Continuing Readers: Merry Christmas! Before leaving the battle scene, Zhang and Li have a talk.
Forbidden Desert, after the fall of the Chengxiang
As dawn broke, the oppressive atmosphere of the capital dissipated. With the assistance of Chun’s group, we apprehended the enemy soldiers and the two Users. A few mercenaries stood guard over them—tightly bound and cuffed with metal cuffs that Tiexin fortified with his spiritual power. Power, I thought. I glanced over at the Users among the prisoners and inadvertently shivered, remembering how they wielded their abilities during battle with ease as if it were second nature. One of the Users saw me looking and smiled maliciously. I turned away hurriedly and spied my friends among the disarray of the battlefield.
Fuxin and Yijian-fashi were cleansing the surrounding area. Ganzorig and some of the mercenaries were checking for casualties and survivors. Shen-shaoye and Tiexin were interrogating the captured. Everyone else I noted were helping the wounded and checking on supplies.
“Jiejie!” I glanced up from the supplies that I was sorting out and turned in the direction of the voice. A stout boy ran up to Chun and her little sister, Qiuhuo, and excitedly chattered at them. I watched Chun’s normally fierce expression relax into a smile as she fondly ruffled the boy’s hair. The moment was spoiled, however, when the wiry man named Jiedao joined in the carousing and was promptly elbowed in the ribs by a mock angry Chun. Sounds of laughter erupted from their group. I looked away, feeling a bit put out.
“A rambunctious bunch, aren’t they?” A lilting voice said to my right. Qingyu—as she called herself—sauntered up to me. I met her gaze steadily and nodded in agreement.
“All of them… they are precious to her. I suppose family is how you make it. The bonds that they have formed are irreplaceable. They all depend on her. She is akin to the queen bee of the hive, and they are her worker bees; they do her bidding without question. They would die for her without question, because they believe in her—and trust her.”
I am not sure what prompted me to spill out my thoughts to this stranger, but her expression had remained carefully blank throughout my discourse. Qingyu regarded me furtively. “Hmm. Zhang-xiaojie, you seem to be jealous perhaps?” Her question startled me.
I paused before answering. “No,” I said finally. “Chun and I dealt with the hand fate had given us. I had hoped there would be some way to reconcile our differences. Funny, I almost admired her.” I shrugged. From the corner of my eye, Qingyu rolled her eyes. I picked up the bag of supplies that I had sorted out and walked away but not without hearing Qingyu mutter something about “nobles being fools.”
The trek across the desert was uneventful. The yaoguai had all been vanquished. Fuxin and Yijian-fashi had ascertained that after the cleansing. As our battle-worn group neared the capital’s western gate, we were greeted with hostility. Warning arrows were shot, causing the horses to shy with fright. Everyone tensed. The prisoners cowered. Torches flared up. “Who goes there? State your identities or we will shoot!” a city guard hollered from the guard post at the top of the gate. Arrows were pointed in our direction. Teeto, the merchant, stepped forward and addressed the guard in an authoritative manner that I had not seen before. After a moment, the guard ordered the gate to be opened. We passed through without further incident.
“This is where we part ways,” Chun announced without preamble. Our group halted in the middle of the street, somewhere on the boundary of the imperial and administrative districts. I swiveled around in my saddle to regard her and her retinue. They seemed hard-pressed and eager to be off. I sighed and dismounted. As I reached her, I regarded her silently, trying to find the right words to say.
“Well?” She said impatiently.
“Surely you would join us and speak to the Emperor about what happened—” I began but Chun waved her hand dismissively.
“And then what? The Emperor would most likely say that we instigated the yaoguai, burned down his jail, and destroyed public property! Then, all of us would be incriminated or executed! You of all people should know this, Zhang!” She eyed me meaningfully.
“Yeah. When has the Emperor done anything for us?” Jiedao piped up. “He’s just sitting in his palace, fondling all the girls that he—Ow!” He broke off rubbing the back of his head, where Jianning had cuffed him.
“Fondling girls aside,” Chun clarified, rolling her eyes at the two men scuffling behind her, “when have the so-called officials of Dong Ying done anything? They’ve always sat idly by and turned a blind eye to the people’s plight, even when kids cry for food and civilians die of poisoned water! The Emperor is no different. He enjoys his pleasure at the expense of the rest of his Kingdom. At least three of his villages have already become desiccated ghost towns. What’s another town to him, another few hundred lives?” She let out a bitter laugh. “Just face it. Even if you talk to him, he. doesn’t. care.”
I was about to respond when Shen-shaoye spoke up, “Well, we do not know until we try.”
Chun looked at him doubtfully and shook her head. “You, scholars, are just full of naïve ideas with no evidence or experience.”
“Actually, I do,” Shen-shaoye said quietly. Something in his tone caught Chun’s attention as he continued. “My late father, Shen Xiaobo, had been documenting the situation in the poorer districts of Dong Ying. I assisted my father in interviewing the populace and with documenting their living conditions. My family also donated food and books to charities. Surely my father’s work should be enough to convince the Emperor to offer us aid.”
Chun did not answer. The others in our group nervously shifted as we waited to see who would break the silence. At last, Chun simply shrugged and said, “Go ahead and try but I won’t hold my breath for it. I got my sister back safely and sealed a demonic portal so that’s that.” She made to turn away, but I called her to stop.
“Wait, Chun, there’s something I need to say!” I took a breath. It was now or never. “I wanted to apologize for not trusting you and your group, especially your little sister. I wanted you to know that I am—well, we all are grateful for your help in this battle. I hope I can make it up to you somehow.”
Chun glanced down at my outstretched hand. Then resignedly she shook it. “It’s all ancient history. You always cause trouble for me, you know that.” She smirked as she spoke those words, and I grinned in return. Then without so much a backward glance, she and her retinue headed towards another part of the city—probably towards the safe house to regroup with the other Dong Ying women.
“Come on,” Ganzorig called. “Let’s get going and deliver these miscreants to the Emperor.” We all looked at the palace a short distance away and slowly, wearily everyone began following Ganzorig’s lead. I mounted my horse. Looking at the sky, I hoped that the Emperor would be willing to hear what we have to say.