoto began to shrink within her clothing as steam billowed from her pores.
When the final drum beat struck, Shinoto reopened her eyes a seven year old girl and the entire village, save for Kenji, burst into cheers.