Cultivating Earth

by

Cromethus

Scene 17 - Tea and Acrimony

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A note from Cromethus

1/2

Xinasa folded her legs and settled herself on the cushion. Delicately she settled her hands on her lap, not daring to rest her hands upon the short-legged table in front of her. The woman sitting across from her, despite her rather lanky frame and tanned skin, carried an aura of dignity and elegance that Xinasa had always envied. Strictly speaking, Xinasa had surpassed the woman in status long ago, but Zirai Biyu still made her feel like the gawky teenager she was when they’d first met.

“How is the girl?” asked Xinasa, not wanting to sit in silence, as Biyu surely would, until the tea arrived.

“Tara? She is well. Children are strange creatures. Things that would scar an adult they shrug off, while they attach great meaning to things adults wouldn’t notice.” Biyu’s words were light and soft, giving the impression that they were passing meaningless gossip. Xinasa knew better. Biyu didn’t gossip; it was beneath her. In this case, Xinasa had to take a moment to parse her meaning. First, she’d reminded Xinasa of the girl’s name – she either thought that Xinasa should be more involved with the girl or was laying claim to the girl herself. The rest of her words added up to a denouncement of the disciple who had used his Qi to intimidate the poor girl, making clear her opinion that the incident would likely have scarred an adult.

Rather than play word games, Xinasa addressed the meaning of the comment directly. “He has been removed as a floor elder and banned from joining the sect in an active role for ten years. What more do you want?”

Biyu let out a dainty huff, expressing her disdain for both the topic and Xinasa’s bluntness before answering. “Master Zhao was lenient. He has no place being part of this endeavor.” The steel behind the words made it obvious that Biyu would work to ensure that her judgment would become reality. That solved Xinasa’s earlier conundrum – Biyu was laying claim to the girl.

To test her conclusion, Xinasa decided to broach what might be a sensitive topic with Biyu. “I heard you’ve begun teaching the girl the Silk Ribbon Dance,” she said casually. The gentle smile the comment earned sent Xinasa’s mind spinning for a moment. Biyu might not be notable among the disciples for her cultivation, but she was one of the very few cultivators who had mastered the arts of the Battle Ribbon. For her to smile when speaking of a new student… Xinasa’s heart squeezed and she worked to suppress the unpleasant emotions that smile created.

“It is merely a way for us to pass the time while the others forge their constitutions. Still, the girl is not entirely unsuited to it.” Biyu’s delivery of the praise, so casual and dismissive, made the words dig at Xinasa’s heart all the more. Long ago, when they had first met, Xinasa had begged her to learn the Silk Ribbon Dance, had cajoled and bribed until finally Biyu had taken her aside and told her, firmly and without pretense, that she was ‘entirely unsuited’ to the Battle Ribbon. The words had stuck with her, pushing her to succeed in other arts, and Biyu had become a mentor and friend, but she had never forgotten the slight.

“Will you continue to teach her then?” asked Xinasa. Once the words were out she wished she could summon them back. Biyu would easily read the lingering hurt and resentment in her words.

Biyu simply looked at her, not offering an answer. They sat in silence like that, the old hurt hanging in the air between them until the server arrived with their tea. The maid couldn't help but notice the tension in the room, darting a glance between the two women before firmly devoting all her attention to giving proper service. For long minutes the only sound in the room was the clinking of dishes as the woman went about her work.

The woman was had just finished pouring the tea and was preparing to make a hasty retreat when a soft knock came at the door. The woman let out a nearly inaudible sigh, which both Xinasa and Biyu caught easily, before returning the service to its place on the table and answering the door. A brief whispered conversation ensued, which both of the ladies politely ignored.

“Ms. Rejya,” said the server when she returned to the table, the first words she’d dared utter since she entered the room. “There is an urgent message for you from Principal Cartwright, something about an investigator.”

Biyu raised her eyebrow at the words, probably reading a dozen possible different meanings into them. Despite that, Xinasa knew that she would neither comment directly nor speak about it to others later. The woman was nothing if not proper in both word and deed.

“Senior Zirai, I’m afraid I must excuse myself. It seems we are to have an unusual visitor.” Not wanting to explain further, Xinasa departed, leaving Zirai Biyu alone to enjoy her tea. As soon as she was out of the room, she contacted Master Zhao. It took him only seconds to fill her in on the situation. Knowing time was of the essence, Xinasa exercised her Qi and ran towards the public boat dock. Given that her speed would easily outstrip most cars, she made it to the dock in plenty of time to straighten her clothes and arrange her mussed hair. By the time the ferry was ready to unload its single passenger, she looked as if she had been standing there patiently waiting all day.

The man who disembarked was not quite what she’d expected. He was rather short and wiry, but with a distinct pot belly that made him look rather comical as if he was a thin man with a pumpkin under his shirt. Despite being short of his middle years, his hair was thinning and grey. He struggled as he hauled an oversized doctor’s bag down the gangplank behind him. Looking at it, Xinasa resisted the urge to roll her eyes. It was obvious nobody had told the man that they didn’t have cars here on the island. The distance to the school was only a few hundred meters, but it was obvious that the man lacked the physical fitness to get both himself and the bag to the school without serious effort.

While Xinasa waited for the man to get his feet firmly planted on the dock, she contacted one of the disciples and had him ride down on one of the island’s three bicycle rickshaws. They were typically used by the disciples for moving students in a hurry. Having to ride in one would prick her dignity, but she had no choice but to endure.

Once the man was firmly on the dock, Xinasa approached him and offered her hand. “Hello, I’m Rejya Xinasa, Managing Director for the Immortal Mysteries School. How can we be of service to you today?”

“Managing Director, eh? Since you’re here, I figure you have a pretty good idea of why I’m here. I’m Dr. Charles Winchell, a volunteer doctor with the Snohomish County Department of Health.” His rather brusque manner aside, he shook Xinasa’s hand politely enough. Xinasa had to remind herself that his directness might not directly equate to arrogance, as it would with a cultivator.

“I’m not quite sure I follow,” said Xinasa, “Why exactly are you here?”

“Well, we received a rather alarming report regarding a condition that seems to be afflicting the students attending your school. It sounded both serious and novel, so I was dispatched to do a preliminary investigation. Depending on my findings, a more rigorous investigation may be undertaken. I should point out that the report we received was clear that the school is providing the appropriate medical care. This is strictly a mission to determine the cause and severity of the illness, not the beginning of some nefarious legal action. I hope that I can count on your cooperation?” The words came out as a question but Xinasa was very clear on his meaning – they would cooperate or he would attempt to force them. It galled to bend her neck to this weak mortal, but her orders from Master Zhao were clear and unequivocal – they would provide the good doctor complete access and any resources he required. He would learn nothing, so there was no reason to be anything but accommodating.

“Yes, we have indeed had several students fall ill. While the illness doesn’t seem serious at the moment, we would be grateful for any answers you could provide.” Xinasa did her best to make her tone open and welcoming without being obsequious. It was hard. She wanted to condescend to this man, to tell him that it was none of his damn business, but causing an incident with the mortal government now had the potential to snowball into a serious issue later. In a very real way, this was the sect’s first test, one not for its juniors but its older generations. In the future, this incident might be held up as an example of the sect’s fundamental guiding principles. If they were truly going to try ‘playing nice’ with the mortal powers of this world, then this would have to be handled by their rules.

Mindful of the potential consequences, she rededicated herself to playing her role.

“Providing answers is what I’m here for,” said Dr. Winchell. He looked around confused. “How, exactly, are we meant to get to the school?”

“I apologize, doctor. It seems you weren’t informed that we don’t allow cars on the island. I’ve called a rickshaw to take us up to the school. It should be here soon.” The lack of cars on the island was news to the doctor, news he wasn’t happy to receive. She wondered what precisely caused his discomfort.

They stood in silence while they waited for the bike, Dr. Winchell shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot. It took only a minute, but by the time it arrived, the doctor seemed to be close to bursting at the seams. When he saw the rickshaw, with its comfortable covered seating area attached firmly to the bicycle front end, he let out a sigh of relief. Xinasa was so startled she nearly giggled; had the man been expecting to have to pedal himself? The thought made her laugh.

The disciple driving the rickshaw assisted them into their seats and Dr. Winchell arranged himself gratefully, the bag clutched in his lap. The moment they were seated the disciple took off, propelling them forward with a swift kick of his feet on the pedals.

“So,” began Dr. Winchell nervously, “Tell me about the school. There’s a lot of press about it, but the news never captures everything.” Something about the way he asked the question put Xinasa on edge as if he was hoping to dig up some dirt on the school or its owner. Xinasa repressed a cold smile and entertained the doctor with small talk during their brief ride. She told the official version of the school’s story in bits and pieces, breaking it up among small, amusing anecdotes so that it would be easier to swallow. By the time they arrived in front of the dorms, the atmosphere in the rickshaw had thawed noticeably.

“What would you like to do first, doctor?” asked Xinasa.

“To start, I’ll need copies of all the medical records for the affected students,” said Dr. Winchell. Xinasa immediately shook her head.

“I’m sorry, doctor, but that information is confidential. If you are acting in your role as a physician, you can certainly view their records and speak with the physician on staff, but I can’t let you make copies.” Having spent a fair amount of time among the mortals on Earth, Xinasa was clear about this fact - they could not be forced to share medical information. If she simply let someone from the Department of Health copy their records, that would be tantamount to releasing them. While they didn’t contain anything sensitive, she wasn’t willing to expose them without a very good reason.

“Normally that might be true, yes, but while the school is empowered as the children’s caretakers, technically the State of Washington is still their legal guardian. As a duly-empowered representative of the state, I am empowered to make decisions regarding these issues. Further, as a licensed medical doctor, you can hardly argue that I don’t have the credentials to make such decisions. If necessary, I can provide all of the legal orders, but this process would likely become much more… adversarial.” His tone was calm and reasoned, but Xinasa could feel the joy of a bully who thinks he’s cornered prey in his attitude. She took tight control of herself, not letting the least bit of her newly sparked anger leak out. The effort to keep from blowing this mortal into red mist was considerable, however. She reminded herself of her goal and her instructions. She would not fail just because of this overblown child.

Once she had firm control of herself, she nodded. “I think it’s best that you leave then, Mr. Winchell. Sorry to have wasted your time. When you have the necessary paperwork, I’d be glad to assist you. I apologize for not seeing you back to the ferry, but I’m afraid I’ve spared all the time I can for today.” Xinasa waved her hand, an imperious gesture that ‘invited’ him to board the rickshaw once more.

“I won’t be leaving,” he said firmly. “This is an institution under the purview of the State of Washington. Since I believe the health of your charges might be at risk, I would be abdicating my responsibilities if I just turned and left. If you attempt to obstruct me you will be charged with obstruction of a government official in the course of their lawful duties. If you have any objections or concerns, you may contact the Department of Health at the number on my card.” He held out his card to her the way one might brandish a sword. She dutifully took it and resisted the urge to ignite it with her Qi.

“Let me be very clear on something, Mr. Winchell. This entire island is private property. Regardless of your reason for being here, you are a guest. As a guest, you must leave when asked. Since you have refused to leave, I believe the next step is obvious.” Xinasa pulled out her phone and, without the slightest hesitation, dialed 911. The operator answered immediately.

“Please state the nature of your emergency,” said a chipper female voice on the other end.

“Yes, I have a person on my property who I have asked to leave. This person has refused. They are not violent, but they are being belligerent. Would you please send some officers to remove the person?” Xinasa’s voice was deliberately friendly and light, not expressing any distress at all.

“To be clear, you have a guest who has refused to leave. They are not violent. Do you believe they pose a risk to yourself or others?”

“No, I don’t imagine he will. His name is Dr. Charles Winchell, a volunteer with the Snohomish County Department of Health. He has threatened to make our interaction ‘adversarial’, but I believe he means legally. Regardless, he showed up without first informing us that he was coming. I attempted to accommodate him, but he has been unreasonable. I asked him to leave until he had the required paperwork to prove he had the right to do as he has said, but he refused. Would it be possible to get some officers on-site to remove him?”

“Yes ma’am, we can do that. However, I must warn you that any obstruction of a government official in the performance of their lawful duties may represent a crime. If the officers arrive and find that you have done so, you may be arrested.” At this point, just based on the woman’s voice, Xinasa could tell whether she wanted them here or not, the officers would be showing up. That was fine with her. Without specific legal orders otherwise, she was certain that she was in the right.

While she spoke, she noticed that Dr. Winchell had stepped away and dialed his phone. He was speaking in a low voice to someone on the other end, but Xinasa had no trouble hearing the conversation. The voice on the other end was assuring him that the necessary orders could be procured, but not until the following day. Given that he was on Hat Island, he could hardly get them here promptly. Simply retrieving them would take a considerable amount of time.

“I understand. I believe that Dr. Winchell is discovering at the moment that he cannot procure the required paperwork until tomorrow. Please wait while he decides whether or not he is going to be reasonable,” said Xinasa.

“Ma’am, let me reiterate that should he decide to remain, you would be best served by simply staying out of his way and allowing the officers to determine the legality of his actions. I would strongly recommend that you comply with his requests until the police arrive.” The tone of the feminine voice was slightly less chipper, but her voice remained admirably calm.

“Since he desires to illegally access and copy the medical records of the students who are boarded here, I can’t comply with that. I was clear that if he had the appropriate orders, I would assist him, but when he failed to produce those orders and still refused to leave, I had no choice but to assume he was acting illegally, hence my call.” Xinasa’s friendly voice had not wavered one bit, making obvious her complete lack of distress. At the same time, she contacted Master Zhao mentally, informing him of the situation. His anger at the little man’s attitude was no less than hers. He promised that she could allow him to wander as he wished. Xinasa thanked him and cut the connection.

On the phone, the operator had paused, unwilling to advise Xinasa to end her resistance now that she knew the specifics, but unable to give any other advice. The silence continued until Xinasa saw Dr. Winchell turn and begin heading towards one of the dorms.

“Dr. Winchell has ignored my request and is now attempting to enter one of the dorms. Unless he is willing to use force to enter the building, he will find himself unable. I am unsure what his reaction will be at that time. To be clear, I believe his actions are illegal and while I cannot restrain him, I am unwilling to assist him in any way.” Xinasa’s words weren’t meant for the operator anymore, but rather the recording that she knew was being made of this conversation. Narrating his actions would make it quite simple to substantiate any legal charges if he was, in fact, in violation of the law. On that point, Xinasa wasn’t particularly clear, but she knew that until the officers arrived and clarified the situation her best defense would be that recording since it would make clear that she had done precisely nothing to physically impede him.

She continued her narration as she followed Dr. Winchell dutifully from one building to another, one door to another, finding every one locked. He showed admirable persistence, checking every door of every building he could find. Xinasa almost laughed at his consternation. When they had first arrived, several other people could be seen. Once Xinasa had dialed the phone, however, everyone had retreated into the buildings. At the time, not one of them had appeared to be locked. Now, however, not a single door was unlocked.

Once he verified that he could not gain entry to any of the buildings without resorting to some force, he returned to standing beside Xinasa and waiting in sullen silence. Nearly three hours passed before she received the message that a police boat had pulled up to the main dock on the island. Despite the wait, Xinasa had stood firmly and resolutely, completely unmoved. Dr. Winchell, in contrast, had paced and cursed for a while before resorting to playing games on his phone. Unwilling to make the situation even more contentious, Xinasa dutifully dispatched the rickshaw to offer the officers a ride up to the school. They accepted, meaning it only took a few short minutes for them to arrive.

“Are you Ms. Rejya?” asked one of the officers.

“Yes,” she said, handing over the paperwork one of the disciples had collected for her during the wait. “This is my ID, as well as proof of legal ownership of the island and our school charter. I think you will find that, in the absence of a direct legal order, I have every right to ask Mr. Winchell to depart.” While she was talking to the officer, his partner had stepped aside with the doctor and was speaking to him in low tones. The officer’s words pleased her; he was reprimanding Dr. Winchell for his actions. Without a court order, he was indeed limited in what he could do. Hearing his words, Xinasa relaxed.

“Thank you, ma’am,” said the officer after scanning her information. “We’ll be taking Dr. Winchell with us for now. However, I would expect him to be back sooner rather than later. When he is, I can guarantee that he’ll come with all the necessary legal paperwork to do pretty much whatever he wants.”

“That’s tomorrow’s problem, officer. For now, I’d be grateful if you escorted him off the property. He has caused quite the disturbance.” Xinasa’s tone remained calm and friendly, seeming completely unruffled by the happenings.

“Yes ma’am, we’ll be taking him with us. Enjoy the rest of your day.” With a tip of his cap, he walked over to the other two and told Dr. Winchell firmly that they were leaving and he would be leaving with them.

“I’ll be back,” said Dr. Winchell.

“Have a good evening,” replied Xinasa with a smile, knowing that Dr. Winchell would never step foot on Hat Island again.

In his office, Zhao Gang sat and monitored the entire interaction while he talked with his lawyer on the phone, calmly discussing what would happen next, what would be required of him, and what they could reasonably avoid.

Throughout the entire incident, he couldn’t help but ridicule himself.

This was completely predictable, he thought harshly, How did I, how did we, miss it?

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Cromethus

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