By the time she sensed its presence, it was already too late. Her horse screamed and reared up, nearly tossing her from its saddle. She could feel the animal tense beneath her, ready to bolt. She pulled back on the reins in an attempt to regain control. The gelding's nostrils flared as it pulled its lips back to bare its teeth. It pulled its chin in tight to the side. The whites of its eyes were fully exposed, clearly framing their black centers against the slick, dark coat of its face. The horse tried to toss her a second time - then it landed on shaky legs. The great beast stumbled, nearly falling over itself as it struggled to gain footing on the loose soil and crumbling rock.
There was a faint hiss somewhere in the rocky underbrush. Ran Fan drew a dagger from her sleeve. When the hiss sounded again, she tossed the blade quickly in a backhanded throw. There was a small thud as the dagger sank home, and then the quiet sputtering of a dying snake. Her dagger had cut through the creature's throat, pinning it to the dry earth below. The threat had been eliminated.
Her horse, however, did not understand this.
It continued its frenzied efforts to escape. White foam coated the animal's lips as it bellowed and circled backwards, tripping over the uneven ground and its own feet. She lifted herself off of the saddle, fully standing in its stirrups as she pulled back on the reins, talking in soothing tones as she tried to calm it. The animal stumbled again, and immediately reared up. She held on as best she could - but the horse was slick with sweat and the saddle was slipping, throwing her weight off balance.
Just as she was about to dismount before being thrown, the horse suddenly came down on all fours, hard. It sidestepped nervously, but stayed in one place. Master had come. He was now stroking her horse's cheek from the back of his own mount. He had her reins gently looped between his fingers as he ran the back of his hand over its face. In comparison to the death grip she'd held them in, it seemed so ridiculous, and so very him. He was always defying explanation like that.
Under the young master's touch, her horse settled quickly. Soon Ran Fan dismounted and joined her grandfather on the desert floor. Master stayed seated in his saddle, holding her horse's bridle and speaking quietly to it. Grandfather lifted the horse's rear foot up and behind to examine the wound there. The snake had sunk its fangs deep into the joint right above the animal's hoof, and already there was a good amount of swelling. That could not mean anything good.
"What can we do for it, Grandfather?"
He looked closely at the torn flesh before gingerly setting the leg down. "Not much, I'm afraid. I can clean the wound and wrap it, but there's no telling how the venom will affect the poor beast, or if we can keep it clean in all this sand."
She had to agree: it would be nearly impossible to keep the wound free of dirt. They spared some of their water canteen to flush out the bite, and then wrapped the leg in long strips of white fabric ripped from Fuu's overcoat. Fuu unloaded the injured horse's saddle and packed the extra supplies onto his own horse. With a leg injury, the animal would not be able to bear any added weight. They tethered it to Fuu's saddle, and Ran Fan prepared herself for a long hike.
Master, it seemed, had other plans.
"Ran Fan, come and ride with me."
He leaned down from his seat and held out an arm to her, clearly offering a boost. Was he mad? Not only was she his retainer, a lowly servant-guard with no right to do so, but she was a young woman. It would be improper, immodest. No, she could not do this. "It is no problem for me to walk, Master."
"I disagree. What use will you be to me if you are so worn and ragged that you cannot fight? Old Man Fuu is busy guarding both the injured horse and our supplies, so I will need your protection even more."
He was always dancing about with his words, weaving stories and making things fit to his needs. It was improper, it was foolish, and it was so him that she couldn't help the small smile that reached her eyes.
"Then I will be sure to keep up to you as you ride."
"And what of the wishes of your prince? Surely those must count for something?" He was smiling that knowing smile of his, celebrating his victory before she had climbed aboard or consented.
Her blood boiled a little.
Master was awful sometimes in his insistence. If he wanted something, he always seemed to find a way to get it. She might have been more impressed with this if he wasn't royalty, but as it was, he was a son of the emperor, and therefore, likely to get his way regardless of what anyone around him wanted. She still had a chance to retain her decency, and she was determined to try.
"If I rode with you, I wouldn't be able to draw my weapon safely; and you could not access your sword."
He seemed to consider this for a moment, dropping his proffered hand and scratching his chin theatrically with the other. Then he said, "I still think it would be best if you rode with me."
"You're supposed to guard me, right?" He reached forward again, holding his hand out to her.
It would be immodest to ride with him, for sure, but it would be even more improper to disobey his wishes, or to leave him open to attack as he was suggesting she would, as unlikely as it was this far into the wild. There was nothing for it, then.
She grasped his forearm and he pulled her up. She settled into the saddle behind him, the hard wood of the rim forcing her right up against Ling's back. His body was warm and smelled of dirt and salt, and his long hair threatened to poke her through the gaps of her mask as he tilted his head. It was a tight fit in the saddle, but if she shifted her hips just so - she promptly stopped the movement and flushed appropriately. This was going to be a long journey.
They continued their trek through the late afternoon, hoping for the best but fearing the worst. They had not even reached Xerxes yet and they were already down a horse. She felt herself beginning to slide into dark and dangerous thoughts.
Of course it would have to be her horse that was bitten. She had been having a thoroughly miserable time of things already, suffering through the extreme temperatures and the biting wind, so it only made sense that just when she thought things couldn't get any worse, they did.
"The desert is a cruel place," she spat.
"Why do you say that, child?" asked her grandfather.
"It is a vicious land, tearing itself apart when it is hardly able to sustain itself in the first place. It's too cruel a fate: the gods despise it, and it despises itself."
Truly, she did not understand it. There were so few resources here, living would be hard enough in itself, but then added to that were the blistering heat of day, the arctic cold of night, and the wind so sharp that it cut everything into pieces. Even the rocky crags fought to remain intact, the blowing sand eroding them, twisting them into ghastly shapes.
"Ran Fan, the desert is teeming with life. Do not let your contempt for it blind you to what lies beneath."
She wanted to argue that it wasn't contempt, that there was a truth to her statement that even he could not deny, but instead she found herself holding her tongue as she had been trained to do for so long. A warrior like herself should not complain about her surroundings, her grandfather would tell her, she must learn to find the inner balance. Negative thoughts created negative qi, and would taint her inner flow, potentially blinding her to what was happening.
"Close you eyes and focus your qi. Can you fee all of the life around you? All of the energy flowing through this land? The desert is alive, Ran Fan, just as much as our homeland. You couldn't feel it before because you didn't want to. It's why your horse was bit. You need to let go of this negative energy."
Obviously it was her fault that her horse was the one passing by as the serpent had struck. She had failed to sense the danger in time - and it wasn't the first time, either. Her grandfather was always quick to remind her of her past failures or to point out new ones. While some logical part of her knew that he did this for her own good, it never helped her to feel any less inadequate.
Even after all of her years of training, she still had trouble focusing herself sometimes. She had been nursing her own misery with irritation and impatience, and had let it consume her, blinding her to the world around her. Maybe there was a part of her that didn't want to see this place as anything like her homeland. This place looked dead, smelled dead, or rather smelled like nothing at all: there were no sweet plum blossoms on the breeze or even the pungent odors of crushed skunk cabbage underfoot. All she could smell was her own sweat, and that of her master as he leaned back into her.
They rode in silence for a while. Ran Fan brewed in her own thoughts as her master steered onward.
In the small courtyard of her family's living space, she had listened to the birds sing as she relaxed her mind. Their voices were sweet and uplifting, and they helped her reach the reflective state that grandfather wished her to obtain. Sometimes it was hard to clear her thoughts, but focusing on the birds always helped her.
"Control your breathing, Ran Fan. Let the natural flow guide you."
Her breaths were deep and even, sure and carefully measured. In through her nose, and out through her mouth, her stomach muscles steadily contracting with each pull of air. She could feel her blood rise upward every time her lungs filled, swelling her head and lifting her shoulders. She held onto that feeling for a moment before releasing it, letting her blood flow downward and out, the heat of it flowing into her limbs.
She could feel her qi flowing through her similarly, rising and falling like a warm tide. It pulsed within her as if it had its own heartbeat. Maybe it did - she never could quite understand her grandfather's explanations. What she did know was that each living thing had its own qi, its own lifespirit. Even the earth itself had its own flow of qi, and according to the elders, if one centered themselves properly, they could feel not only their own qi, but those of others as well. Ran Fan was not very good at this yet. She could tap into her own flow, but the flow of others remained outside of her grasp. Grandfather said it was because she was too focused on other things to feel. He said she had to push those thoughts aside if she ever hoped to accomplish this, this something that came so naturally to others, like the young master who'd felt others' qi before he even knew what it was. This is why grandfather made her meditate like this. She couldn't say it was unbearable, and in fact it could be very relaxing, but it had yet to wield any results. She was feeling pretty relaxed today though. Perhaps she'd finally attain some enlightenment and master this task?
She took another deep breath, and let it burn in her lungs before pushing it back out. She was relaxed, she was open. She was tapped into the flow of her own lifepower. All that was left was for this block of hers to lift so that she could move on in her training. Her qi flowed quietly as a gentle breeze blew over her, carrying the birds' song with it.
"So when do we get to practice with swords?" It was Master Ling. Of course. He interrupted her steady flow, abruptly as always. Her whole body tensed. Suddenly, she was no longer concentrating on the lifestream around her, but instead thinking of ways to knock his feet out from under him in their upcoming sparring session.
Her grandfather answered mildly. "Young master, there is much more to martial arts than swords and fighting. We must train ourselves, both inside and out. We must control not only our hands and eyes, but also our hearts, our minds, and our spirits. It is from these that we draw the strength to fight."
"Yes, but this is the boring part." He was using that wheedling tone he seemed to think was appealing.
"For a boy your age, I suppose it is, but it is important to focus nonetheless."
Ran Fan opened her eyes and looked over at her charge. He sat with his legs crossed over one another just as she was, but instead of holding his meditation stance, he had his elbows on his knees with his chin rested in his hands. He was pouting. They were nearly the same age, all of ten years old, but as her family had a duty to protect the royal members of the Yao clan, she was in fact responsible for him. Of course, this duty wasn't hers alone. Her grandfather and her uncle watched over him, too. There was also her cousin, Kun, who was just a few years older than she.
Her father had once helped to guard the young prince, before he had met his death. Her father's passing was the reason she had shouldered this duty normally reserved for the men of her line. When she was only four years old, her father had died protecting their young master from a group of hired swords. She had no brothers - or sisters even. Soon afterwards, her grandfather had decided to begin teaching her the ancient martial arts. From that day on, she had trained in the small studio of their living quarters.
Master Ling sighed and corrected his posture. Before he closed his eyes, he winked at her before closing his eyes. Ran Fan could not help the smile that crept over her features. She supposed she was lucky to be wearing her mask, or he would he notice. Young master was always doing inappropriate things that made it hard to follow orders. She was supposed to be meditating and concentrating on her qi, not laughing inwardly at his impatience (or being embarrassed her desire to laugh, she admitted guiltily).
It was highly unusual for a royal heir to train with his guards. In fact, her grandfather had said that Master Ling might actually be the first heir of the Yao clan to do so. He hadn't always trained with them, but after one particularly brutal attempt on his life, the young prince had insisted upon it. Her uncle still protested this even now, over a year after the fact, but grandfather continued their joint sessions anyway.
Ran Fan took another deep breath in through her nose and sampled the fragrant garden air tainted with the odor of lacquer. It was more difficult to breathe with the mask in place, which was exactly why she needed to practice while wearing it. All the guardsman wore them while they were on duty. Grandfather said it was because they were but deadly shadows in the prince's wake, swords without a name. There was no need for anyone to ever see their faces. However, in her case, there was a second reason for the mask. While she wasn't the first woman of Xing to be trained in the ancient arts, she was one of the very few. It would not do to display any points of weakness to her opponent. The mask was her shield, her defense against the enemy. Like any shield, it could be cumbersome and difficult to bear, but she would persevere.
She understood this as well as any young girl could. Some things were black and white and easy to internalize, but there were many more things in varying shades of gray, their subtleties lost on her forming mind. Grandfather was patient, though, and she had hope that one day, maybe she would understand everything he tried to teach her. She would not stop trying until that day.
The rest of their meditation passed by quietly. Master Ling had eventually slipped into a quiet state of mind, which made it easier for all of them to concentrate properly. When grandfather deemed them finished for the day, the young master left for his chambers along with Uncle Sheng and Kun.
Ran Fan followed her grandfather back into the living area of their accommodations. It was like a much smaller, far more plain version of the palace quarters: lots of wax-paper window panes and sliding doors leading through seemingly senseless hallways. She could never understand why there were so many hallways. At least there weren't any of those garish tapestries or ornaments all over the place. She found them almost obnoxious in their grandeur, and terribly distracting. More than once already, she'd been scolded for tracing the scales of the dragon tapestry in the council room.
Grandfather slid open the door to their quarters, and they quickly found her mother busy at work in the kitchen. She was a small woman; at ten, Ran Fan was already nearly as tall as her mother. She wasn't cooking, but was preparing to fill more grenades for them. She had empty shells laid out over the table, and was currently measuring out parts of the first powder to be added. It was a delicate process that required lots of patience and a careful hand. Ran Fan sorely wished they had meditated for much longer than they had.
When her mother heard them enter, she smiled and kissed Ran Fan on the top of her head. "You can take your mask off now, dear. I'll need your help with these."
Ran Fan nodded and untied the mask, then made her way to her sleeping quarters to deposit it there. She'd learned the hard way that the papier måché was fairly brittle despite the many coats of lacquer, so she didn't want it to get knocked over accidentally again. As she went to step back through her bedroom doorway, she heard her grandfather and Uncle Sheng arguing. They were always arguing, it seemed. Wasn't Sheng supposed to be with the master? She stopped short and pressed herself to the wall of her bedroom, curious to see what they were fighting about this time.
"The joke has gone on long enough, father. It's been a full year now. It has to stop."
"It is no joke. She is progressing very well. In fact, I daresay she is faring better than you did at her age."
"Rubbish. You see progress where you want to. Your grief for Anming was great, and so we sat quiet and allowed you this distraction, but it's time now to move on. Kun is nearly of marrying age, and there will be more of our line to carry on our duty. You have a strong grandson, you should be focusing your knowledge on him."
"As you have said, Kun is nearly of marrying age. A young man like him needs less of an old man like me and more of his father."
"Father, this has to end. It is an embarrassment to our family ... have you learned nothing from Anming's demise?"
"How dare you! If I have learned anything from Anming's death, it is that I cannot count on a single son to carry out our duty, for even the strongest heir can be cut down. You wish me to place all of our family's trust and duty in the hands of a single boy? No ... no..."
"Enough. I will hear no more of this. She will train as her fathers before her have trained, and she will serve the royal heir as they have."
She was startled at her mother's touch on her shoulder, but immediately settled and followed her back into the kitchen. Her mother seemed sad, as she often did when grandfather and uncle argued. She could tell her mother worried about her every time she left for duty, far more so than she did for Kun or for grandfather.
Her mother directed her to the seating cushions and handed her a filled grenade for plugging. She took up a wick from the table and placed it in the small hole, plugging the rest of the space with heavy wax, which she dripped from a fat bar.
"What for, dear?"
"I'm sorry that I cause you and grandfather so much worry. Grandfather deals with Sheng, I see your worry when I leave-"
"Oh, Ran Fan." She slid her arms around Ran Fan's shoulders and pulled her in close, wrapping her arms around her daughter tightly and resting her cheek on the top of her head. "Ran Fan, you are a strong young woman. Please don't listen to what your uncle says. He doesn't know what he's saying."
As her mother squeezed her tighter and wept quietly into her hair, Ran Fan couldn't help but wonder if things would have been different if she had been a boy.
She awoke with a start. There was something dark, cold. She jumped up from her spot on the cool earth, swinging her head around to find the source of her sudden waking.
Her horse had gone down in the night.
The beast lay flat on its side in the crisp early morning light, moaning under its breath as it slowly crushed itself under its own weight. Her grandfather and the young master were already hovering over the animal, trying to calm its thrashing legs. Even though it was kicking, she could see the green pus oozing from the wound on its leg. The bite had swollen overnight, the flesh surrounding the punctures bruised and dying.
Ling noticed her presence and filled her in. "It must have lay down sometime after dark. There's no telling how long it's been like this, but we haven't been able to get it up."
"I fear there is only one thing left to do now," Fuu said gravely.
He looked to Ran Fan, and all she could do was nod dumbly. She was never particularly fond of horses, but her heart hung heavily nonetheless. It was a pity they would be losing such a valuable resource so soon into their journey, and from her carelessness too. The poison and the infection would only continue to spread, and the horse would only continue to suffer until it met its end. It would be far less cruel this way, though it still made her feel guilty.
Grandfather saved her the trouble of putting her horse down. One clean slice to the throat, and the moaning stopped. Dark blood poured from the wound as the animal choked on the chill morning air and its own fluids. After a few minutes, it finally lay at rest.
For a few long moments, the three of them stood there and watched the body as it lay there on the craggy ground, its blood already thickening over the dusty rocks. It was oddly quiet then. The desert always seemed silent, but this moment felt strangely so. Then the flies were buzzing over the carcass, the sounds of their beating wings ringing in her ears. She looked over to her grandfather. He was now laying out one of the supply sacs and packing its contents into its brothers. Ah yes, their morning dose of desert gruesomeness was not yet over.
It would be a waste not to salvage some of the animal's resources, so Fuu, with some help from both the master and herself, carved some of the more desirable meat. Then they cooked it over the dying campfire to better preserve it for their travels. They took as much as they could carry, leaving the rest to the wild.
The remaining two mounts were then packed and ready to continue hiking. Fuu climbed onto his mount and Master Ling onto his. Once again he reached down to her, offering his hand. She took it at his first offer this time, climbing up behind him and settling into the small space of the saddle rim.
As they set off, she wondered about whether her honor as a guardsman was worth this torment. There would always be a wall between them. She'd seen him flirt with the harem, had seen him work his charms on the other nobles. Besides, it wasn't as if she actually thought about him that way. At least, not any more so than any other girl would when in his presence. His attentions to her were nothing special, not for him anyway. If she weren't his guard, she'd just be another servant falling prey to his whims and charming wit. At least this way she could keep closer to him, be special to him.
Ling wriggled in the saddle, pushing his hips back and twisting his shoulders. She had no room to avoid it, and once again found herself pressed against him in a way that, had they been at the palace, would earn her a meeting with the tail end of a bamboo rod. He turned to look at her over his shoulder, and smiled as if he knew this enticed her. She gave him a hard look in response, but deep down she knew he was right.
He was always throwing himself out there for her to catch.