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…)

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