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For the hundredth time in the last five minutes, Xan looked around for Cho and Sue. He just could not focus on the metal book open before him. His eyes kept sliding around the book’s pages like they were coated in visual grease. He looked up again and finally—after what felt like ages—Cho and Sue were walking towards him. Relief flooded through him. They approached and took seats at his table.

“I was beginning to get worried about you two,” Xan told them. He watched as the two exchanged a glance. “Oh, is it bad?” he asked them. In a hurry he said, “I know I’m hurting your chances of passing and I know I didn’t do well today.” He finished with a bitter note, his heart breaking at having let everyone down. Xan sighed. “I could probably do okay with my herbalism and find a place somewhere. I know I can grow plants better than Master Sung did.”

Cho took his hand and was surprised when Sue spoke. “Xan, I would like to show you something.” She looked at Cho with an expression that Xan could not decipher. “We’ll catch up to you later.” Xan was genuinely intrigued since Sue had never expressed any desire to do anything with him that she wasn’t absolutely forced to do by circumstances.

Xan looked at Cho. He just gave Xan a ‘go-with-her’ gesture, his face revealing nothing. Resigned, Xan trailed behind her.

Sue waited for him at the top of the stairs. Once he caught up to her, she started down wordlessly.

“Where are we going?” He asked.

“Curiosity killed the cat,” She replied cryptically, a slight smile tugging at the corner of her lips. Another rarity from Sue.

“Yeah,” he half smiled, “and satisfaction brought him back.” Xan’s mom and he used to play this exchange all the time. Sue just shook her head and continued on.

They headed out into the afternoon, away from the tower. Xan’s curiosity was a raging bonfire within him. “Are we going to a new shop?” He pried.

“Patience.”

Xan looked around while they walked. They were headed to a section of town they hadn’t been to before. The buildings looked older, if that was possible, and bigger than the other areas. They were still well maintained, though they had a presence about them that Xan felt lent age.

They turned onto a drive and were faced with a large gate. Sue put her hand on the door set within the gate. He felt the tickle in his mind of her opening the lock and the door swung smoothly inward on well-oiled hinges.

“What is this place?” Xan whispered. He didn’t know why, but he felt he needed to whisper. Apprehension flooded through him that they were going to get caught doing something they weren’t supposed to.

“This is my grandparent’s house.” She stepped through the door and motioned for him to follow with a wave.

“Your grandparents?” he said in a squeak.

“Yes. I live here when I am not in the dorms.” She closed the door and turned to the path leading around to the back of the house.

“What are we doing?” Xan whispered again.

Sue rolled her eyes. “You don’t have to whisper. No-one’s here.” She led him to the backyard. The house was large and the grounds were well cared for. In moments they had traversed the flag-stone walkway and Xan found himself in a garden well behind the main house. She led him along the garden’s paths and stopped at an area filled with fine, light-colored rocks. There was a wooden rake set on the side. The smaller gravel had been raked in a swirling pattern around two pumpkin sized rocks buried in the ground with just their darkness jutting several inches up from the gravel bed.

“This is the meditation area. You open your mind and rake the pattern that comes to you.” She smiled. “When I was little, I was obsessed with order and I would come out here and rake all the rocks straight.” Xan watched her face, recognizing the faraway look of sifting memories.

“You want me to meditate?” he asked her.

His question seemed to snap her out of her reverie. “What? No. I wanted you to see the garden and to talk with you.” She turned to continue down the path to a fountain that burbled down a stone fish feature to a little pond. Multicolored Koi swam about in the pond, occasionally breaking the surface to snap at an insect that ventured too close. He thought that Cho would like this.

She took a seat on a bench that faced the water feature. He sat next to her. “I know you are having a hard time in class.” She looked down at her hands. Xan had no idea where she was going with this. “I want you to know that I understand what you are going through and how lonely you must feel.”

Incredulously, Xan scoffed at her. “What do you know about loneliness?”

She looked up at him in surprise, hurt plain in her eyes. “You grew up with a family. I didn’t.” She responded. Tears welled up in her eyes. “When I was little, we were on a pilgrimage to the Temple of Five Immortals.” She inhaled deeply and continued. “We were attacked by raiders. I was there when they murdered my father. They came out of the bushes suddenly and without warning, ambushing the caravan. My father put himself between them and us. Even though he had no martial training, he was trying to defend us. My mother killed that raider with a camp axe, right in front of me, and she was shot with arrows for her trouble. The guard eventually drove the raiders off, but it didn’t matter for my mother and father.” A single tear fell.

Xan realized he had been holding his breath. He reached out and took her hand. “I didn’t know,” he said softly.

“My brother and I came here to live with our grandparents,” she continued, voice growing more rock steady as she went. “Grandfather was running the school and grandmother had taken a position that required her to travel to the other clans recruiting new students. That’s why I don’t know how to cook. My mom was taken from me before I could learn and grandma wasn’t”—she wiped the tears away with her other hand—“still isn’t around. She is back every few weeks for a short time before has to travel to another clan. Growing up, I pretty much ran around the school when I wasn't in elementary and I’d eat at the cafeteria or the noodle shop.”

Xan felt lower than the belly of a frog. He didn’t realize that other people’s lives might be just as difficult. A pain in his palm brought his attention to the fact he was holding his father’s pendant, clenched in his other hand.

She took a deep cleansing breath and wiped away her tears with the edge of her sleeve. She squeezed his hand, let it go, and scooted on the bench to face him. “My grandfather is all I have and I need to show him honor by doing the best I can here at the school.” Xan looked into her eyes and they grew compassionate. “You really should talk with Cho. He is in this just like you are, and he is really good at metal. He can help you.” She smiled a bit. “Believe it or not, we all want you to succeed.”

Xan looked at her.

Although Sue could be hard to read—stony faced and stoic most of the time—he felt she was being sincere and wasn’t playing him. He was also impressed she had opened up to him. Pulling his gaze from her face, he watched the fish in the pond for a minute. Sue just sat quietly. He was finally starting to understand her motivations and he also had to admit to himself she wasn’t raised the princess he had pictured her as. Maybe we have more in common than I thought.

“I appreciate you bringing me here and telling me…about what happened.” He stood up and held out a hand to her. “I will take what you said to heart.” She took his hand and he helped her up. “Let’s go find Cho and see what’s next.”

She smiled at him, gratitude flashing in her eyes.

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About the author

MarkStallings

Bio: I’ve been in Colorado since I was a young teenager. I live in the foothills of Pikes Peak with my wife, two children and various dogs and cats. I have a crazy technology background having founded several tech companies centering around human machine interfaces before I discovered a passion for writing.

When I’m not slinging the ink and trying to get paid to fabricate tales that entertain, I like to shoot competitively, drink craft beer, ride motorcycles and play games with friends.

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