In her haste to race Jian Cheng, Fen Ling had- not for the first time - forgotten her share of their six fish. Naturally it fell to Fatty to play the delivery boy. While he grumbled and scuffed his steps, distractedly kicking a stone along the dirt path, he couldn't deny he had lost the race home... and did live closer... However, he didn't like being constantly reminded he "could do with the exercise".
After sulkily kicking the stone into a drain, Fatty arrived at the Ling's back gate. Through the open rear door he spied the tall figure of Fen Ling's father standing in their lounge, staring out the window away from his approach. The slim silhouette of Fen Ling's mother ghosted into the room and hugged him from behind. Li Fang halted outside in the shade of the open door. He was reluctant to intrude on an intimate moment between husband and wife, especially with a fistful of dripping fish. However, the welcome evening breeze wafted their whispers gently over to his burning ears.
"You indulge her." the wife said primly.
"And you don't," her husband replied evenly, leaning back into the embrace.
"She has so much to learn, letters, etiquette, court decorum, numbers on the abacus --"
"Why?" Fen Ling's father sighed. "That life is no longer ours to live. Truth be told I don't really miss it. The most important things in my life were always you two..."
In the shadows, Fatty stifled a gasp. It seemed the Lings had a deep, dark secret. He stood there a stunned mullet with two gaping-mouthed catfish clutched in his trembling fist. After a full minute he gulped and rapped loudly on the door with his knuckles. He ducked in the doorway and deposited the fish on the kitchen bench.
"Just some fish," he stammered as Fen Ling's parents turned to stare at him suspiciously.
"Enjoy," he managed then turned and fled. Fatty couldn't keep a secret to save his life - instantly he cut across the field headed for his other friend's house.
"How interesting," Jian Cheng sat back and steepled his fingers. "So how long have you known?"
Thick trickles of sweat rolled down from Fatty's brow and even down his back causing him to shiver. Why did they always have their secret meetings in the forge?
"Just teasing," his friend smirked. "Everyone knows a blabbermouth like you can't keep a secret for more than a minute. It is interesting though... Perhaps they're actually deposed royals on the run from a bloody coup?"
"You think so?" Fatty was flabbergasted. "En, Fen-er does act like a little princess a lot of the time..."
"Maybe," Jian Chen shrugged. "Which would be great for us because they'll need soldiers to storm the palace and slaughter the usurper's army. And conveniently here we'd be, ready and waiting in the very same village..."
To Fatty's ears - with a working brain between them - that sounded as foolhardy as it was unlikely. The latter being the much better part of that particular proposition... He needed to rain on this imaginary parade before it became a plan set in concrete.
"Um, I'm not sure I really want to be a soldier."
"What?" Jian Cheng snapped bolt upright. "Of course you do, a huge lump like yourself--"
"I think I'd rather be a gardener or something..."
"You're left-handed!" Jiang Chen spat.
His tanned face had turned pale and Fatty couldn't tell if it was aghast from shock or livid with anger - it turned out to be both.
"It's a gift from the gods for a swordsman. What use is it for a gardener?"
His voice got higher and higher until it changed completely.
"Oh look, there's a weed over there. Unfortunately it's on my left - If only we had a left-handed gardener, I'd surely surrender my firstborn!"
Whoops, Fatty appeared to have poked a sleeping bear here. The rant ran on for another essence stick of time. It was to be expected, after all, if you tug the tail of a tiger, it will surely roar.... Finally the raging anger calmed into continuous circles of confusion.
"Are you still worried about army rations?"
Of course he was concerned about rations. Always. The very word implied shortage and scarcity, which was a gnat's whisker away from starving. Enough food was always an issue, not just for him but the whole village. Maybe not for the mayor and his council cronies, but it was hardscrabble hand to mouth for him and his grandfather. The Ling family weren't much chop as farmers either and the Cheng's forge barely put food on their table. Times were tough in Rusty Creek. On seventh day they had fun for sure, but the catfish they caught were sorely needed and stretched out over several days...
Speaking of food, his stomach growled. It was dinner time... yum, catfish congee... he needed to get going... Slip away somehow as there was never any reasoning with a madman... Fatty finally fobbed Jiang Chen off by promising to reconsider being a soldier after their all important qi testing ceremony the following week.
"No-one would hire a soldier with low qi now would they?"
A cold, hard fact that general Cheng couldn't and didn't deny. He didn't even reply...
Fatty's mere mention of qi testing had struck a deep chord. It actually struck the martial maniac dumb. Lost in dreams of glory no doubt... Fatty slipped away in the silence, leaving his stunned friend staring off into the darkness with shining eyes of brim full of passion.
Every three years, the Misty Cloud Sect dispatches a clutch of elders to test the qi spirits of young village children. The elders are actually on a circuit of every village, town or city in their territory that spans a full third of the country. The round trip covers several thousand li and takes almost a year to complete. In that time, tens of thousands of boys and girls between eight and ten summers tested in town halls and village greens alike. Of those thousands only a few hundred end up accepted into the sect.
At this moment 15 fidgety preteens line up in front of their parents facing and the three sect elders on the other side of the village hall..
They wear clothes too formal for normal use - flower-covered silken cheongsams for the girls with flowing robes for the boys. Both brightly coloured providing a festive feast for the watching eyes. Parents line the hall walls nearby, nervous for the natures and futures of their children to be unearthed.
One-by-one, the children step forward before the senior sect elder as their names are announced from a vellum scroll. The elder's stern upright figure presides over a small table holding an ornate box with a lychee-sized crystal inside.
Fen Ling is naturally the first girl in line. Eagerly she darts forward and wraps her small hand around the crystal orb, instantly shocked at the sizzling energy emitted from it. A ticklish trickle of something flashes out from her belly and runs along her arms. The suddenly milky liquid within the orb wildly swirls.
The elder leans over and stares deep into the orb. He narrows his eyes and steps back before declaring the rank and nature of her spirit. "Wind affinity - tier three."
The stern elder actually smiles at the auspicious start to proceedings. Her nervous parents breathe again before smiling too. In the middle of the line Fatty is also smiling proudly and about to yell something out. Jiang Chen steps forward and cuffs him in the back of the head to shut him up but he is smiling just as broadly. Everyone important in her life is smiling so Fen Ling naturally smiles too and the room feels the better for it.
After a stilted second, she turns to return to her parents... And Jian Cheng suddenly realises she doesn't understand what any of it means. He's stunned. He's not the only one. The smiling eyes of the stern elder flare wide open in shock staring at the orb. Everyone in the village hall is also surprised, mainly to see a third expression from such a stone-faced old misery guts ...
The senior elder curls the crook of his forefinger and the other two elders scuttled over. They huddle together and a flurry of harsh, urgent whispers ensues. After a minute, the three separate and the ceremony continues - though Jian Cheng notices all three elders regularly cast stealthy glances towards Fen Ling and her family.
Each of the 15 children in line gets an affinity and a tier. Most got tier one which means they aren't currently eligible to enter the sect. Only tier two and tier three results earn the right to become outer court disciples. Under ten years old a tier four result was rarer than phoenix feathers. A tier four anything affinity or not would, of course, be instantly ushered into the privileged and pampered inner court and probably fast-tracked towards becoming a core disciple. Not that anyone in this village would likely encounter such a unicorn in their lifetime.
Fatty stepped up and got a solid fire affinity tier two and was eligible for the sect. He also still had the makings of a fine soldier... Jiang Cheng would happily take that. He'd prefer tier three or in his dreams tier four, but the fire affinity was his first choice. Not only for martial attacks but also for any future forging he undertook. Your level you could always improve upon, but affinity was set in stone. Yes, he'd take Fatty's deal in a heartbeat...
So far there are six eligible children who have earned wooden badges of sect entry according to their tier and affinity. Fen Ling and Fatty were two of the six, but unfortunately so are Liu Tong and two of his followers, along with a younger girl who Jiang Cheng hadn't seen before. Lucky last in line, Jian Cheng knows full well which affinity he wants. Fire , he entreats the heavens as he steps up for his turn before the crystal orb.
More than anything he wants to follow his father's booted footsteps and become a soldier. As a youngling Zhao Cheng tested as a fire affinity tier three at his qi ceremony twenty years ago - even Jian Cheng's mother had achieved tier two earth affinity at her test a year later... While it was traditionally considered bad luck to tell children what to expect on the day of their test, Jian Cheng had pestered his parents so often that even his stern father couldn't refuse to spill the beans. Ever since he'd discovered the details, he'd had his little heart set on directly inheriting from his father...
“Cheng, Jian,” the senior elder intones. Instantly Jian Cheng snaps to attention and steps smartly forward. The elder looms above severe and straight, like a punishment switch.. “Stretch forth your arm, to let your true nature be known.”
Behind him, Jian Cheng's mother ducks under her husband's wing, unwilling to watch. The boy doesn’t see her nervous action, in this moment he is focussed on the fist-sized orb that contains his whole future.
Jian Cheng eagerly wraps his fingers around the crystal. It’s warmer than he expected, which excites him at first, because fire is his first choice affinity...
The clear liquid inside turns milky, but it doesn’t move or solidify into any shape - it simply sits there, placid and implacable.
The elder’s bushy eyebrows knit together into a V shape. Leaning over the orb, his sect badge—of polished mahogany, bearing the Misty Cloud coat of arms and a tier nine fire affinity —dangles invitingly over the orb box. It was right there... A wooden emblem of everything Jian Cheng wanted in this world... Impatiently, the elder seizes Jian Cheng's wrist and tugs it upwards.
"Concentrate," he growls before pushing the boy's hand back down.
At his touch the orb flickers... A spark of hope ignites in the boy's heart, but it dies down the moment the elder removes his hand from on top of his and the orb returns to it's former still state.
A nauseous feeling bubbles up in Jian Cheng’s throat as he realises something has gone hideously wrong.
All his plans for the future have seemingly burned up in a single puff of smoke.. or lack thereof...
Over to the side, his mother is engaged a savagely whispered conversation with another elder. Her hand waving becoming increasingly frantic... His father sags against the wall. Several adults are whispering now and the hissing sound spreads like wildfire around the room.
“Unfortunately he appears to be unable to form an affinity for his spirit or cultivate,” the elder announces his damning verdict, and those close enough to hear gasp. “While there's qi aplenty, his eight grand meridians appear to be blocked somehow .”
He's a void. A mortal like most of the population. But his bloodlines are so solid? Both parents...
Jian Cheng shoots a gaze at his mother, who's pinched face has turned utterly pale. His tall father is slumped forward, hands on knees, staring at the floor. He seems to be seeing somewhere else... Somewhere with a different future...
Stricken, he turns towards his two friends. Fen Ling is clutching her tiny hands together, her little face is filled with hurt and confusion. She doesn't understand... But there is stark horror filling Fatty's wide eyes and Jian Cheng falls headlong into it...