The rocks in the Shallow Jade oasis really were the best, Han Jian thought sleepily.
He yawned and stretched, luxuriating in the warmth of the flat stone beneath him, and cracked an eye open to peer at the sky above. The shimmer of the oasis barrier distorted the sky, giving it a relaxing wavy effect. Although… the sun had moved pretty far, huh? He might have overslept again.
“Young Master,” a woman’s voice, thick with exasperation, reached his ears. He closed his eyes as a shadow fell over him. Yes, he had definitely overslept.
“Young Master, you are not fooling anyone,” Nanny said disapprovingly. “Please get up. Your calligraphy tutor is waiting.”
Han Jian groaned, finally opening his eyes. “Do I have to? It’s so boring, and this is the last day at the oasis.”
Unfortunately, the pleading gaze he gave to Nanny was useless. The stern older woman’s frown did not even waver. He wondered if the sun had baked her spirit like it had baked her skin. She was totally merciless.
His Nanny was amongst the oldest of his family's servants, and she looked the part too with a wrinkled, sun-darkened face and wispy white hair tied up in a severe bun. She wore the same thing she always wore, a yellow and black gown marked with the livery of the Han. Her bright green eyes were still piercing and sharp though.
“Young Master, you are ten years old. You cannot continue to be so lax,” she replied severely. “Now stand. Or do you need to be carried again?”
“No!” Han Jian scrambled upright and hopped off the rock. He still couldn’t believe that Father had let that happen. His cheeks still burned at the memory of being hauled up by the back of his robe and carried through the compound like a misbehaving kitten. “I’m ready for my lesson!”
Nanny gave his disheveled appearance a disapproving sniff and turned on her heel. It revealed the one who had been standing behind her.
Shu Fang, his friend and attendant, bowed his head contritely. He didn’t dare apologize aloud, but Han Jian could see it on his face.
Han Jian clapped the taller boy on the shoulder as he passed by, hurrying to follow Nanny. Obviously, he couldn’t blame Fang for not being able to stop his Grandmother. That would be silly. He had only intended for Fang to keep a lookout for his annoying cousins.
He cast one last regretful look at the center of the oasis, the perfectly round, jade-tiled pool and its many branching channels flowing out into the fields. He’d really wanted to get one last swim in too. He didn’t have long to look though. He had to hurry and follow Nanny, or her longer stride was going to leave him behind.
Nanny wasn’t being kind with her pace either. Han Jian had to practically jog to keep up with her as they left the central oasis, following the road out to where the manor was currently resting. They passed by the fields and their workers and the great bounty they were reaping. This was the pride of the Han family, being the stewards of the oasis system which allowed farming to work at all in the Golden Fields.
Han Jian’s tutors had spent a long time pounding the basics of the clan’s prosperity into his head, even if all of the actual formation work looked like spiderwebs and squiggles to him.
Soon, they reached the outskirts where green turned to yellow, grey, and brown. On the ridge which overlooked the oasis valley, the manor rested. The Han manor was really big, the biggest mobile manor in the whole province, if Grandfather Fortress wasn’t counted, and Han Jian was pretty sure that he wasn’t supposed to count.
The manor and the grounds rested on immense runners etched with arrays that allowed it to slide across sand and ash. Han Jian didn’t pay it much mind as he mounted the temporary stairs constructed up the side. He had to do his best not to pant thanks to the pace his Nanny was setting!
“Am I really that late?” he complained. He definitely wasn’t whining. “Can’t the lesson just run a little late?” he asked as they reached the top of the steps. Tall grass and flowering bushes stretched out to either side of the stone path which led to the doors, and several of his lounging cousins strewn about the grounds looked up at their passage. The great golden tigers of the Han flicked their ears in amusement at their human counterparts before laying their heads back down.
No one scolded them for oversleeping, Han Jian thought mutinously.
“Ah, Sir Han, don’t you remember…?” Shu Fang began to whisper.
His words were interrupted by the gimlet stare of Nanny, who looked disapprovingly over her shoulder as they stopped before the doors, leaving time for the great portal to grind open. “Patriarch Han and Matriarch East Wind are to return from their expedition to the Grave this day, Young Master. Please consider your Father before making such complaints.”
Han Jian’s eyes flew wide. That was… Of course it was today. This was the last day at the oasis. Ugh, no wonder Nanny was so mad. He shot Fang an aggrieved look. “Why didn’t you remind me?” he grumbled under his breath.
“I tried,” Fang sighed heavily.
Han Jian huffed. Fang must not have tried very hard. He supposed he wasn’t going to blame Fang too much though; it was hard to keep track of boring stuff at the oasis. He wasn’t even sure why he had to be at the gathering. It wasn’t like he or any of the youngest generation actually did anything at the big yearly meetings when Great-Grandfather returned from his cultivation trips.
But he supposed he really shouldn’t embarrass Father either. Father was much less strict than some of his cousins' parents. “I am sorry for my lack of consideration,” he said.
Nanny gave him a hard look, and he wilted further, putting his head down in a show of obeisance. After a long moment, Nanny pinched the bridge of her nose between her fingers. “Please. Try to keep that thought in mind for the future, Young Master.”
Han Jian glanced to the side. He wasn’t that bad. He glanced to Fang for support, and the taller boy gave him a smile of support.
Ah, well. In the end, meeting or no, it was just another day like all the ones before it. Nothing ever really changed out in the sands.
Even the inner garden would be better than sitting inside, Han Jian thought morosely. In the fading warmth of the evening, the scent of the flowers and the warmth of the stone benches would be just right.
“Young Master, would you like to make another move?”
Han Jian blinked, looking away from the window and back to Shu Fang and the weiqi board between them. He glanced down at the board where Shu Fang’s black pieces greatly outnumbered and surrounded his own white ones. “... Nah. You win again.”
Shu Fang didn’t look pleased. Instead, he frowned at Han Jian. “Young Master would win if he were paying attention.”
Han Jian huffed irritably. Even Shu Fang was getting in on the scolding. He opened his mouth to dismiss the words, but then, he glanced at Shu Fang’s face. Oh, he guessed that it was kind of insulting. He wouldn’t feel good about winning against someone who wasn’t even trying either. “Sorry. And hey, didn’t I say to call me Han Jian when it’s just the two of us?”
“You did,” Shu Fang said stiffly. Man, Nanny had really gotten to him. What a troublesome old woman. “Was the Han family gathering really so dull?”
Han Jian thought back to the hours sitting stiffly at a table with the other unawakened members of the Han family, unable to so much as scratch his ear without causing offense, while beyond the sealing screens, the older members spoke about the Patriarch’s latest foray into the Grave to gather powerful resources for the family.
All of the talk was irrelevant to him. It’d be forever before he had to worry about any of that stuff. Why did they even bother having the kids there? It wasn’t like they could even pay respects to the Patriarch since he was so strong, and they were still mortals.
Nanny had droned on and on about learning to emulate their elders by observing them through the screens, but Han Jian hadn’t really listened to her much.
“Dull is the word, yeah,” Han Jian sighed. “Father was happy at least. The Patriarch praised his eastern campaign.” His eyes wandered around the room, falling on a shelf where row upon row of richly painted toy soldiers carved from bone and ivory sat. He’d been interested in them once. There were a lot of things like that here. He was sure his father would buy him something else in celebration of their family’s success.
Maybe Father would even be around long enough to say more than a score of words to him.
“I’m glad for you, Young -” Shu Fang paused as Han Jian gave him a look. “... Han Jian. Do you think you might be allowed to attempt awakening soon?”
Han Jian hummed to himself, fiddling with a shiny white weiqi piece. “Probably not. No point in starting early, right? It’d just be a big pain.” He’d been given some preliminary lessons in mediation, and it was the dullest thing in the world. Plus, the instructor had whacked him with a stick when he fell asleep.
“Oh,” Shu Fang said with disappointment, beginning to pick up the pieces.
“Besides, I should wait till I can train with you, right?” Han Jian said. Shu Fang was too easy to figure out. The taller boy loved hero stories, and he knew Shu Fang really wanted to be a cultivator. The other boy didn’t understand that most cultivators were just boring people with boring jobs.
“You shouldn’t put it off for a reason like that,” Shu Fang protested, but Han Jian could see that he was pleased. “Han Jian, what kind of weapon do you think you want to -”
The door opened, interrupting his friend’s words. Nanny stood there, framed in the light of the lanterns. Her expression was as stern as ever. “Young Master, Shu Fang, it is time to prepare for bed. Young Master, you will need to finish your delayed lessons in the morning.”
“Yes, Nanny,” Han Jian sighed.
“Yes, Grandmother,” Shu Fang murmured, beginning to put the pieces away faster.
Han Jian sat up in his bed, his eyes snapping open.
His room was dark, the faint light of the moon through the window casting his things in silhouette. He had heard a thump. He could still hear the low sound of the wind outside, so it wasn’t that. He blinked blearily, looking around. Shu Fang was asleep in the bed at the foot of his own, and it hadn’t been the wind rattling the window. It had sounded heavy. Had one of his toys fallen? Or had a servant dropped something?
He almost laid back down when he saw it.
Something liquid oozed under his door, sticky and dark.
“... Nanny?” he called, alarm rising. She should have been right outside like always.
Then the man was there.
A man was standing in his room, outlined by the dim moonlight. He wore the livery of a servant. He seemed young, unremarkable. Tanned but not too tanned, brown hair, middling height. Average.
In his left hand, he held a knife soaked with blood.
But it was his eyes that pinned Han Jian in place, stilling the scream in his throat. The man was Empty. There was nothing behind his eyes, nothing to read, nothing to feel. Han Jian’s hands tightened on his blankets. He couldn’t hear the wind any more.
The Empty Man moved without a whisper of sound and was before his bed. Han Jian saw the knife rise.
The door to his bedroom splintered, and a streamer of cloth seized the man’s left arm. The man was yanked back, his knife pulled away before it could strike.
Nanny knelt in the doorway, one hand over her ruined throat, the other extended toward the man. Her gown was soaked in blood, ripped and torn. Somewhere in the back of his mind, anatomy lessons drifted, wounds to each of the major organs and arteries.
The Empty Man’s expression didn’t change as he was spun around by Nanny’s cloth binding. In his right hand, clear shards of glass bloomed between his fingers and flew. Nanny jerked, her wrinkled face twisting in pain as they struck her, and the Empty Man slipped loose.
Shu Fang was scrambling out of bed. Han Jian could see him crying out for his Grandmother, but he couldn’t hear a thing.
The Empty Man was back, looming over him. Then Shu Fang was in the way, and Han Jian could only whimper silently as his best friend collapsed to the floor in a spray of blood, his throat opened by a flick of the wicked knife.
The knife came for him, and Han Jian still couldn’t move.
Maybe it didn’t matter. The man was a blur when Han Jian saw him move at all. The glittering edge of the knife coming for him was lit by a toxic violet glow that shone even through the blood.
The point stopped, quivering, a hair’s breadth from his throat. Wide-eyed, Han Jian saw the tension in the Empty Man’s arm, the strain of muscle seeking to press the blade in just a bit further, and in the Empty Man’s eyes, he finally saw something. A flicker of fear, dull and mild, but present all the same.
The air was warm.
The silence shattered, and Han Jian heard his own terrified breathing, heard Shu Fang gurgling on the floor. He heard the Empty Man grunt in effort, straining for that last millimeter.
He heard the air thrum. He heard the window pane rattle, toys and books falling from the shelves.
Rage shook the air in visible distortions like the haze of heat at high noon.
A sob of relief escaped his throat. Father was here.
Sand and screaming wind ripped through the gaps in the wall’s wooden boards, and wood bulged inward then broke under the weight of the force behind them. Splinters and sawdust flew, tearing the room apart, but Han Jian’s bed was untouched. Not a single grain of sand or shrapnel touched his sheets.
The Empty Man was ripped away by roaring wind and searing sand, his clothing shredded and scoured away. The man slammed into the ceiling. Grains of sand ripped his flesh, and finally, he made a sound.
He screamed and screamed until there was nothing left with which to scream.
And then Father was there, a plume of sand transforming into silken house robes and calloused hands. Rage still hummed in the air, but it was dull now, dulled by concern.
“Father... Please, Nanny and Shu Fang!” Han Jian croaked, his voice muffled as he buried his face in his father’s robes. Father was here. Everything would be alright, wouldn’t it?
It wasn’t alright at all, Han Jian thought miserably.
He sat on a chair in a room of the clan’s medical hall. It was a wide, spacious place, airy and full of windows to allow light and warmth to circulate. However, despite the clear bright sky, everything was dim, and the air buzzed with an ill-contained threat.
Two of his father’s personal guards were outside the room. He could feel them through the wall like looming shadows or bared blades. The manor was in an uproar. Father was furious. The Patriarch was furious. Soldiers walked the halls instead of servants. Two of Han Jian’s cousins had not been as fortunate as him. Their retainers had been less observant, their parents slower to react.
Han Jian drew his knees up to his chest and shivered, the image of the Empty Man’s impassive eyes and the sight of the knife point, blurring through the air toward his throat, burning in his thoughts. Han Jian gulped in the air, trying to stop himself from panicking again.
Distracting himself, he looked up to the bed in the center of the room where Fang was lying. Fang’s throat had been bandaged, but spots of red showed through. The healers had not been sure if he would make it. The toxin on the knife was too virulent and too cruel. It was only the fact that he had suffered only a single errant cut that gave him a chance.
Han Jian had begged Father to save Fang and Nanny, and Father had tried. But Nanny was dead. Han Jian had gotten his wish. She was never going to scold him again. He had even gotten out of his lessons. Han Jian buried his face in his knees.
Everything was wrong.
There was a whisper of motion from silk sheets, and Han Jian looked up. Shu Fang was stirring, blinking blearily at the ceiling.
“Shu Fang!” Han Jian sprang from his seat, rushing to the bedside.
His friend weakly turned his head and opened his mouth, but nothing emerged but an ugly rasp.
“Don’t try to talk,” Han Jian scolded. “Your throat is still hurt.”
His friend stared blankly up at him, and Han Jian was struck by how frail he seemed. That too was wrong. Fang was always taller than him, broader than him, more active than him. Now he lay still in bed while Han Jian stood and worried.
Han Jian could see the memories of last night returning in his friend's falling expression. Despite Han Jian’s warning, he rasped again and winced in pain. Han Jian almost scolded him before Fang slowly and painstakingly mouthed a word. ‘Grandmother?’
Han Jian’s face fell, and he lowered his eyes, unable to bring himself to answer. However, that alone was answer enough.
Silence fell, and it was a long moment before Han Jian had the courage to raise his head. Shu Fangs eyes were squeezed shut, and tears were trickling down to soak the pillow.
“I’m -” Han Jian tried to apologize, but he choked on the words. What right did he have to say anything? He still had Father and Mother, but Shu Fang had only Nanny, his Grandmother. And now he did not because of Han Jian.
“It’s my fault. I’m sorry, Fang,” he whispered. The Empty Man had only killed Nanny to get at him. Even then, she might have lived if she hadn’t interfered at the last moment.
But Shu Fang shook his head, giving Han Jian a fierce look through glistening eyes. Han Jian didn’t understand. Shu Fang should hate him. The taller boy grimaced, and slowly mouthed more words. ‘Honor. Duty. Han Jian.’
Han Jian tried to keep his reserve. He tried to hold back the hot tears that wanted to flow. He failed. How many times had he heard Nanny instructing Fang? The meaning of being his retainer, of being devoted to him… unto death.
He had never really understood it. He was mediocre and lazy. He didn’t deserve devotion like that.
Han Jian felt a warm pressure on his hand, and blinking away tears, he saw that Shu Fang had reached to grasp his hand in weak fingers. Even though his own tears were flowing, Fang was trying to smile for him. Even now, his friend was being forced to put aside his grief for him.
“I’m sorry, Fang,” Han Jian said again. He wasn’t worthy… but he wasn’t just going to stand around and wallow in that. “You- You saved my life too. It looks like you’re a hero after all,” he said, trying to smile.
Shu Fang shook his head.
“No, you did,” Han Jian insisted, swiping at his tears with his sleeve. “If… If that man had been even a second faster, Father wouldn’t have made it in time. I’ll… I’ll make sure Father knows, so you can be rewarded, okay? And Nanny… I’ll make sure she gets honored too. I will.”
Shu Fang nodded, letting go of his hand. Han Jian could tell that he was just being humored though.
“No, Fang, I promise,” Han Jian insisted again.
He wasn’t going to let this go.
Han Jian unclasped his hands and opened his eyes, looking upon the little grey urn that stood in the stone cubby of the mausoleum. The incense sticks he had brought had long burned down, and the cup of ceremonial wine was empty. The only light remaining was the gentle twilight glow of the wards that ensured the dead their peaceful rest.
It was a plain thing, the urn, compared to some of the more ostentatious displays, bearing only a jade plate carved with a name. Han Chen, who had once been Shu Chen. His Nanny.
Beside him, his cousin, Han Fang, knelt, his hands still clasped and his head still low.
Four years had passed since that day the Empty Man had come for Han Jian, but Han Jian had kept his promise.
Many in the clan had balked at giving such high honor to servants. There had been many, many complaints. Father, and by extension, Han Jian, had made enemies among the clan in adopting the Shu. But he had pushed Father to do it anyway.
Han Jian knew, in many ways, that this too was for him. His father was not unsympathetic, but he would never have gone through with such a move if Han Jian had not been so insistent. He understood that Father had done it to see if the flames of Han Jian’s motivation could be kept stoked with this move.
Han Jian didn’t care. Fang had gotten the honor he deserved. He had gotten the resources he deserved. He would be able to cultivate as he had always wanted.
Smiling, Han Jian stood and clapped a hand on Fang’s broad shoulder. ”It’s time to go, Fang. The carriage we’re taking to the Sect won’t wait all day.”
His friend, his cousin, opened his eyes and nodded, rising with a silent grace that belied his bulk. He bowed once more to the urn and turned to smile at Han Jian.
The devotion in his eyes had never changed, even if he was no longer Han Jian’s retainer. Han Jian knew that he still didn’t deserve it, but he was determined to try.