Author’s note: A shoutout to Alex, my latest Patron! Thank you so much for your support!
I’m sorry about missing Friday’s chapter. I went to the doctor on wednesday, and he told me I tore something in my throat from all the coughing, which is why it swelled up so much. Between the antibiotics and cough syrup, I was pretty out of it for the last few days, and still kinda foggy atm. It’ll probably last till friday, when my meds run out. I can’t promise a steady schedule, since this chapter took me four days to write, but I’ll try my best. All this drama over something so simple, I feel old and feeble .
Thanks for your patience, hope you enjoy the chapter.
Appearances can be deceiving.
Take for example the pale-skinned, raven-haired, green-eyed beauty Han BoLao. At first, she seemed little more than a busty socialite, with impeccable manners and an angelic laugh. Making her way through the room, she had a kind word and soft touch for everyone she met, nothing like her reputation. Realizing her name was a homonym for her moniker, Shrike, I almost tricked myself into thinking she was nothing more than the victim of overblown rumours. I mean, I know better than most how far-fetched those can get.
Though ignorance may be bliss, it was impossible to remain ignorant after BoLao slammed her fist down and demanded the Purge begin immediately, unwilling to delay a minute longer than necessary. Sitting calmly at the head of the table, the fervour in her eyes and smile on her face sent a shiver through my body, her focus elsewhere as if already planning the horrors she would inflict. Extremism is a terrifying thing to see in action, the guilt of the villagers decided after mere seconds of contemplation.
If I brought up ‘innocent until proven guilty’, the best case scenario would be a few laughs and jeers. They’d probably lock me away for being a madman.
Though I know Baledagh had no choice but to report the Defiled outbreak, I feel sick to my stomach after giving our testimony, as if everything which follows is now my fault. He seems indifferent to it all, once again reaffirming my belief that he fits in better than I ever will, able to accept the logic behind mass murder. Listening to Yuzhen impassively explain how she plans to carry it out isn’t helping. Encircling the civilians, driving them towards the lake, gathered in droves to be tortured and executed en masse, it all seems so surreal.
It’s not enough to kill, no that’d be nothing more than murder. They need proof of corruption, of Defilement, and what better proof than the corpse of a newly turned Demon? It’s a twisted, backwards logic which everyone accepts without batting an eye, the deaths a foregone conclusion, a mere statistic not worth caring about. Worst of all, at her request, I’ve been assigned to BoLao’s detail, which means I can’t even bury my head in the sand. The more time I spend out in the world, the more I never want to leave home again. Then again, home is now the Bridge for me, and I can’t say for sure if it’d be better there.
The meeting over, I hurry out the door for a breath of fresh air and much-needed solitude. The cavalier atmosphere is unreal, making me doubt my sanity. How can these people be so callous? Not a single one of them seems sorrowful, many even excited by the prospect of Demons, eager to carry out their ‘civic duty’ and receive recognition for their efforts. It’s disgusting.
“Warrant Officer Falling Rain?” An unfamiliar voice calls out and Gerel shoots me a look, warning me to play nice before going on his merry way. Turning around, I see Dastan Zhandos, the Warrant Officer from Sanshu, saluting in greeting. “If I may have a moment of your time.”
Ugh. What now? I’ve never spoken to him before, why does he want to talk now? “Is this important? I’ve pressing matters to attend to.”
“A few minutes is all I ask for, please.” Handing me a sealed letter with both hands, he waits for me to read it.
Skipping all the flowery greetings, I jump to the heart of the matter. Essentially, the Council is offering me a substantial reward for my testimony against Yuzhen. Raising an eyebrow at Dastan, I drop all pretenses and toss the letter to the ground. “Are you serious? We’re about to embark on a slaughter of tens of thousands and you want to play politics? You just heard what I’ve been up during my absence and you still think I have something to do with the Mother’s Militia?”
Blanching as he backs away, Dastan holds raises his hands in a placating gesture. “My apologies, I was unaware of the contents, I was only asked to pass the message along and hear your response.”
“Well here’s my response: I don’t give a shit about the Council. My actions have all been in service to the Empire. I hunted bandits because it was the task assigned by the Marshal himself. There was no deeper plot or devious scheme, and if my actions inconvenienced the Council, then good. Fuck them, they tried to have me killed for doing my job.” Spitting to the side, I wave him away, barely able to keep myself from punching him. “Excuse me, I have to go prepare to slaughter thousands of helpless citizens.”
Stomping back to my campgrounds, my anger subsides as I brush and harness Mafu, the fat quin too excited to stand still. Maybe I should have been more diplomatic with Dastan, but fuck him. Of all the people here, I would have thought he’d be the most sympathetic considering his humble origins. Instead, he’s running around playing messenger for ignorant, self-absorbed fat-cats, caring nothing for the plight of the citizens.
Hugging Mafu for comfort, I bury my face in his thick fur. I’m not really angry at Dastan for not doing anything. There’s nothing he can do, and there’s nothing I can do either.
The Purge is here, and nothing short of Divine Intervention will stop it.
And lucky me, I get a front row seat, standing beside the architect of it all, Han BoLao.
Like a pall draped across his chest, Zian’s gloomy disposition billowed around him as he sat atop his stallion. An unfamiliar sensation permeated his very being as he rode through the forest, its ice cold grip unyielding as it squeezed his chest, leaving him no different from a living corpse. Seeing Falling Rain display his purity through channelling an intense torrent of chi, palpable even from a distance, left a sour taste in Zian’s mouth, his world gone grey from a single display of overwhelming talent.
From birth, Zian never lacked the finer things, whether it be wealth, education, or women, he only needed to show interest and it would all be laid at his feet. Gifted beyond compare, he’d found Enlightenment at seven, Balance at eight, grasped the basic Forms by ten and demonstrated expertise by fifteen. The greatest warriors in the Northern and Central provinces vied amongst themselves to take him as disciple, arriving in droves for the chance prove themselves worthy. Only Mother’s strict requirements and Zian’s adamant desire to follow his heroic Uncle Yang kept him from choosing a master, but even without guidance, his comprehension and skill improved in leaps and bounds. Winning the Society’s Competition was simple as turning over his palm, an anticlimactic disappointment to a young man thirsting for challenge.
A challenge he only found in fighting his elders. For two years after the Contest, he’d remained at the Headquarters and sparred endlessly against anyone who would accept, seeking guidance from the older generation, some twice his age. Though he met with defeat time and time again, he continued seeking out new opponents to temper the two-sword style left behind by his father, the original manuscript tattered from his years of study. As he grew in age, his skills stagnated while the rivals of his generation nipped at his heels, but not for long. At the tender age of twenty-three, in a quiet session of contemplative meditation after an intense spar, Zian condensed his Aura for the first time, firmly fixing his position as the greatest young talent of the Northern Province.
By any measure, Zian was a dragon among men, like his Uncle and Father before him, so why did a blessed Son of Heaven like himself harbour these feelings of insignificance and dissatisfaction? How did it all go so wrong? A single defeat and all he’d built up was gone, no face, no reputation, and now no confidence.
Situ Jia Zian, a rising dragon, swatted down by a simple barbarian, Falling Rain.
Or perhaps not so simple. Reaching into his robes, Zian pulled out his new pocket-watch, a gift from Falling Rain. Hands trembling, his fingers ran over the multiple gemstones set in the beautifully embossed cover. A master’s work, the tiny timepiece was worth a veritable fortune but he cared little for the value, his mind fixated on the message engraved within: To the Magistrate of Shen Yun, ten-thousand years of longevity and fortune. A common enough salutation, yet it had him tossing and turning in bed for hours, unable to parse the connotation, the significance, the implication. It was well-known he was next in line to become Patriarch of the Situ Clan, so if Falling Rain sought to earn favour, why address him as ‘Magistrate’? A simple mistake or was there a deeper meaning? A subtle threat, warning him to distance himself from the Society?
Was it all an act? Which best described Falling Rain, uncivilized fool or cunning genius? Whichever he was, he now rode head of the procession in a position of honour, likely chatting amicably with the Shrike and Major Yuzhen. Rain’s star rose while Zian’s faded into bitter obscurity, bathing in clouds of dust here at the tail end of the column
“Young Master.” Jukai’s soft voice shook him from his stupor. Glancing at his second, Zian blinked as the world came into focus, the older man gaze filled with concern as they rode side by side. “There is no need to measure yourself in comparison to others. Their accomplishments do nothing to diminish your own.”
“Do they not though?” Zian disdained his memories of fawning sycophants praising him, disgusted at himself for letting it all go to his head. “Who still speaks of Situ Jia Zian if not to mock him for his loss? Since then I’ve trained harder than ever, wholly dedicating myself to the Martial Path, yet Falling Rain easily surpasses me while idly passing his days with his women and his pets!”
“Is the measure of a man’s worth determined by the gossip mongers? This lowly one has seen the depths of Young Master’s efforts and passion and knows the truth. Might he offer his humble advice?”
Something snapped inside him. “Enough of your fawning, it sickens me. You’re a Colonel but I’ve yet to see you act the part. Refer to yourself as lowly once again and I’ll order you whipped and discharged from my service. Speak freely with no more snivelling.”
Smiling happily as if he’d been called ‘grandfather’, Jukai nodded. “Alright then.” Adopting the air of a gruff tutor, he loosened his collar and continued. “Only through recognizing one’s flaws can one hope to achieve perfection. A peerless genius might never know defeat, but the greatest heroes will taste it a thousand times before rising.”
Zian’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “So should I thank the barbarian for defeating me? Seems I’m now on my way to becoming a great hero.”
“Perhaps in time you will. Thank him that is, though only in your heart and never openly. You’re much too proud for that.”
Facetious ass. Whatever, it was a marked improvement over boot-licking. “Explain. What flaws? My technique is near perfect and only your superior physique and decades of experience keep me from defeating you. Given time I will match you and even defeat you, though perhaps not in physical prowess; my slim stature is ill-suited to head on clashes.”
Jukai even had the audacity to roll his eyes. “Is that your conclusion? A simple calculation and you believe yourself unable to defeat me? Is strength so rigid and unbending? Then let me ask you: how did Falling Rain, inferior to you in technique, physique, and age, defeat you?”
Glaring daggers at Jukai, Zian kept himself from lashing out in anger, steadying himself with several slow breaths. “Tread lightly.”
Unfazed by his anger, Jukai continued without a care in the world, oblivious to the fact Zian was considering having him caned. “It’s a simple question. Have you not given it any thought?”
Only every waking moment. “The barbarian whelp got lucky.”
“Don’t sell yourself short, it takes more than luck to defeat you, though I’ll admit the boy had his fair share.”
“You watched the duel?” At Jukai’s nod, Zian hesitated before asking, “Your thoughts?”
Without preamble, Jukai answered. “You should have won, nine times out of ten. Which makes it all the more important to reflect on how and why you lost. You know why you lost, right?”
This audacious upstart of a Colonel… His voice dripping with sarcasm, Zian replied, “Pray tell.”
Shaking his head, Jukai grimaced. “The frailty of genius, unable to accept criticism. In my eyes, genius and talent are worthless. With all due respect, your Uncle Jia Yang was no genius in his youth, overshadowed by many of his peers. Through hard work, dedication, and skillful diplomacy, he now stands a step below the pinnacle, while those geniuses of yesteryear are little more than ashes scattered to the wind.”
A forlorn look overcame the old codger, silently mourning the past until Zian impatiently hurried him on. “Yes, he’s incredible, enough flattery, get to the point. How did Falling Rain defeat me?”
Sighing, Jukai scratched his beard.“Honestly, this is the sort of conclusion you should make on your own. You’re not going to like hearing it.”
“Fine, I’m getting up there in years anyways.” Jukai was well prepared for this conversation, the reasons flying from his mouth. “He didn’t defeat you, you defeated yourself. You watched him fight three times before your match. Two matches he won cleanly, easily countering his over-aggressive opponents. In comparison, against a less skilled slave who fought defensively, he struggled, even losing a foot in the process. Seeing all this, you should have realized Falling Rain is better at staying alive than he is at killing. The appropriate response would have been to take your time and distance yourself, using your range to force him on the offensive and wear him down. Instead, you did the reverse. You fought in close quarters combat like a fool and played to his strengths.”
While Zian contemplated having the man dismembered, Jukai continued to prattle on, unaware of the danger. “Your fighting style is perfect, but too perfect. By always acting in the optimal manner, it allows your opponent to read you like an open book. Falling Rain instinctively guarded his most vulnerable areas and you went after them like an idiot. It’s not your fault entirely, you’ve been called a genius all your life because you could emulate the Forms without flaw, yet you’ve no mastery over them. The Forms are a guideline, musical notes on a sheet. Young Master is an excellent musician but to rise above your peers, you must learn how to compose.”
Unable to speak for anger, Zian continued riding in silence. No matter how he approached the argument, he found no suitable retort, no hole in Jukai’s logic. Though it was Uncle Yang who ordered him to end things quickly, Zian should have realized it was mounting rage and frayed nerves speaking. The more he mulled it over, the more he came to appreciate Jukai’s insight. Though the criticism hurt, as the old Colonel said, it was important he realized these flaws.
Perfection his flaw, how fanciful and absurd. Fitting though, for a man of his standing. In search of the pinnacle, he’d blinded himself to the truth, that perfection was a matter of perspective. The optimal course was also the obvious one, and therefore no longer optimal. A curious dilemma. Swallowing his pride, he turned to Jukai and asked, “So how do I learn to ‘compose’?”
Smiling proudly, the old Colonel sighed in relief. “Oh good, thought I destined for the rope. Terrible way for a warrior to go.”
“Haha. As to how to compose, I can’t teach you. A tiger teaching a dragon to hunt will only hinder the dragon, for a tiger has no wings. Every individual must forge their own Martial Path, step by arduous step, and only then will they reach the apex. Be critical of your own work, explore new options, practice, sweat, bleed, and given time, your personal style will take shape. I can criticize though, so prepare yourself. Your movements are too inflexible…”
While Jukai continued to expound on the Martial Path, Zian listened intently, committing every word to memory. Though Uncle was an incredible man, he was not without flaws, unable to voice his thoughts as simply as Jukai, the old Colonel delivering succinct yet profound advice with every sentence. Even in sparring, Zian felt he learned much from Jukai’s guidance while Uncle never stepped in personally. An almost heretical thought surfaced and though he tried to suppress it, it continued to float about in his mind, stirring up waves of guilt within him.
Perhaps Zian had erred in taking Uncle as his Master. The best teachers might not always be the strongest individuals. Either way, the time for self-pity was over, and though he’d lost his place as the number one talent of his generation, it mattered not.
No matter what obstacle lay within his path, Situ Jia Zian would reach the apex, standing taller than any before him.
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