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Hu Li VII

Mountain Province Two, Heguri Empire

Choices

 

Waning sunlight lit Lord Tamura’s castle at the heart of Mountain Province Two. A long stone bridge over water led in and out of the grounds. At the end of the bridge, a thick wooden door reinforced with iron stood closed. Guards slowly opened and closed the massive door for the comings and goings of Tamura’s court. Carts bounced over the stone bridge, and horse hooves clapped as they trotted across. The soft golden light from the waning winter sun shimmered on the half-frozen moat surrounding the castle. The standing water moat was so thick it made Lord Tamura’s castle seem as if it sat in the middle of a small lake. Winds whistled, and the ground was cold and damp from a previous snowfall that did not stick. Merchants and shop goers haggled for prices nearby. Li rubbed his dirtied hands together and blew into them to warm up his fingers.

It had been dark the two previous times Lord Tamura called Hu Li to the castle. Today, Li had his best view of the impressive structure yet. The cloud cover partially blotted the sky, but the sunset was an hour away at least. Li looked at Lord Tamura’s ancient Heguri castle. The castle itself was cream-colored stone trimmed with dark blue and red. Four small towers dotted the corners of the structure, with a large central tower in the middle. Li had not seen the winding red wooden dragon adorning the main building in the darkness of his previous visits. He thought back on the confidence in which Lord Tamura spoke of his family history.

“I descend from that man riding the dragon.”

“I see you do not believe me. I see you think dragons only exist in stories. You would not be the first. And it does not matter, after all. There hasn’t been a serpent in over a thousand years.”

A convenient story to elevate your bloodline in the eyes of other men.

Stone stairs led from the end of the bridge up towards the central tower, where the serpent coiled around the stone. Li had been up those steps before. The last time he sat on the bottom of them, he was there with the Heguri Pathfinder Morokore Wada; and last time, he had been invited. Tonight, Hu Li was on the run. As Li stood perched against the side of a stone wall, he saw what he was after. Plated in his dark blue armor, Prince Tamura rode out of the massive wooden gate with his escort. The stallions’ hooves pounded the cobblestone.

After Tao Fu led Li, Zhong Bai, Duan He, and their mounts outside the walls of Governo Guo’s estate, Li rode north through the night. They had gone through an underground passageway that led under the walls and out the back of the estate to the east. Tao Fu insisted few knew about the passage and that it would be tall enough to ride through.

After they emerged from underground Li rode past Yueyang and back across the Red River and into Fuhua by midmorning. He stabled Rou and found a room at the inn where he previously stayed and waited in silence until nightfall, hoping to avoid attention. As he sat alone in the small room, Li read the torn page of the Kitsushiro’s traveling diary over and over again:

 

season: autumn

route direction: northwest from Oika along Old Crane’s Road

location: wooden path marker exactly twenty kilometers from Oika, on the side of the road into the forest, marked with the crescent moon

path: thirty kilometers deep into the forest, at the end a stone staircase, at the top a walled monastery

monastery: monks, women only, reserved

sold: light blue Daming silk from across the border, three full rolls, paid well

 

What was the Old Crane’s road?

There were no roads out of Oika, only dirt paths. Li wondered if the trails through the forests connecting the mountain villages had names.

A walled monastery? Deep in the forest? Surely the Prince would have heard of it.

He paced around the room for hours. His thought went from his priors on the girl, little Fei, to Governor Guo, to Zhong Bai. He wondered how the three women were holding up on the run. He thought of his friend Gao Ju and how embarrassed he was for bringing him into this charade.

He knew the governor’s true colors. I should have listened when we spoke in the tavern across the yard from this very inn. Was I a fool for taking the job? What was I after? I didn’t need the money.

Li thought of the pitiful head servant, too. How quickly did they find Liu’s body, he wondered.

Surely they found the women missing, but did anyone know that Li was there?

Head Servant Liu might have kept a log of the comings and goings. Perhaps the men guarding the front gate did as well. Liu had to get the tray of food from the kitchens, so at least one cook knew about someone coming off the road and needing a hot meal late at night.

Sooner or later, someone will put it together. I need to move quickly and get across the border as soon as the sun sets.

The sunset came without incident, though. Li was safe for the time being. He donned his dark brown wool cloak for the cold winter night. It was hooded, and he used it to partially obscure his face after he paid the stable and walked Rou to the southeast gate. The gate was at the back of the western edge of the Heguri district, which put it on the southeastern edge of the walled city. He wondered if Wada was at his residence. Li wanted to ask for his help but knew he must keep moving. He wasn’t even sure he would be able to trust Wada now.

Surely he wouldn’t sell me in. After what he offered me?

Rou kicked out from behind his strong legs as they took off down the road that would lead to the Great Forest. From there, Li rode west through the night to find an audience with Prince Tamura. His plan was simple, but the details were missing, and he knew it. He would find the prince and bargain his safety for the potential whereabouts of his lover, Iko. Li and the Prince would find the monastery and rescue the girls. From there, the plan was nonspecific. Fei would not be safe in the mountain provinces with the governor’s men looking for her. Li would not either. He hoped a grateful Prince would have the means to board them on a ship set sail for anywhere but the Xiao Empire. Perhaps they would even travel to the Autumn Isle and disappear on the underdeveloped lands.

Li wasn’t even sure he could trust the Prince. He did not know the man. They had one conversation in the forest. But his read on the Prince was solid, and his read was rarely wrong. The boy was naive and lovestruck. He was more a Duan He than a Zhong Bai. The Prince would go behind his father’s back for the girl; he knew it. And Li did not have many other options, as it happened.

Li thought back on the scroll as he rode into the night.

Northwest from Oika along Old Crane’s Road. There will be a wooden path marker around twenty kilometers from Oika. It should be on the side of the road and lead into the forest. A moon will mark the way.

 

It took Li two full days before he could get an audience with Prince Tamura. He camped out outside the castle, in the town that surrounded it. Twice he stabled Rou on one side of the city and traveled towards the gate. There he muddied his face and arms and pretended to be a beggar. His dark brown wool cloak looked haggard enough from the road as it was. Li had not seen Governor Guo’s scorpion-plated men stalking the countryside, as Tao Fu warned. Still, if Lord Tamura and the governor worked together, he knew the castle and its immediate surroundings would not be safe.

They will have put it all together by now: Liu dead, the women missing, and my visit to the estate.

Li watched Heguri warriors and well-dressed aristocrats travel in and out of the iron gate at the end of the bridge. Servants escorted high-born ladies dressed in fine silk and covered in thick winter wool in and out in small groups. Merchants bringing in fruits, vegetables, and meats were escorted in and out by Tamura’s plated warriors. For almost two full days, he watched for the prince. Finally, nearing sunset on the second day, Prince Tamura rode out quickly with another escort. As usual, the prince wore his blue-plated armor with red trim. His blade fixed across his back as he rode. Li kept his place perched against the stone wall of a nearby building as he waited for his return.

It was dark and very cool when the Prince rode back through the castle town. Li covered his face with his hood and pretended to hobble out in front of the riders to flag him down.

“Prince Tamura!”

“Out of the way, you dog!” a member of the Prince’s escort commanded.

“Be gone with you!” another added.

The group did not slow, which forced Li back out of the way of the oncoming horses.

“Prince Tamura! Mercy for an old beggar. I worry for my daughter, Iko!”

They rode past Li without hesitation but not twenty meters after; Prince Tamura’s mount lurched and came to an abrupt halt. The escort was slow to react and had to turn around to regroup with the prince. Prince Tamura jumped off his horse and held his hand up, signaling to his escort to hold back. As he strode over to Li, he removed his helmet, now decorated with a red dragon. Li watched the Prince’s eyes squint, trying to figure out what was going on.

“What did you say, old man?”

“Iko, I want to talk about Iko,” Li said quietly.

The Prince was close now, within an arm’s reach. His escort was still twenty meters behind, holding their position. Li and the prince stood alone in the cobbled stone street that led up towards the bridge. Oil lamps lit the insides of the surrounding buildings, and thick black smoke poured from their chimneys. The food stalls were closed for the night, and it was very cold. Wind swept across the empty dark street.

Prince Tamura spoke quietly now, “Do I know you?”

“It’s me, Prince,” Li whispered as he removed his hood.

The Prince’s eyes widened, “You’ve returned.”

Li watched the Prince’s escort over his shoulder anxiously.

“Don’t worry about them; they’re my men. They’ll do as I tell them.”

Li nodded.

“Did you find her? Do you have word from her?”

“I believe I found the girl, but I do not have word from her.”

“Where is she?”

Li shook his head, “I need to make a deal. I come to you in unfortunate circumstances.”

The Prince looked at Li’s dirtied hands and face, “Hence the disguise?”

Li nodded.

“What have you done, inspector?”

“I’m on the run.”

Prince Tamura looked away.

“What do you need.”

“Assurances of safety for me and the girl. The one I’m after. The governor’s men are in your Province now, looking for her. They know she’s here, but they don’t know where.”

“The governor’s men are here?”

“I’m sure of it.”

“Father never tells me the full picture,” the Prince gritted his teeth, “But you know where Iko is?”

“I am sure,” Li lied.

“Very good, Li,” the prince looked around the empty street and took a step closer, “Do you remember where we first met in the forest? Can you find your way back there?”

“I think I can.”

“Good. Meet me there, midday, in three days. Father will be gone, visiting the lord in the next Province.”

Li nodded.

“Where do you want to go?” the Prince asked, “Where do you want to take the girl when you find her? I take it not back to the governor?”

“No, I was hoping to board a ship at Fujihoro. One bound for Fotian or the Autumn Isle.”

“I can arrange that.”

The Prince turned to go but looked back before returning to his horse.

“Don’t play with me, Li. These men you’re dealing with, this is no game. You better be right about this.”

Prince Tamura donned his helmet and mounted his stallion once again. Li stood silent and watched the men ride down the stone bridge and back into the castle. The giant wooden door opened for them and closed once again.

Now we’ll see where his allegiances lie. If they’re with his heart, I might have a chance. If they’re with his father, I’m a dead man.

 

Li knew he could not stay at an inn in the castle town under Tamura’s castle. It would be too risky. He had no paperwork approving his travel into the Heguri Empire. Besides, Governor Guo’s men, and even Lord Tamura’s, might be looking for him. During his last visit with Morokore Wada, the Ox carried the paperwork for both of them. They had been stopped many times by provincial officials. Li could not afford even one such encounter, he knew.

Instead, he found an inn on the road between Lord Tamura’s Mountain Province Two and Mountain Province One to the southwest. He wanted to camp outdoors as he had with Wada in the autumn, but it was simply too cold at this time of year. Every night, it snowed, but not enough to stick on the ground. Each morning, the ground was slick with melted snow and ice. Strong winter winds off the mountains blew constantly. Li would not be warm enough on his own outdoors.

The inn was small and tidy. It was two floors and made with wood, inlaid with bamboo paneling. Balconies overlooked the passing dirt road from the second level. Inside, hot spring water funneled under the thick wood floors keeping the building warm. Fires burned in small wood furnaces inside the inn.

The innkeeper, Norinaga, asked Li for identification, so he paid the man a small bribe which he took eagerly. Norinaga was in his forties, it looked. He was stout but not fat, with a bald top of his head and grey trimmed hair around the sides. Norinaga’s eyebrows were bushy, and he wore a simple wrap and sandals. The residence was kept meticulously clean.

Norinaga led Li to a room in the corner of the second floor. The room was sparse and covered wall to wall in bamboo matt. There was a window out to the balcony and a small bed in the corner. A small wooden table sat next to the bed, and there were various cushions for sitting around the walls. Norinaga delivered a hot meal after Li made himself comfortable. It was a simple meal of rice, fish broth, various pickled vegetables, and hot tea.

Li sat in the corner of the room, looking out onto the dark road. There were oil lamps lit outside the inn, but they did not provide much lighting. The moon was almost full, perhaps a few nights away. It gave Li some visibility out into the night. Prince Tamura might sell him to his father, or worse, the governor’s men. The innkeeper might report him to the lord for traveling without paperwork and deny taking the bribe. It was apparent Li was Daming, not Heguri. In his previous travels with Wada, their whereabouts had been reported to the authorities by townsfolk.

Li barely slept at all that night. He had nothing to read besides the travel diary and could not exercise on account of the light snowfall and strong winds. Li kept his short blade close, not willing to be parted from it if someone entered his room. He was lucky when that happened back at Governor Guo’s estate. He might not be so fortunate this time. Li sat in silence and stared out onto the empty road. Finally, in the early hours of the night, he passed out onto his cot.

On the second day, the fear did not go away.

Why did you need three days for your father to travel away? We need to move now!

He paced around his room like a caged animal, occasionally stopping to look outside the window for signs of trouble. In the afternoon, Li reread Kitsushiro’s travel diary a few more times. The innkeeper Norinaga continued to deliver hot meals. By the winter’s early sunset, Li was exhausted, anxious, and very bored. He poured himself a cup of tea from the now lukewarm kettle that Norinaga delivered with his midday meal. The tea was room temperature and flavorless.

Maybe just one drink would do me well. It would at least settle the nerves and allow me to sleep—just one tonight and another tomorrow night. Then I’ll be well-rested, and when I’m on the road with the prince, there will be no time for wine anyways.

Norinaga would not sell Li just one drink in a glass, so he bought a small bottle of the Heguri rice wine. Li supposed he could just have one drink from the bottle and leave the rest. Then he would have plenty for just one more drink the following night. Dinner was another hot fish broth, white rice, and grilled beef on a skewer with steamed greens. Li poured a small glass of wine after his meal. It burned on the way down, and he relaxed immediately. Li held up the bottle to the nearby oil lamp.

Good to see you again, my loyal friend.

He wandered over to the cot in the corner of the room and sat down. He removed his clothes and pulled up the thick wool blanket. Li poured a second glass and finished that quickly too. The second glass had not been part of his plans, but all Li’s shame for having the wine washed away after the first.

This is better. Why didn’t I do this last night? Why haven’t I been drinking to help with sleep?

By midnight the bottle was empty, and Li was fast asleep.

 

Li’s headache was harsh the following morning. He was thankful the winter cloud cover blocked the sun from shining into his eyes. The innkeeper Norinaga stopped by to serve a breakfast of buckwheat dumplings and winter melon.

He pointed outside, “You’re leaving tomorrow? In this weather?”

“Tomorrow morning, yes,” Li winced as he sat up.

“A storm is coming in tomorrow. Coming down off the mountain.”

Li nodded, “I’m afraid I don’t have much choice.”

“You can stay for half price if you want. It’s going to be a big storm. Plenty of snow that will stick.”

The innkeeper refilled Li’s teapot.

“Thank you, but I cannot accept.”

Norinaga shrugged, “If you get stuck out there and need to come back. I will save your room. It’s going to be a big one.”

“Thank you.”

The innkeeper wheeled to go.

“Norinaga, do you have any more wine?”

“Of course. Another bottle? Same size?”

“Maybe two, thank you.”

I’ll want some for the road. Something to take the edge off this afternoon, too.

By midafternoon Li was drunk and napping on his cot. When he woke, his nightly meal was cold, and it was very dark. His headache was dull, and he shivered even under his blanket. Li skipped his dinner and carried on sleeping. He would need the rest for the following day.

Norinaga woke Li in the morning. He called from outside the sliding door so as not to startle Li.

“Sir, are you awake? Hot breakfast. Buckwheat dumplings.”

Li sat up and wiped his eyes. He saw the two empty bottles and remembered finishing them before the afternoon had even finished. His headache was back, and his mind was muddled. He could feel that crippling sadness coming on. He would need to get moving before it captured him.

“Thank you, please leave it outside the door.”

“As you wish.”

Li heard Norinaga put the tray down on the floor outside.

“Traveler,” the innkeeper said, “Have you seen the weather?”

Li stood up still naked and walked to the window. He slid open the paper window, and the outside world hit him like a slap to the face. Cold air rushed inside the building, and the outside world was bright and white. Snow fell in thick flurries, and the storm already covered ground in an inch of snowfall. Wind gusts blew the top layer of the snowfall across the road. Only a faint outline of the dirt road remained.

Will the prince meet me in this weather? I need to get going.

“Norinaga, will you prepare my horse, please. I need to go very soon.”

“As you wish. But remember, my doors are open should you—”

“Yes, thank you, Norinaga,” Li cut him off.

I should not be sharp with the man. I need every ally I can get.

“Thank you; the offer means a lot.”

Li heard the innkeeper quietly walk down the hall. He dressed quickly and strapped his blade into his waist. Li did not want to be apart from the blade now. He unpacked his warm wools from his pack and put them on top of his wrap shirt. He wore his cloak over everything else. Li grabbed the dumplings sitting outside his room and ate them on his walk down the stairs that led to the stables. He wiped his hands clean on the cloak. The only noise Li could hear was the rustling of the wind on the building and his own footsteps on the floor.

Sure enough, Norinaga was out in the snowstorm, putting Rou’s tack on in the stables’ open air. Rou slept inside the warm barn overnight but was out of his stall now. Li opened the sliding door to the side yard. The cold hit him in the mouth. Flurries of snow whipped in the air, and his breath poured out of him like hot steam. Li thanked Norinaga and promised him he would return should the weather become too difficult.

 

Li rode straight back through Lord Tamura’s Mountain Province Two, deep into the forest and the mountain villages. It took all morning to reach the campsite where he first met Prince Tamura, and he arrived with only minutes to spare before midday. The weather had eased during the morning hours. The snow stopped, but it left a layer two fingers thick, stuck to the ground. Li looked up to the sky; the storm had not passed.

It will pick up again. Sooner or later.

Li led Rou slightly off the trail into the forest. He still was not sure of the prince’s true intentions.

Is your heart with the girl, or with your father and duty?

If this was a trap, Li knew his only chance was to lose whoever followed in the forest. If he continued on the path, there would be no chance for misdirection.

Li stood next to the colt in the cold. The winds swept up tufts of snow from one side of the clearing and put them down on the other. The forest was very silent. Li had not seen another traveler since entering the forest. Midday came and went, and Li stood waiting. Rou was getting restless, and Li was getting cold, even in his thick wools and cloak.

I might need to take up Norinaga on his offer after all.

Li turned towards the noises from the trail. Rou whined, and Li comforted the animal.

“Quiet boy, quiet now.”

Li listened carefully. Yes, he was sure of it now. Someone was riding down the trail. Li listened but could not tell if it was one horse or many. The riding grew closer.

It must be one rider—hopefully Prince Tamura.

Sure enough, Li watched from his hiding spot as the prince rode out into the clearing alone. Prince Tamura was mounted and fully armored.

“Li?” the Prince cried out, “Li!”

“Here!”

Li stepped back through the frozen brush out into the clearing of the campsite.

Prince Tamura smiled, “Hiding are we?”

“I wasn’t sure.”

“If I’d turn you into my father? Fair enough. The thought crossed my mind, of course. But I couldn’t. I need to see her again.”

“I suppose I don’t have many other options.”

“Don’t tell me the dice you have under your cup, Inspector,” the Prince continued to smile, “Now, how long do you think we have until the weather turns on us again?”

“A few hours, maybe.”

“Agreed. And where are we headed?”

“Oika, to start.”

“Very good, just a short ride from here.”

“Just the next village, correct?”

“Correct.”

“Prince Tamura, does Old Crane’s Road mean anything to you?”

“Of course. It’s the path that cuts east of Oika to the north side of the Great Forest along the mountain. The name isn’t used much anymore, and the path is a bit overgrown.”

“Is it too overgrown to ride?”

The Prince shook his head, “Shouldn’t be, no. The grasses will have died in winter anyhow.”

“Ok, let’s go then. We don’t have much time with this storm front.”

“Right,” the Prince turned his black stallion to the other side of the clearing where the path continues, “let’s ride.”

“After you.”

The two men rode at pace through the forest to Oika. The path was more frozen than damp now. The maple tree branches were barren, giving every part of the trail a view towards the river. Small chunks of ice floated down the still river that meandered through the forest next to the dirt path. The water was still a deep emerald green dotted with white ice, which cut through the sea of white, and brown, and yellow. The thick branches of the maples held dusting of snowfall. A few brown leaves clung to life even in the cold of the tall beech trees Li used for firewood with Wada. The tree trunks protected Li and Prince Tamura from the winter winds, but Li saw the wind’s ripples on the river.

It only took an hour before they made their way to the outskirts of Oika, another small mountain village. It was the same as all the others, with steep triangular thatched roofs and small farming plots. It was only a few hours after midday, but most of the villagers were indoors. Food carts stayed open; their owners wore thick wools under overhangs in the light snow. The prince himself donned a cloak of his own to hide his armor. Li watched the few villagers braving the cold go about their business.

I miss Janlin.

Li and Prince Tamura rode past an open-air forge. Heat emanated from the small building. It was half-concealed to the elements, half-open to the air. Even now, in winter, two workers worked a ripping hot steel forge. It glowed red and orange in the winter air.

“Some of the best, the Nagatanes,” the Prince nodded towards the forge, “Not Father’s favorite, but they made my blade.”

Li watched as they rode past. The pair of workers did not pick up their heads as they continued to work.

“If we find Iko, I’ll buy you one as a gift on the return.”

“If we have time,” Li noted.

They continued down Oika’s main corridor until they reached a small opening in the forest on the far side.

“Here we are, Li,” the Prince pointed towards an overgrown dirt road, “Old Crane’s road.”

Unlike the worn dirt paths that moved from village to village, Old Crane’s Road was unkempt. Branches from trees and plants reached out into the road, partially obscuring the way. Small rocks covered the path. The canopy above kept the ground clean enough, but there was still a light dusting of snow.

“What now?” the Prince asked.

“Twenty kilometers. We’re looking for a wooden sign on the side of the road.”

“Twenty? We better get going.”

Li nodded.

“I hope there’s shelter at the end of this ride, Hu Li. I don’t want to be out in the winter weather tonight.”

The Prince looked up at the sky as if to read the weather.

A man from a castle doesn’t know how to read the clouds.

“Need anything to eat, Prince Tamura? Might be a while before we return.”

The prince looked at the small carts on the side of the town center.

“I’ll be alright, let’s get moving.”

Prince Tamura rode his black stallion at a canter, and Li followed on Rou. By Li’s estimation, they would arrive at twenty kilometers in about another hour without stopping. The ride was silent. Occasionally the prince would call back to see if Li was still with him. Old Crane’s Road had seen better days. Plants reclaimed the dirt path, and the foliage thickened as they went along. Roots surfaced through the dirt across the trail like the legs of sea monsters.

How are we going to find this sign?

Li and the Prince had no way of knowing how far they had been riding down the Old Crane’s Road. It had not yet been an hour, Li knew, but the whole estimation was imprecise. The two had been riding for some time when Li called out to the Prince.

“Prince Tamura!”

The prince turned his head slightly as he rode to show he was listening.

“We should start looking for the sign. It will be small and wooden with a moon.”

“A moon?”

“Yes.”

“Where are you taking me Li?”

“It’s a monastery.”

Prince Tamura slowed his stallion to a trot and stopped. Li circled back on Rou to face him. The young man had his hand on his forehead. He looked off to the side with his eyes closed. His strong jawline clenched.

“What?”

“Nothing. I should have looked there already.”

“You know of it?”

“I’ve never been. I’ve heard of it. I did not know it’s location.”

“What do you know?”

“Monks of an old religion. For centuries many in our empire followed the faith of many gods. The moon goddess was popular among those who practiced the arts of physical or sword combat. In truth, I do not know what goes on in the monastery. My Father made me promise to never interfere with them should I ever come to power. He would not tell me why; it wasn’t clear he knew himself. I thought nothing of it at the time.”

“Prince Tamura, I believe Iko and the girl are there. I believe they found sanctuary in the monastery on the mountain.”

The prince nodded, “I am a fool for not seeing this.”

“Prince Tamura,” Li asked, “How secretive is this monastery? Will the governor’s men find it.”

“If they’re working with my father, it’s only a matter of time before he puts it together.”

“I see.”

Wind swept snow flurries across the two men as they stood in the middle of the overgrown road. Prince Tamura looked up to the sky again.

“Let’s keep moving. Li, watch the right side for the sign. I’ll watch the left side. It should be on the left, don’t you think?”

“Towards the mountain, yes.”

“But better to watch both nonetheless.”

“Agreed.”

Prince Tamura took off at a gallop, and Li noticed his pace quicken. Rou kept up with his stallion admirably.

Good boy. Rest soon, I promise.

 

It was another twenty minutes or so of riding before Prince Tamura spotted the small wooden sign on the left side of the road. Carved into it was a small crescent moon. There was no obvious path with the snow covering the ground, but there was a small opening in the forest ahead of the sign. The opening wasn’t large but enough for Rou and Prince Tamura’s black stallion to clear. Once they were into the woods, the path ahead was clear. The snow cover through the canopy wasn’t as deep, and the way through the trees was clear enough. The men continued to ride as quickly as they could through the forest.

Li looked to his right. A frozen creek meandered along the path. The forest was thick, with more beech trees. Snowfall continued to pile on the ground. And yet, all was quiet as they rode. Neither man spoke a word. The only noises were the horses’ hooves against the earth, their grunts, and the wind that pulled snowflakes around the forest.

Finally, they saw it. Maybe two hundred meters away, down the dirt path, stone steps ascended the mountain. The staircase was straight and orderly. It rose above the ground-level tree canopy and into the thick winter mist and clouds around the mountains.

Prince Tamura slowed his stallion, and Li did the same.

“That’s it.”

Li nodded.

“What now,” Prince Tamura asked.

Li pointed to a fallen tree up ahead, “We can tie the horses up there. If we cover them in blankets, they should be alright for a few hours.”

“And then up the stairs.”

“Right.”

Then men broke back into a trot. It was another fifty meters or so before they dismounted and led their horses to the fallen tree. Li tied Rou up to the trunk and pulled his blanket out of one of his saddlebags. He covered the horse and patted it on the head.

“Just a few more hours, then I’ll find you a warm stall back in Oika. We’ll be done soon.”

Li looked over, and the Prince covered his horse, too.

“Let’s go; they handle the cold better than we do.”

“They’ll be sheltered from the wind by the trees, too.”

“Right.”

The Prince’s eye widened, and he looked over his shoulder.

I hear it too.

Li turned back to look down the path. There was nothing. And yet, he was sure he heard it. He looked at Prince Tamura.

“Riders.”

Prince Tamura looked back at Li, “I didn’t tell anyone.”

“Then they followed you.”

Prince Tamura and Li both looked back down the trail. It was empty. But Li heard it clearly now.

“That is more than one rider.”

“Many.”

Prince Tamura turned and ran through the snow. Li watched him begin the ascent up the stone stairs into the winter mist.

When Li turned back, the riders were emerging from the forest in the distance. They rode single-file and wore green-plated armor.

Guo’s men, not Tamura’s.

Li did not run; he waited for the men to reach him. It was all futile now.

The lead rider halted when he arrived at Li and the two horses. He was an older man, perhaps over forty years. His long black wispy hair and beard blew in the wind. His skin was dark and weathered. His face was broad, with deep brown hollow eyes. His teeth were mismatched and stained. All around him, horses whined and snorted. Hot breath steamed in the air from the men and the beasts.

The lead rider looked down at Li from his grey mount, “Do you know who I am?”

Li shook his head.

“I am Lang Jing,” he spat out to the side, away from Li, “I lead the Governor’s guard.”

Li said nothing.

“And you are Inspector Li?”

Li nodded.

The man looked from Li to the stairs now.

“I suppose we should thank you. You did your job in the end. Out of all the inspectors we hired you’re the only one that turned up anything of value.”

Li looked down the line at Lang Jing’s men: there were at least one hundred. They were all armed in matching green armor.

A full platoon? All wearing armor?

“Governor Guo isn’t happy about what happened with the head servant. And he’s not happy that the rest of his women are missing now too. I suspect he’ll want to speak with you about that.”

The man turned down the line.

“Tie him up with his horses, we’ll pick him up on the way down. Give him a thick blanket; we want him alive, not frozen to death.”

Two men began to dismount, but a voice called from farther down the line of riders.

“I’ll watch him.”

Li glanced down the line. A broad figure rode a large white horse out down the side of the line of riders. He was cloaked and did not wear the green plate like the rest of the riders.

“Wada,” Li whispered under his breath.

“Yes,” Lang Jing said, “The Ox has been most helpful. He followed you out of Fuhua.”

Lang Jing spat again. Lin watched Wada approach.

“He knew you’d come back. He warned us you would.”

Lang Jing whistled and then called out down the line, “Dismount! Find a place to tie up your horse! Proceed as planned!”

Light steel armor clanked as the line of riders dismounted. Li said nothing. Wada stopped just shy of Li and smiled.

“Hello again.”

“Hello.”

Wada dismounted too and tied his white mount to a nearby tree.

“I thought we’d meet again under different circumstances,” Li said.

“That was your decision.”

Lang Jing called to his men, “Ascend the steps, and catch the prince! Find your positions - we advance at nightfall! Remember, the boy is to be brought back alive! I don’t care about the rest!”

A group of soldiers began to sprint up the staircase to run Prince Tamura down.

“Alive?” Li asked Wada, “What are they doing?”

Lang Jing’s green-plated warriors were marching past Li and Wada towards the stone steps. Steel armor continued to rattle, and the horses whined in the cold. Each breath from man or horse made steam when it hit the winter air.

“I imagine there’s going to be a fight.”

“That is unnecessary, it’s only one girl.”

“There are those at Tobe who would see an end to cults like these. The emperor is a descendent of the one true God.”

“The Tamura’s don’t see it that way. Prince Tamura said his father told him never to disturb this monastery.”

“Lord Tamura is outranked.”

“By Governor Guo? How is that even possible. A Daming governor can’t have more friends in the Heguri Empire than a Heguri lord.”

“You would know?”

Li watched the last of the men ascend the stairs.

“And what about you.”

“What about me?”

Li and Wada stood alone with the long line of horses, tied to tall beech trees. Snow continued to fall, blanketing the forest floor in white.

“What about all this,” Li gestured up above towards the monastery, “killing innocents.”

“It is my job to execute orders.”

“You’re not a dog Wada. Call them off.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean why? To prevent a massacre.”

“And then what? What happens then?” Wada walked towards him and lowered his voice, “Li, the monastery is finished, and Prince Tamura is in danger for disobeying his father. But you, you can run. You can still find a way out.”

“You’ll let me go?”

“I’ll say I tripped, and you got away. No one would believe you bested me in a fight.”

“I wouldn’t believe it.”

Wada chuckled, so did Li.

Too many innocents will die tonight.

“I can’t.”

“Li, you need to go, now. You need a headstart.”

“Or what? Governor Guo will kill me? I’m already as good as dead. Zhong Bai and Tao Fu told me as much.”

“So you did help his women escape.”

“They did that on their own; they don’t need me. Wada, I’m going up the steps. Lang Jing said they would wait for nightfall. I’ll blow their cover and give the monastery more time. I’ll give the girl more time. We have a chance to save some lives. Help me.”

Li held out his hand to Wada. Wada didn’t move.

“I thought you they paid you to find the girl. Is the governor’s money no good to you anymore? It was good enough this whole time. Now at the last, you grow a conscience.”

“I’m going up the steps, and you can help me. You’re not a dog, Wada.”

“What do you know about me? Tell me! What do you know about me?”

Wada looked angry now. Li had not seen him like this.

“Who am I, Li! Who am I! Do you know me? Do you know I go into the Xiao Empire to assassinate your countrymen? Do you know I do the dirty work of the Tobe Court throughout our lands? Did you know I kill children if I’m asked? Don’t tell me I’m not a dog. I haven’t been a man in a long time.”

Li stood quiet as the wind blew by the men. Wada held onto the hilt of his sheathed blade.

“I’m worse than a dog. I’m a killer. And you are too, Li. You’re just another dog like me.”

No.

“We can still set this right, Wada. We can set all this right.”

“You think it’s that easy?”

“We can be more than this.”

“You’ll never be more! You whore, you drink. You’re a drunk! I can smell the alcohol on your breath from here! How long was it without me, and you went back to it? I’m less a man just being around you!”

Wada spit his words out like venom through gritted teeth. Hu Li drew his sword.

He’s lost.

Li stood in a defensive stance.

“Walk away, Hu Li. Walk away!”

Li shook his head calmly, holding his stance, “I can not.”

“Please.”

“I can not, Wada.”

Wada drew his sword.

“You’re a fool.”

Li took a few steps backward away from Wada, towards the stone stairs. He watched Wada closely.

He’ll let me go. If there’s any man left in him, he’ll let me go.

Li turned and began to walk towards the steps now. Steel rang in the quiet winter air as Wada drew his sword. Li stopped and looked back.

“I told you, I can’t let you do that.”

“You do as you’re told, I’ll do what I chose.”

Li continued walking.

“Li!” Wada called, “Li run from here!”

Li shook his head.

Li heard Wada move now; he quickly turned to face the oncoming pathfinder. Wada was on him in an instant. Li barely had time to party his first blow. Wada’s weight thrust him backward onto the ground at the foot of the stone steps. Li rolled to the side and sprang to his feet in a defensive position. He was no pathfinder or warrior, but Li knew how to defend himself from years on the road.

“I will kill you,” Wada threatened.

“You do as you’re told, I’ll do what I chose.”

Wada lunged at him again, blade flashing. Li parried blow after blow as Wada cornered him back against the forest. Li could sense the brush getting thicker around him. If Wada could get him off the path and into the forest brush, it would be over. Wada’s attack continued, and Li parried away. If he was going to be on the defensive, he needed the firm footing.

Li feinted to the left and spun right. Wada didn’t fall for it, but it gave him enough time to dodge the blow and spring out behind the pathfinder back onto solid ground. Wada advanced onto him and every impact tired Li more. Li had been on the road all day and drank too much over the past two. He was in no fighting shape.

Is this how I die? Far from home without a friend in the world?

“Let me go, Wada!”

Wada flared his large nostrils as he prepared another attack.

“If you run, I won’t follow!”

Li looked behind him at the row of horses. Wada’s back was to the steps now. Rou was tied up nearby. Li could still make it out of here alive. And yet, he knew he might still have a chance to warn the monastery if Prince Tamura had not made it. It wasn’t nightfall yet.

“What do you think you’ll accomplish, Li?”

Li gritted his teeth.

“Lang Jing has a hundred men, a full platoon. The monastery is full of women. He will already have it surrounded. If you warn them, then what? Nothing changes. We aren’t agents of change. The world happens around us, and we play our part. If we play it well, we’re rewarded.”

You do as you’re told, I’ll do what I chose.

Li advanced on Wada now; his first attack. Wada parried the blow easily and slashed across Li’s thigh. His blade cut deep, and blood spilled onto the white snow. The warm red blood melted the snow exposing the earth below. Li staggered back, and Wada slapped him across the face using the backside of his hand. Li fell and his head snapped back, hitting the ground hard. He reached for the wound on his leg and could not stop himself from crying out. Li’s blade lay on the ground between him and the pathfinder. Wada prowled towards him slowly now and kicked the blade to the side.

“That’s it,” Wada said quietly, “you should have run when you had the chance.”

“At least I made my own choice,” Li replied.

Any fondness for Li in Wada’s eyes fled. He shook his head at Li in disgust.

“Goodbye, Li. You die a pathetic drunk.”

As Wada walked towards Li with his blade ready to deal the killing blow, he stumbled over the thick root of a nearby beech tree. The sword flew from his hand, and Wada fell face-first to the ground. Li grabbed a rock in his left hand and swung over his body onto Wada. Pain shot up his whole body as he moved. Li straddled the back of Wada, who tried to push himself up. He swung his left arm down, connecting the rock to Wada’s temple. Blood spilled out from a crack in Wada’s head, and his body went limp. Li rolled him over, and his eyes were already glazed over as if looking out into the distance.

“No,” Li said, “No, no! Wada!”

He slapped Wada.

“Wake up! Wake up!”

He pulled on Wada’s cloak and shook him with whatever energy he had left. The sharp pain from his wound continued.

“I’m sorry,” Li cried, “I’m sorry, Wada. I’m sorry.”

Li rolled off the Ox and lay next to him in the snow. He removed Wada’s cloak and wrapped it around his wounded leg in a feeble attempt to stop the bleeding. Slowly, Li crawled to the thick base of the nearby beech tree that accidentally saved his life. He sat against its trunk. Winter winds blew snow across the ground, but the two men’s blood stained the snow-white canvas of the forest. Li closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.

 

It was hours before he woke up. Frozen sweat and blood covered Li’s clothing. It was freezing; he could not feel his fingers or toes. It was dark, and Li could not see around him, but he could hear the horses nearby.

The men. They must still be up there.

As Li sat, a flash of white light lit up the sky. It lasted longer than lightning, almost for a minute. He looked out onto the scene of his battle with Wada, now lit by the distant flash. It was a terrible mess of blood. Wada lay stiff, and his skin looked pale in the cold white light.

Li drifted off again.

It was another while before Li woke again. There was a firm grip on his shoulder. Someone was shaking him awake. Li wanted to rise but had no strength. He struggled to stay awake but could feel himself drifting off again.

So many mistakes. So much left to do. Stay awake

“I’m so sorry,” Li stammered, “I was only trying to warn the girl. I was only trying to warn Fei.”

“What did you say?” someone responded.

Li drifted off and hoped it wouldn’t be the end.

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  • Dell Michael Murphy

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