Loghua, Xiao Empire
Cold winds swept over the winter wheat fields of Loghua. It was a dry evening, but recent rains left the fields and dirt roads soggy. Grey skies dampened the colors of the produce and stalls in the market. The beggar was not welcome there; he hadn't been for a long time. And still, he traveled to and from the market each day, searching for hints of mercy from the villagers. Wild dogs took up permanent residence on the market grounds and found more food scraps than the beggar. But the beggar did not mind.
The older man, now well into his fifties, wore his tattered hemp shirt and pants. On dry winter days like this, he wrapped himself in a hemp blanket to keep warm. He fashioned a hood for the blanket many years ago using more hemp, a needle, and thread. Long grey hair spilled out from inside the hood. He had not cut it in years. There was a time when the beggar liked to keep his head bald. As the man walked, his blanket dragged across the mud under his bare feet. The bottom of the cloak frayed over the years, but the beggar did his best to keep it clean.
Even at his age, he was still taller than many in the market, giving him a view over the crowds. As he entered the grounds, many of those around him ignored him or purposefully moved away from him. The beggar paused and looked across the open market towards his old stall. Long ago, a vendor selling fermented black beans and various jars of pickled vegetables replace it. The new booth did well, but not as well as his old stall. There was a time when long lines queued in front of his pot of hot oil.
"Get out of the way!" a woman called as she passed carrying bushels of wheat, a small dog trailing at her heels.
The beggar took a step aside and watched the woman pass.
It's alright. She does not know any better.
The market would not be open for much longer, maybe an hour or two. Some stalls would stay open late selling hot food, lighting their wooden carts with oil lamps. Most would go home as families returned indoors for the night. Black smoke would billow out of chimneys all across the village, and dinner smells would waft into the roads. The beggar never had a family, anyhow, so he did not feel alone. There was nothing to miss.
My life changed, but only the life I show to the world.
"Please step away, sir," a woman asked kindly, beckoning the beggar to move away from her stall.
The beggar smiled at the woman selling broad beans and soybeans.
"My apologies," he bowed his head and turned to leave.
"Beggar," the woman called, "take this."
She tossed him half an orange, the peel still covering most of the flesh. The beggar smiled.
"But please, don't come back. I won't have more for you tomorrow," the woman said sternly.
"Thank you," he said and turned to walk away.
She means well. No one wants to buy from a stall with a beggar nearby.
The woman often tossed the beggar pieces of fruit or vegetable. In return, he tried to steer clear of her stall. She was one of the kind villagers.
The beggar slowly made his rounds, stopping now and then to take free food from generous stall owners. The majority ignored him.
"Shame on you! Get out!" called one old woman selling vegetables.
She'll never let me forget it.
He continued his way but paused in front of the large scorpion banners hanging in the market center. There was a painted portrait of the governor, too. Formerly the governor, the beggar remembered. Armed guards stood next to the banners. The beggar heard they were in every village in the province, now as Governor Guo increased his foothold.
"Move along, old man," one of the plated guards commanded.
The beggar nodded and continued on his way.
By the time the beggar finished his rounds, the sun set on the small river village. Darkness blanketed the market, but the small cook fires and oil lamps spread out around the stalls. The beggar turned to look at his old booth one more time. He missed it. It was one of the happiest times of his life.
The beggar strolled towards his camp. It was on the village's outskirts and required walking into the small forest outside the town. Loghua was one of the plains villages on the rivers of the eastern coast. Small groves dotted the countryside. The beggar had lived in the forest near the village ever since they ran him out of town. He walked along the short dirt path his feet created over the years from walking too and from the village. He reached his clearing at the end of the trail. His home was built into the trees, keeping it off the forest floor. A cookfire burned, and the girl had her feet up in the hemp hammock nearby. A small ball of light danced around her, suspended in the air, lighting the book she read.
"Which story are you reading tonight."
"The seven heroes of the south."
"Ah, very nice."
The beggar put his pack down on the ground near the campsite. There was a pot of water hanging over the fire.
"That's one of my favorites, you know."
The girl smiled, "It's one of my favorites."
"Who's your favorite hero?"
"The Amber Lady, master of the sword."
"You would pick the only woman."
"Well, she's the best."
"Not so. The Amber Lady is the youngest, so she has a lot to learn."
The girl shifted in her hammock, "She's the youngest, so her head isn't full of cobwebs."
The beggar smiled, "I like Master Cui."
"But he's blind."
"He doesn't need his eyes; his other senses are plenty."
"How could he keep up without his eyes?"
"He has ears."
The girl cackled, "Without his eyes, Master Cui would have died in the first battle in the temple. I can't believe that."
The beggar paused for a moment, "Is controlling light with your mind believable? If you can do that, why can't Master Cui hear his enemies approach instead of seeing them."
The girl thought for a moment, "I guess that's right."
She shifted back in her hammock, returning to her book. Her light continued to circle her as she read.
"How is your stomach? No vomit today?"
"You're getting stronger."
The girl snapped her fingers, and the small ball of light shaped liked a fish swam around the campsite.
The beggar smiled, "Well, now you're just showing off."
"You're just jealous that I can do magic," the girl called.
The beggar chuckled to himself.
I guess that's true.
"You don't even know how you can do it."
"The gods give their gifts to the deserving, Uncle."
The beggar rolled his eyes, smiling.
He walked up the treehouse steps to his room and changed out of his clothes. He removed the tattered stained clothes and replaced them with his clean hemp robes. Winter was finally breaking, and spring was returning to Loghua. He would not need more than the robes and the heat from the cook fire. He pulled his hair back into a bun and cleaned the mud off his face.
Quan Tu walked back down the steps to the forest floor beneath him. Chen Meifang still read in the hammock.
"Did you catch anything?"
"Two," Mei pointed over towards the rocks near the fire, "I cleaned them, too."
Tu walked over to the two fish. They were catfish, medium-sized.
"Two for me, but what are you going to eat?"
"Amusing yourself, old man?" Mei called from her hammock, focusing on her book.
"I have cabbage from the market. And a few oranges."
"The water should be boiling soon."
"Are you going to chop the cabbage?"
Mei sighed, "I'm at a good part."
"You can finish it after you chop the cabbage."
The girl hopped down from the hammock, leaving the book behind. As she scampered towards the fire, Tu tossed her a knife. She snatched it from the air mid-stride and started to work on the cabbage when she reached him. The sound of her knife chopping against the wood echoed in the empty campsite. The water over the fire started to bubble up from the heat.
"How many were in your group again, Uncle? More than seven, right?"
"We had almost thirty."
"And you all knew the arts?"
"We did, yes. We were at different levels, of course."
"Did you have a blind master?"
Quan Tu smiled, "No, no. Our master had great eyes. Dark black eyes that saw everything."
"What was he like?"
"Strict. Fair, but strict."
"Was he old like you?"
"I'm not that old."
The girl raised her eyebrows, smiling.
"No, he wasn't old. He was middle-aged."
"What was his name?"
"What about Lady Amber? Did you have any women in your group?"
Tu sighed, "We did. And she was very good with a sword."
Mei stopped chopping and looked up, "Really?"
Behind her, the water continued to boil over the crackling fire.
"How come you never told me?"
"You never asked."
"What was her name."
Quan Tu sighed.
"Was she strong?"
"Very strong. And beautiful too."
"Don't be gross, Uncle."
Tu turned to Mei now, "I loved her. And she loved me too if you can believe it."
Mei's eyes widened, "What happened?"
Tu shifted in his seat on the flat stone by the fire, "Tonight is not the night to discuss sad things."
"There's never a night to talk about sad things. And you brought it up, not me."
Quan Tu stared into the fire quietly.
"Tell me, please, Uncle."
He turned to the girl now, "The day they took your sister. It wasn't the first time I took no action when I needed to. Lady Tao, she was taken from me, too."
Mei watched him.
"She was one of our finest, but the master overlooked her because she was not a man. I was his favorite."
"And you fell for her."
"We all did. She moved like leaves in the wind, and her feet danced like shadows on the wall. They were always a step out of reach when we sparred. All of us wanted her."
"She chose you."
"For some reason."
Tu signaled to Meifang, and she tossed the cabbage into the pot of water. The water raged for a moment before settling back to a steady boil as the cabbage slid into the boiling water.
"My master learned about us. We were all too close. We all lived and trained in the same temple. Secrets did not last long."
"Did he want her too?"
"No. But Master Zhang wanted me. He wanted my attention on our training, that is, not on a girl."
"He believed we could be a force of good in the world through our arts; defend the innocent, all that," Tu threw a stick into the fire, shaking his head, "And he thought she jeopardized that. If he just opened his eyes and realized she was one of our best."
"He doesn't seem that great of a master."
"It was complicated."
"You weren't there."
Mei rolled her eyes.
"He arranged for a wealthy lord to take her in. The lord promised she would join his private retinue. He arranged it all so fast I never had a chance to say goodbye."
"Were you mad?"
"Furious. But Zhang was my master. We were raised to follow orders, to trust without question."
"I always ask you questions."
"And it's better that way."
"But you get tired of my questions."
"It doesn't mean they're not good."
Tu stirred the cabbage in the pot and placed the fish over the fire to cook.
"Word reached back that after the lord saw her, he decided she'd serve better as a concubine."
Mei shook her head, "What is wrong with these lords."
"They have nothing they care about within themselves. They replace the hole in their soul with the pursuit of power and greed. And we, the passionate, pay the price of their games."
They sat quietly for a moment, watching the water boil.
"Did you save her?"
"I tried. When I heard, I broke down. I couldn't stay at the temple any longer. My master wouldn't let me leave; he said I was soft, like steamed bean curd. He said it would go away, the pain in my heart. But I knew it wouldn't. All these years later, I look back and know I was right."
Mei was quiet, watching him.
"I passed myself off as a commoner and, after two seasons, I finally got a job working at the lord's estate. When Lady Tao saw me, she pretended not to know me but passed me a message to meet her in the garden at midnight. I was excited; my heart raced. I daydreamed that afternoon of riding away with her on a horse stolen from a stable. Fighting off some guards on the way out. I decided we'd ride to Fotian and catch a ship to the Autumn Isle."
"The Heguri island?"
"It was disputed back then, but the main port was in the control of a Hulan warlord at the time," Tu flipped the fish, "Their locals inhabit the rest of the island. No one has ever brought the whole island under their thumb, despite the stories different empires will tell you."
"What happened that night in the garden."
"She sent her handmaiden with another note. It said to leave, to forget her. That it was too dangerous. I asked the handmaiden where she lived on the estate, but she wouldn't tell me. So I threatened her life, and eventually, she told me. I ran to the building and scaled the roof. I watched her, sitting in front of a mirror, lit by an oil lamp. She combed her long hair. They dressed her in expensive clothes, and her face was painted. She wore a jade necklace and earrings. I barely recognized her. The door opened, and two guards beckoned her out of the room. It was then or never, and I balked. I didn't move. She left the room, and I sat there on the roof alone."
"I'm sorry, Uncle."
"It's my fault. I should have acted. I should have acted then, and I should have acted to protect your sister."
"It's not over until we say it's over."
Quan Tu smiled at the girl. Her face was severe.
"No. No, I suppose you're right."
Quan Tu woke with the rooster's call at sunrise the following morning. He looked out of his window to the forest canopy below where their chickens roamed around the campsite. The campfire from the night before was smoldering ash. Tu stood up out of bed and put his clothes back on.
"Meifang, are you awake?" he called, stretching.
There was no response.
He walked down the steps from his room to hers, which was only slightly lower in the tree. It was empty.
He looked back down to the canopy below.
"Meifang!" he called.
The campsite was empty.
Did she go into town?
Quan Tu walked back up to her room; her beggar clothes were missing.
She must be heading into the market.
Tu was puzzled. They generally kept her out of the village should she be noticed. Mei was much older than when she disappeared, she wore mud on her face and played the part of a lost girl, but there was always a chance someone would recognize the daughter of Chen Zhi's lost daughter.
Tu put his costume back on and ran down the forest path that led back to the plains. Farmers were out, getting started in their fields for the day. The beggar walked down the dirt road leading back to the market. Steam and smoke already rose from stalls as the village woke and gathered. Tu stopped on the outskirts of the market, looking for Mei. He scanned from the left, where his old stall used to be, to the right, where the animal pens stood. He stopped when he reached the middle. There she stood, standing in front of the painted portrait of Governor Guo painted on the wall.
What are you doing?
The beggar pushed through the growing crowds as he fought his way to the middle of the square. Market-goers moved aside to let him pass, and some called out to him, asking him to leave. All the while, the Quan Tu kept his eyes on the girl. She stood in front of the portrait while the armored guards watched her curiously.
Should I call her?
He kept moving, slowly making it towards her. As he closed in, Mei stepped forward and hurled something against the wall. She covered the portrait in black ink; Governor Guo's face defaced. The soldiers stepped forward.
"What are you doing, street urchin!"
They encircled her. Tu reached for his knives, but they were missing from his belt.
What? No, not again.
He broke out into a run towards Mei.
Not this time.
He was close now, within striking distance. A crowd grew, watching the scene unfold. Mei moved again, and a soldier staggered to her right. He pulled a knife out of his neck, spilling blood onto the dirt ground below. The other soldiers watched in horror as the man fell to his knees before turning back to Mei.
"Skewer her!" the captain called.
Then men rushed her, swords drawn. The crowd backed away, shocked at the violence. Mei stepped aside to avoid the first soldier. He fell after passing her, holding a fatal gash in his neck. The beggar watched as his protege upended the next oncoming soldier with a sweeping kick to his legs before spinning into the next soldier and planting her knife in his eye. She turned and threw the other knife into the back of the neck of the upended soldier struggling back to his feet.
Two soldiers remained, the captain and another member of the guard. They stepped back, afraid of the girl. Slowly Mei pulled the beggar's two knives out of the necks where they stood embedded into the flesh. The market was quiet, waiting for the girl's next move.
"Do you know who I am?" she asked the two soldiers.
"Step back, girl; we'll cut you down."
Mei gestured to the bodies behind her, "Are you sure you want to take your chances?"
The men held their ground, snarling in their green armor.
"I need a messenger. Will either of you deliver a message to Governor Guo for me?"
"He is not your Governor; he is your rightful Emperor. We will kill you, girl, step away," snarled the captain.
Mei flashed her light into his eyes. The captain staggered backward, clawing at his face. He dropped his sword.
"I can't see! You bitch!"
The other soldier watched as Mei threw one of the knives into the captain's neck. Blood spilled out onto the ground, where he fell. The crowd gasped.
The last soldier turned to run.
"No," Mei called.
The man stopped and slowly turned.
"Do you know who I am?"
The man shook his head as Mei approached.
"You wouldn't. Can you deliver a message to our governor?" she laughed, "Sorry, our emperor."
"Yes. Yes, I can. Please just let me live. I have a family."
"I'll let you live, but not because you have a family. Not because I have mercy. I let you live because I need you."
The man nodded.
"Your master took my sister from me. Then his men, scum like you, dogs who only know how to follow orders, dogs who can't think for themselves; his dogs took my brothers and my father from me. I hold him responsible for my mother's death, too."
"I'm sorry, please—"
"Quiet," the man closed his eyes and lowered his head as she spoke, "Tell the governor he didn't finish the job. Tell the governor that Chen Meifang, sister of Chen Fieyan, daughter Chen Zhi is still alive. Tell the governor that I'm coming for him. Tell the governor that this isn't over until I say it is. Tell the governor I will be the last thing he sees before I deliver him to the afterlife."
The market was quiet. All eyes were on the girl and the guard. The guard slowly raised his head to look at Mei.
He turned and ran for his horse. It was only a moment before he was galloping down the road, heading west.
Mei turned, seeing Quan Tu standing there in the crowd. She walked over to him. The crowd was quiet.
"When'd you learn to throw knives?"
"When you weren't looking."
Mei smiled, "Come, Uncle, we have work to do."