Dragon Gates

 

The workmen paused at the approach of two travelers, straightening to lean momentarily on their hoes and rakes. It was prudent to be cautious of all strangers on the road, particularly these days. The approaching man was huge – too big for any horse. But it was the rider that caught their eye. She was small and wore the purple sash of an Adept.

One of the workers called over his shoulder to his boy. “Kan Lim, run like the wind. Tell everyone an Adept approaches.”

Normally the arrival of an Adept would be cause for celebration. People would come in from far and wide to seek help, be it for finding lost items, lifting a curse, or tending to the sick – either animal or human. Now, with a rogue Adept on the loose, a more cautious attitude was warranted.

As the boy ran off the Adept turned her attention their way and said something to the giant at her side. The big man looked over toward them and shrugged.

~

“See,” Lia Yong said to Dahan, “they are frightened here too.”

Dahan looked over to the men in the field and shrugged. A boy, no more than ten years old, was running for all he was worth toward the village of Ud Watan. As long as they were not advancing wielding their tools as weapons he was not too concerned. He’d rather not have to hurt anyone.

“He must have been through here,” she said.

A month ago her old herb master dropped in unexpectedly at her apothecary. They chatted amicably about old teachers and friends, he always probing, she always dancing around the subject of Min Lee. She was still furious with Min for stealing her sash, the badge that marked her a proper Adept, and for breaking her heart. She could not explain to herself why she suddenly had a deep urge to protect him. After what he did he deserved nothing from her.

At length Master Yi asked her outright if she had seen Min Lee. Her impulse was to lie, to deny seeing him since leaving school, but she found she could not lie – not to Master Yi. She loved him like a father.

They now approached yet another village that was wary of unknown Adepts. The stories were rampant, though largely exaggerated. Yet someone wearing the sash of an Adept was wreaking havoc on the western roads. Wells went bad. Livestock died without explanation. Two months ago, just a week before Master Yi arrived, a hunting party was found dead in the hills near Simke. They had torn each other limb from limb as if possessed. Each time an unidentified Adept had been reported in the area. She glanced around at the surrounding tree clad hills and prayed it was not Min Lee.

~

She balked when Master Yi asked her to find Min Lee, to bring him back to Xueshi Shang.

“You think he’s done these terrible things?” Tears flowed freely down her cheeks.

Master Yi laid his hand on hers, held her with his rheumy blind eyes. “I do not. Search your heart, Lia. Do you?”

She shook her head, no.

“Then we must clear his name.”

“I can’t leave my apothecary, the village needs me…”

“I shall tend it.”

“But the roads are full of bandits…”

“I have a companion. He knows Min Lee. They hunted together.”

~

The men in the hostel gave way when Dahan entered allowing Lia to follow in his wake. The hosteler meekly agreed to let them two adjoining rooms and board the horse, though he shot wary glances Lia’s way. No one in the room was willing to speak with them. They drifted away in ones and twos until the commons were left all but deserted. Finding information in this town would be next to impossible.

A woman rushed in, followed by her husband who admonished her mightily. When the man laid eyes on Lia he fell silent. The woman approached Lia with a look of desperation in her eyes.

“My girl… she’s only three. She has the fevered cramps…”

“I am a healer.”

The woman’s face flickered with hope.

~

The child slept peacefully, the fever broken.

“Yes,” the father said as they sat round the tiny fire at the center of the mud hut. “A man like that was here not three weeks ago. But he was a huntsman, not an Adept.”

“He carried a bow?” Dahan asked.

“A great bow.” The man nodded. “We were too frightened to turn him away. We gave him water and a crust of bread. He spent the night.” He jerked his chin toward the back of the hut. “The next morning he left, then came back with a brace of quail.” The man smiled at the memory.

“We ate good for a week,” the woman said.

Lia Yong exchanged a look with Dahan. At last, they had a lead on Min Lee.

 

It was an unusual weekend for me. Not the Father’s Day part, that was pretty well expected – though the girls did an excellent job of keeping me in the dark as to the gift. No, the unusual part was that I had no #FridayFlash this weekend, despite my good intentions. I did sit down to write one, but the story I intended to write kind of got away from me. There is both good and bad in that.

The bad is, obviously, I did not post a #FridayFlash. This marks the first time I missed one in over two years. But two plus years is a pretty good run so I’m not feeling particularly bad about it. I’m not giving up #FridayFlash, you’d have to pry it from my cold dead fingers. I just no longer feel compelled to crank one out every single week. My approach now will be to do one when it happens, and to take the time concentrate on some of my other writing.

That brings me around to the good.

That story I was working on? It was another Dragon Gates tale. You may remember them – they feature the wayward wizard, Min Lee. Friday night I was spinning more of that saga when a familiar feeling came over me. I realized I was once again in a mood for a novel.

This feeling has been building. Min Lee and his compatriots have been banging around in my head for well over a year now. Friday Night something clicked. The unifying theory that holds all the stories together as a whole finally gelled.

The upshot of all this is that my #FridayFlash took on a life of its own Friday night and is now well on its way to a novel. Not page-count-wise, but conceptually. I only wrote 1200 words Friday, but it was enough to hash out most of the motivations and plot lines for nearly all of the diverse characters involved. That, my friends, is a very good thing.

So, I’ll be working on Dragon Gates pretty seriously for a while. I’ll still post a flash when I have one. I’ll still do the #FridayFlash Report each week. If you’re wondering where it is, I took Father’s Day off, but I’ll have it up tomorrow. If you were hoping for a bit of fiction from me, I added links to all the other Dragon Gate stories. If you’ve missed some of them drop in and catch up.
~jon

Related posts:

Serpent
Tangled Webs
Unproven
Tiger
Commencement
Departing Gift

 

Shan Tzu sat in the shade of the building watching the coachman struggle to get the lead horse under control, the faintest smile played across his lips. Baggage sat half loaded – two trunks on top yet to be tied down, three on the ground yet to be hoisted aloft. One large case, made of fine teak, lay broken on the ground, expensive clothing spilled out into the grime of the street. The owner of the case, a portly man dressed in well cut linens, berated the footman who scrabbled in the dirt trying to gather up the contents as quickly as possible. The poor lad had dropped the heavy case when the lead horse unexpectedly spooked, jerking the coach wildly in its panic.

Ti Hoc came out of the station and stood next to his friend. “What? I thought we would be ready to go.”

Shan Tzu glanced up at Ti, an act which broke his concentration. The horse immediately calmed. The coachman patted the poor beast, still befuddled as to what could have gotten into the animal, and yelled at his boy to hop to it and finish with the baggage. Ti Hoc glanced down at Shan Tzu, suspicious, but said nothing.

Sufficiently amused Shan stood, stretched, and gave the poor footman a disdainful look. “Be careful with my case,” he admonished. “It’s the small black one, you clumsy oaf.” He looked at Ti, shrugged, and climbed into the cab. He was very glad to finally be leaving Xueshi Shang, where he had been forced to study his youth away. He would not miss it and looked forward to his return to Shulin Dong and his long anticipated reunion with his cousin Cao.

Shan Tzu settled into his seat contemplating that reunion. He should bring his cousin a gift to celebrate his return, something on the order of the parting gift he had given that twit, Quan Li. He glanced over at Ti Hoc, who settled just across from him. When the footman slammed the door behind the last passenger to board Shan Tzu sat back and laughed out loud.

~

Master Mo Shuh cocked his head, a worry line creasing his brow. Someone was running down the great hall, behavior strictly forbidden. He set down his pen just as the shouts started. A girl’s voice filled with panic – was that Li Na?

“Master Mo Shuh, Master Mo Shuh! Come quick!” He was in the act of standing when she burst into his office unbidden. “It’s Quan Li! Please, come quick!”

They ran to the girl’s dormitory together, Mo Shuh only able to get fragments of confusing explanation on the way. Something about a snake, and Quan Li bitten. Was there no end to the poor child’s misfortunes?

The room was crowded, anxious students gathered near the door, two groundsmen milled about, and three Rhetors attended Master Yi, who was bent over the prostrate and ashen form of Quan Li. Great dread overtook Mo Shuh as he approached the bed.

“What happened?” Mo Shuh asked of no one in particular.

A groundsman prodded the floor near the head of the bed with the tip of his spade, drawing Master Mo Shuh’s eye. A spotted pit viper lie there, dead – it’s head nearly severed. Mo Shuh knelt, but it was hopeless, not a glimmer of xin remained. There was no way to know who did this, for once the spirit was completely gone so too were all ties to the bindings that brought this serpent into the dormitory –for it surely had not entered unbidden.

Mo Shuh turned to his healing master.

“She lives,” Master Yi informed him without pausing in his ministrations. “It was a close thing.”

Li Na stood off from the bed, trembling, tears running down her cheeks. Quan Li was her roommate and best friend. Master Mo Shuh rose and wrapped Li Na in a comforting and grateful embrace. Her quick thinking, running for Master Yi while still sending groundsmen to deal with the snake, had probably saved Quan Li’s life. He turned toward the door and gestured dismissal to the gathering crowd. “You have readings to study. Go. Quan Li will be fine.” He only hoped it was so.

~

When Quan Li opened her eyes she found blind Master Yi sitting at her bedside. He sensed her state, and smiled.

“You gave us a scare,” he said, reaching out to stroke her forehead. “Good, the fever is gone.”

She glanced about, frightened and confused. Oh yes, this was the infirmary. She looked down to where her right hand lay wrapped and cradled on her stomach. Memories flooded back.

“I am afraid your two smallest fingers are ruined,” Master Yi told her. “I did all I could.”

She tried to lift her hand but could not.

“You are still very weak. Please do not exert yourself. If you are hungry I can send for some soup.”

Quan Li shook her head, then for the Master’s benefit whispered, “No.”

“Do you remember what happened?” He was asking her if she knew who had done this to her.

She closed her eyes and once again saw the brown speckled snake strike out at her hand as she turned down the sheet. There was a flash of the bindings guiding it – the sneering face of Shan Tzu. She would never see another snake without seeing him.

She simply turned her head away and eventually drifted back into troubled sleep.
~
© 2011 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

 

Shan Tzu stood like the rest in the long silent row, side by side his fellow students, head bowed in the sign of respect. Not ten paces before them Master Mo Shuh droned on about the gravity of accepting the purple sash they were about to don. With their knowledge came great power – with great power, terrible responsibility. They must use that power with care.

Shan Tzu just wanted the old fool to finish this farce of a ceremony so he could at long last walk through the Dragon Gates wearing the sash of an Adept. For seven long years he had been away from home, sequestered in this forsaken valley on the whim of his uncle, Lord Kan Ho Tzu. Lord Tzu’s son, Cao, had taken a dislike to him so here he was sweltering in the midsummer heat, listening to the same fool he had out smarted oh these many years.

He let his mind drift, let the voice fade, and listened to the world about instead. Behind, in the gardens, he heard a different droning – that of the bees in their daily labor, collecting pollen. He smiled. Yes, why not?

He centered his self, his being, on the sound of one bee. He sensed it drifting from hyssop to chamomile, its pollen sacks nearly full, almost ready to return to the hive. Shan Tzu had other plans. He blocked out all other sound, heard only that one bee.

He felt it drift away from the chamomile suddenly without purpose. It hovered aimlessly for a moment, then turned toward the parade ground. Shan Tzu and the bee became one. He then envisioned Master Mo Shuh, his long yellow robes, his bare ankles just under the hem. The bee took flight.

Then the bee was gone. Shan Tzu faltered, nearly stumbled, groping to find it. He yelped when it stung him on his ass.

His classmates snickered when he jumped. He looked up briefly to see Mo Shuh droning on as if nothing had happened. Beside him blind Master Yi held the purple sashes. It seemed to Shan the blind man was looking right at him with a slight smile playing on his mottled lips.

Mo Shuh at last fell silent, then stepped forward to present each student, one by one, with a purple sash.
~
© 2011 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

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Serpent
Min Lee sat on the hard wooden bench, head bowed in shame. He did not look up as people approached, tried to ignore the whispers after they passed. Every sound in the Great Hall, even the most remote and inconsequential, sounded loud to his ears. He could hear his very pulse pounding behind his ears. Then he heard the sound he dreaded most—the click of the latch on the Master’s door. Read more…

Tangled Webs
The hills were rife with bandits. Min Lee knew a fire was dangerous – they attract attention. But he was freezing. A steady northwest wind cut through his inadequate clothing. The sky threatened snow. Of freezing to death, or facing bandits, he’d take his chance with bandits. He began gathering wood. Read more…

Unproven
Min Lee pulled the bowstring back to full draw, concentrating on his target, a blackened X scrawled on a dead oak tree some fifty yards from the door of his hovel. He had worked on the bow for months, learning patience in his first two failed attempts. Lacking the tools of Master Ong’s workshop, with only his knife to work with, this bow was long in coming. Read more…

Tiger
Dahan crouched uneasily. A big bear of a man, he did not like crouching. He watched the newest member of their hunting party with a mixture of skepticism and awe. So far he had seen damned little that warranted the purple sash the fellow wore. Still, he had to admit their luck had increased dramatically ever since Hon Tau invited the young Adept to join them. The man may not possess much in the way of magic, but he was deadly accurate with the bow. Read more…

 

Dahan crouched uneasily. A big bear of a man, he did not like crouching. He watched the newest member of their hunting party with a mixture of skepticism and awe. So far he had seen damned little that warranted the purple sash the fellow wore. Still, he had to admit their luck had increased dramatically ever since Hon Tau invited the young Adept to join them. The man may not possess much in the way of magic, but he was deadly accurate with the bow. They would have to go to Chaun Cha soon just to relieve the pack animals of the weight of the salted meat and pelts.

Min Lee rose from his blind and waved off his companions. The doe sensed his movement and burst from the brush, directly towards Dahan. “Oy! Hold! Hold!” Min Lee shouted. Dahan let loose his bowstring and the arrow flew straight and true. The doe stumbled, buckled once, regained her feet, then stumbled a second time, not to rise again.

“You nearly ruined my shot,” Dahan complained as the four men gathered round the fallen doe.

“I didn’t want you to shoot. She is carrying fawns.”

Dahan shuffled his feet, somewhat abashed. “I didn’t know.” Now, looking at the animal laying dead on the ground, it seemed obvious she was swollen with young.

“We can do nothing now,” Min Lee said. He drew his hunting knife and began field dressing the deer. As he expected she carried two, now still, fawns.

~

Much to Min Lee’s relief the Emperor’s banner did not fly over Chaun Cha. Still, he was wary and on guard the entire time they were within the city walls. Since his expulsion from Xueshi Shang, and his terrible betrayal of Lia Yong some weeks later, he tried to avoid cities – too much chance he might be recognized by someone and turned in. The petty thievery was of little importance, warranting a public lashing at most. The theft of the purple sash of an Adept on the other hand – he hated to think what trouble that would bring down upon his head. As far as he knew it was a crime wholly unique to himself. They had certainly never been lectured about any such incident while he was at the school.

They left Chaun Cha with heavy purses, and none too soon as far as Min Lee was concerned. After buying new supplies, including salt to last a month, there was still enough money for a tidy four-way split. Min Lee’s purse had not been so full since leaving Xueshi Shang. At last he had nearly enough to buy a horse. One more month of hunting… For now he was content to lead the pack mules. Of the four, only Hon Tou and Shòu Lan had horses, poor specimens though they were. Dahan claimed there was no horse alive that would tolerate his size, and was probably right. The hunting party never moved faster than Dahan’s slow yet steady pace.

Twice during the day’s march Min Lee noticed Shòu Lan looking at him askance. Both times when he caught his eye the man looked quickly away. He saw the glance again over the campfire as they ate. Shòu Lan, usually Dahan’s foil, seldom responded to the big man’s jibes. A sense of unease settled on Min Lee.

He heard whispers. Min Lee forced his breathing to remain steady, feigning sleep. He concentrated on the hushed voices, blocking out all other sounds, drawing them out of the darkness around them.

“… rogue mage on the loose.” Shòu Lan – barely whispering.

“I don’t know…” Dahan seemed skeptical of his friend’s words.

“Keep your voice down,” Shòu Lan hissed. “If the stories are true… kill us with…”

“He’d never do that.”

“…the reward…”

Min Lee heard enough. His bow lay at his side, as always. His kit neatly bundled by his head. He cast his thoughts outward, to the picket line – the horses, the mules. Tiger. He envisioned a tiger creeping through the woods. Tiger. Hungry. One of the horses whinnied nervously. He envisioned a tiger crouched, ready to pounce. Hunger! The horses began to rear, the mules to buck in fright.

“The horses!” Hon Tou cried, throwing his blanket off. “To the horses, quick!”

They found nothing wrong, of course, but it took some effort to calm the spooked beasts.

When they came back to the campfire the young Adept was gone.
~
© 2010 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

Related posts:

If you enjoyed this story you may enjoy previous tales of Min Lee:
Serpent
Tangled Webs
Unproven

 

Min Lee pulled the bowstring back to full draw, concentrating on his target, a blackened X scrawled on a dead oak tree some fifty yards from the door of his hovel. He had worked on the bow for months, learning patience in his first two failed attempts. Lacking the tools of Master Ong’s workshop, with only his knife to work with, this bow was long in coming.

Since leaving Shan Shiaw in disgrace at midwinter Min Lee had lost considerable weight. While he found periodic work based on his purple sash, the symbol of an Adept, it was never enough to buy more than bare essentials. The coppers he earned for blessing homes, finding lost objects, or tending to sick children came few and far between. He was an unknown entity, unproven, therefore unable to command much in remuneration. He dare not stay in one area long enough to build a reputation. He decided hunting might serve him better than his skills as an Adept.

He closed his eyes and called up the image of the charcoal X in his mind’s eye. He let the world around him flow in, let his ears hear, his nose smell all that surrounded him. The dead oak tree seemed to call his name. He let the arrow fly.

His eyes sprang open before the arrow struck. He heard something, a horse, not far off.

Thwack!

The arrow landed true, dead center in the blackened X.

He ignored the twang of the vibrating shaft, concentrating on the sound of the approaching horse. A road ran nearby, just over the hill behind his home.

Had they found him?

He rushed into his hovel, emerged with a rough hide blanket. He tossed it over the entrance then hurriedly scattered leaves and bracken over it. His home was carved into the very hillside – concealing the entrance concealed his home.

He glanced at the oak tree. The arrow and foolish black X stood out like beacons for any passersby. He went to the tree. The steady clop of the horse’s hooves changed to a gallop, then stomping. It began to neigh frantically. He heard someone cry out.

He paused, hand on arrow, listening. There were thrashing sounds, screams from the horse. Min Lee dashed up the hill.

On the road below he saw a bear mauling a prostrate horse. A man on the ground was trapped under his mount, struggling to protect himself from the blows of the bear. Min Lee ran forward, waving his arms and shouting.

“Oy! Oy! Look at me!”

The bear swiped at the man, landing a heavy blow on his arm.

“Oy!” Min Lee stooped, picked up a stone, and threw it at the bear. That got her attention. The bear reared up, then dropped down to all fours and charged toward him.

Min Lee stood his ground, looking directly at the bear as it charged. He cleared his mind, concentrating on bear, on cub, on honey, on home. The bear paused, then reared again. On cub. On home. The bear shook her head. Cub. Home. The bear dropped down, shook her head, then shambled off into the woods.

Min Lee rushed to the horse and man trapped under it. The horse was broken, bleeding, rocking and kicking in agony. Its movements ground down on the man, threatening to kill him. Min Lee laid his hand on the horse’s head. “Sleep, friend.” He slowed the heart of the beast, calming it, stroked it with his free hand. The man beneath the animal passed out from the pain. “Sleep.” The animal’s heart slowed further, then stopped. When he was sure the horse was dead he turned his attention to the man.

~

It took three days for Min Lee to drag the one-man litter to the outskirts of Noat Dol, the closest village. While his broken bones were set properly, or at least to the best of Min Lee’s abilities, the man was growing feverish. The gashes inflicted by the bear were festering. He needed the attention of a proper healer.

On the rise of a hill Min Lee stopped dead in his tracks. Noat Dol lie before him, a small but bustling village. A market was underway. The colors of the Emperor flew above the town hall . The traveling Prefect was in town.

Min Lee saw some farmers working the fields to his right. He called for them.

“I can go no further,” he told his charge. The field workers set their tools aside and began toward them. “These men will take you the rest of the way.”

“Thank you, my friend. You saved my life.” He pressed a bag of coins into Min Lee’s hands.

Min Lee opened the bag and withdrew three silver coins, then handed the bag back.

“I want you to have it,” the man protested.

Min Lee shook his head. “Use it to pay the healer who actually saves your life, saves your arm, your leg. I simply staunched the bleeding.”

The man nodded his head.

As the farmers approached Min Lee stood and prepared to leave.

“I don’t even know your name,” the man said.

“Wen Ho,” Min Lee lied.

The farmers came up and looked at the two of them as if awaiting instruction. “This man was attacked by a bear. Take him into town, to your healer.” The two men looked back toward their field. Min Lee pressed a piece of silver into the hands of each man. The farmers agreed. One moved forward, the other to the rear, and stooped to lift the litter.

“So tell me, Wen Ho, why didn’t you simply shoot the bear?” the man asked as the farmers hoisted him up and adjusted to his weight.

Min Lee looked off toward the horizon, toward the home he would not be returning to. “She had a cub.”

With that Min Lee walked away.
~
© 2010 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

Related posts:

Serpent
Tangled Webs

 

The hills were rife with bandits. Min Lee knew a fire was dangerous – they attract attention. But he was freezing. A steady northwest wind cut through his inadequate clothing. The sky threatened snow. Of freezing to death, or facing bandits, he’d take his chance with bandits. He began gathering wood.

Three days passed since he left the caravan heading for Chowin Province, his ancestral home – ten days since his dismissal from Xueshi Shang. The staring eyes of his classmates still burned in his memory. Shame still gnawed at his gut. Some of those gathered watched his departure in tears as Master Quan unceremoniously escorted him out through the Dragon Gates.

Outside, the initial shock quickly built to anger, then rage – two street fights that night, and a scar on his arm that would likely never fade. In the dock anger became frustration, which in turn gave way to dismay. The next morning Master Quan signed for his release, and sent him on the road home under the watchful eye of a scurrilous camel driver.

He could not bear the thought of returning home in disgrace, expelled for cheating. The wrath of his father and the disappointment of his uncle would be too much to bear. So three days ago he stole what food he could carry and slipped away from the caravan in the middle of the night.

Now he wished he had stolen an extra blanket as well.

He gathered as much firewood as he thought would be needed for the the night. He kept the longest, sturdiest branch aside, as a weapon, just in case. He also held back a few palm-sized stones from the fire circle should he need those as well.

Min Lee knelt, lowered his face to within inches of the kindling, and began to blow. He closed his eyes, envisioning white hot embers taking hold, and blew some more. Before long he was rewarded with the smell of smoke and the sound of crackling flames. He opened his eyes, sat back, and began feeding small twigs to the newly conjured fire.

At the break of dawn he ate the last of his food, salty flat bread, and damn little of it. He had to find civilization soon, or he would perish. After thoroughly smothering his fire he gathered four irregular egg-shaped stones. He stacked them, one atop the other, until he had a small, unstable tower. Then he withdrew by several feet, sat down in the sun, and stared at his creation. Sweat formed on his brow as he concentrated. The stones began to tremble, and then fell over in a clatter. He rose and went to examine them. They lay strung out in a loose line. His eye followed the line they formed. He picked out a marker on the horizon, and began walking.

Perhaps three hours later he crested a hill and found salvation in the form of a small village. It lay in the valley below, nestled at the intersection of a dirt road and a meandering river. Fallow fields, dusted in the lightest of snow, spread out from the edge of town, upstream and down, on both sides of a bridge. It was an obvious backwater, though worthy a stone bridge. That meant steady commerce, perhaps a job to hold him over through the winter. Maybe the town could use a mage. He saw no sign of the Emperor’s colors flying in the breeze.

“Min Lee?”

Startled, he dropped the turnip he was about to steal and searched the market stalls for a familiar face. Movement caught his eye – she waved and flashed him a big smile. “Here! Min Lee!”

His heart raced at the sight of Lia Yong. She was as beautiful as ever, and looked very happy to see him. She stood in the door of an apothecary and waved for him to join her. She wore the purple sash of an Adept, having passed through the Dragon Gates with great ceremony last Midsummer Eve. As he made his way toward her he grew self-conscious of the lack of his own colors.

She ushered him in and had him sit by the dung fire, then plied him with food, hot cider, and questions about old Masters and classmates until he was warm and comfortable. He was surprised to discover that the apothecary was hers – the “sole proprietor,” she proudly informed him.

“And what of you?” she finally asked. “Do you have a position yet? I thought you were going back to your father’s court?” She glanced down at his midriff then, and got a perplexed look on her face. His colors were missing. “Where is your sash?”

He felt the blood drain from his fingers and rise to his face. “I feel so stupid,” he said. “I lost my horse, and nearly everything else, fording the Suschan. I was lucky not to drown.” He was both surprised and dismayed at how easy the lie passed his lips. But how could he tell her the truth? His father’s court was not the only place he would face shame.

Now her face changed to concern, and she fused over him mightily.

“You can stay here,” she told him. Then she blushed. “I have a room upstairs – if you’d like. We could work together. A town with two Adepts – can you imagine. People will come from miles around.”

His heart raced. He loved Lia, always had since their first class together in bee keeping. Now, like a gift from the gods, she was offering her house, her practice, her very self to him. He grinned broadly.

“I’d like that very much.”

She leaned forward and kissed him, though not for the first time.

“I would too. I never thought I’d see you again when I left – never thought your family would…” She let the thought fail. Then she added, “We’ll write to Master Mo Shuh and have them send you a new sash. We want everyone to know you are a true Adept.”

“Yes.” He smiled as his heart fell to his feet.

In the wee hours of the night he slipped from her bed, took her purple sash, gathered a few extra articles for warmth, and crept down the rickety ladder. Tears ran down his cheeks as he stumbled out into the snow.

(c) 2010 by J. M. Strother — all rights reserved

Related post: Serpent

Min Lee sat on the hard wooden bench, head bowed in shame. He did not look up as people approached, tried to ignore the whispers after they passed. Every sound in the Great Hall, even the most remote and inconsequential, sounded loud to his ears. He could hear his very pulse pounding behind his ears. Then he heard the sound he dreaded most—the click of the latch on the Master’s door.

After a moment of silence he felt compelled to look up. Master Mo Shuh stood there, just inside his office doorway. He looked older than usual, drawn and worn. His eyes were sad.

“Enter, please.” Mo Shuh turned away and stepped back into the room. (Read more…)

 

Min Lee sat on the hard wooden bench, head bowed in shame. He did not look up as people approached, tried to ignore the whispers after they passed. Every sound in the Great Hall, even the most remote and inconsequential, sounded loud to his ears. He could hear his very pulse pounding behind his ears. Then he heard the sound he dreaded most—the click of the latch on the Master’s door.

After a moment of silence he felt compelled to look up. Master Mo Shuh stood there, just inside his office doorway. He looked older than usual, drawn and worn. His eyes were sad.

“Enter, please.” Mo Shuh turned away and stepped back into the room.

Min Lee rose and followed. He stopped a good three feet from the desk, as if afraid to come closer, and kept his eyes firmly affixed to the floor. This time, he knew, he had gone too far. The punishment would be severe. He listened to the wood creak as Mo Shuh took his seat. The old master did not suggest Min Lee sit too.

Again there was only silence.

Again, he felt compelled to look up.

Mo Shuh took his gaze and did not let it go.

“Min Lee.” It was a simple statement—an acknowledgment that a problem stood before him. Min Lee opened his mouth to speak, but Mo Shuh put up a hand to stop him. He remained silent, hardly daring to breathe.

“You have tried me sorely, Min Lee.” Again, the urge to speak, to beg forgiveness, mercy. Fear kept his tongue tied.

“Stolen pastries by a young imp I could overlook, all those years ago. Perhaps I should not have. Your pranks and antics these past several years, I tolerated. I know Shun Tzu put you up to most of them. Be wary of such friends.”

Min Lee wanted to look away, but could not.

“But this, Min Lee, this—cannot be forgiven.”

“Master, I…”

Mo Shuh’s knit brow was enough to silence him.

“Cheating is not tolerated here, Min Lee. You know that.”

He nodded. Swallowed hard.

“There is a caravan leaving tomorrow for Mauhn…”

Min Lee nearly swooned. “No! Please, Master!” He felt his chest tighten up and his stomach drop. “I won’t do it again. I promise. Please. Give me another chance.”

“Cheating is not tolerated here. You well knew that, Min Lee. The caravan…”

“You can’t expel me! This is my home!”

“It is unwise to carry a serpent in one’s pocket.” There was no mercy in Mo Shuh’s eye. Sorrow, but no pity. “There is no place for you here.”

Now anger welled up in his heart. He began trembling. So too did the various small objects sitting on Mo Shuh’s desk. Mo Shuh leaned forward, swept his hand out and across in a slashing motion. The items on the desk fell still. Min Lee gasped, fought to catch his breath, and could not.

“I only wish you had not advanced so far in your studies,” Mo Shuh said. “But that cannot be helped now.” He dropped his hand and Min Lee sucked in deep, desperate breaths.

“Gather your things. You have one hour. Master Quan will then escort you through the Dragon Gates. You can stay in the village tonight. The caravan leaves at dawn.”

Mo Shuh picked up a scroll from his desk and began to read. He did not give Min Lee another glance.
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©2010 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

I used India Drummon’s WAG Topic #25: Crimes and Misdemeanours, as inspiration for this week’s story. “We all break rules from time to time (just look at past WAG posts to see evidence of that!) and our characters usually have to do that in order to experience change and growth and to add a little spice and drama to our plots. So this week write about someone (a character or someone you observe) who is breaking a rule. It can be anything from a major crime to a breach of etiquette.”

Inida just sold her first novel, Ordinary Angels. Pop on over to her blog and read all about her Big News.  Congratulations, India.
~jon

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