Author: TerriKett PM
A historical fantasy set in a fictional world, which is reminiscent of the Three Kingdoms era of China. Follow Bai Jiang of Li from oppressed child draftee to famous warlord. Are his alliances and strategic genius enough to overcome the tyrannous Li family?Rated: Fiction T - English - Adventure - Chapters: 2 - Words: 6,713 - Updated: 08-24-12 - Published: 08-18-12 - id: 3051368
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
"Bai Jiang," the officer announced sharply.
Jiang's stomach muscles clenched as though the nervous butterflies that had been building up over the afternoon had instantly frozen. The young boy quickly stood, almost knocking the bench over, before hurrying into the general's room.
He scanned the room upon entering, and soon noted the somewhat feminine General Zhang Hua trying not to look too bored. He smoothed his silken, plum robe from his position seated behind a low work desk. In a show of rudeness, he picked up his violet folding fan and casually began chasing away the heat of the day as he waited for the last new recruit to be seated.
"Afternoon, Bai Jiang," he stated in an even voice, pulling a slip of parchment forward and inspecting it. "Low class, father dead, mother can't support you?" he rattled off briefly. It wasn't that he didn't care; he was just weary of hearing the same story.
"Yes sir," Jiang answered neutrally, staring at the ground to maintain a polite demeanour. His family had no status, but Zhang Hua's was important enough that he could marry directly into their ruling family, Li. He was glad to get an interview, even if he had been forced to wait hours for this brief chance with a rude officer.
As he was inspected, Jiang tried not to get distracted by the feeling of the occasional puff of breeze on his recently shorn head. He would never cut it again after this, unless he disgraced himself in some way.
Zhang picked up the parchment and looked over the inked profile picture. Potential officers had more thorough records than the soldiers just doing their duty. Due to his father's rank, Jiang was being considered for officer training, in spite of his low social class. "It seems a shame to send you to war. I've never seen such beautiful hair outside of my family!"
Though he knew the officer was toying with him, Jiang still had to physically bite into his tongue to ensure a retort would not leave his mouth. The gap between social classes angered him all the more when displayed so blatantly, and such petty concerns this man seemed to have. Jiang had been raised in this society, but he had never been able to complacently accept the disparity.
The change in his features did not go unnoticed. This man was not as flippant as he liked to make out. The role of general still had to be earned, even by a member of the highest ranking family.
"What are you frowning at boy? The only reason you're even here is your father." There was a lengthy pause before, "Well?"
If the man really wanted to know, then he would answer honestly. "I feel it is fundamentally wrong for you to worry about aesthetic beauty when my mother will soon be concerned with where her next meal is coming from."
Rather than ordering the disciplinary beating Jiang had been expecting, Zhang simply laughed loudly. "Oh my, how cute! To think you would be bold enough to answer honestly, and with such a vocabulary," he paused and then continued to speak more seriously. "You can't help being born a peasant, boy. Your father's reputation and grades earned thus far are the only things allowing me to admit you into our officer training program. Run along now, spear training will commence at the crack of dawn. You had best prepare yourself."
General Zhang Hua had just spelt out the essence of Jiang's perception of unfairness. He felt his temper rise, but managed to school his features. Rebelling now would not accomplish anything of note.
"Yes sir," he answered rather stiffly. Jiang brought his right fist and left palm together for a brief salute, before being excused from the room. He made his way across the inner courtyard and entered the corridor, along which were the male student dormitories.
He slid open a door, only to be greeted by an empty room. It was messy and well lived in, and eight bunks in total lined the walls. The bottom bunk by the door was bare, bar a stack of bed linens. Jiang found his belongings had been placed under it, so he spread the sheets over the thin mattress. Besides a change of clothes, he hadn't brought much.
A gong sounded, indicating it was time for the evening meal. He crossed the pale, compact dirt of the presently empty training courtyard and entered the already half full eating hall. Jiang sat among the boys of a similar age to him, and was served a bowl of rice, with fish and a green leafy vegetable he was unfamiliar with.
It did not take long to eat all that was before him. Before leaving for his sleeping quarters, Jiang returned his dishes to the expansive kitchen. By the time the other boys returned to their dormitory, he was already feigning sleep.
Jiang flew out of bed as the sun's rays shined into his eyes. Day one and he was already late! He strapped on the blue and plum armour of Li foot soldiers with haste. He exited the room and took up a spear from the student weapons rack. To get them used to the length and weight of a real weapon without risking lives, the blade on the end had been blunted.
The other sons and daughters of officers were lining up uniformly as Jiang entered the courtyard. He stood to attention at the back of the group just as their aged teacher made his way to the front of the class.
Jiang recognised the man; he was the veteran war hero that had worked alongside his father in the past. Huang Fang had taught him before, and even praised him for pursuing study instead of combat. He had probably known about his father's death before Jiang, and understood the dilemma his mother would soon have to face.
The students greeted the old warrior with varying degrees of respect, enclosing their right fist in their left palm, and bowing as low as their own social class required. One older girl with long, dark hair and an oddly pale complexion barely inclined her head. Due to the lack of punishment, Jiang had to assume she was on Zhang Hua's level, or even above.
They commenced warm-up exercises as the sun peeked over the one story high wall that surrounded the inner courtyard. Most of the shoulder loosening involved the spear in some way, so that the trainees would become accustomed to the length and weight as quickly as possible. The class moved onto ballistic stretching and weight bearing exercises, before practicing various moves and routines.
The regime continued endlessly, with only small breaks to rehydrate, as the sun made its way higher into the sky. When the spear training finally ended at midday, Jiang found his limbs were shaking from exhaustion. But it was far from over. The students were permitted to remove the heavy padding that made up their armour, and they continued on to practice archery.
Finally, when Jiang's stomach was grumbling and it had become difficult to breathe, the class moved into the eating hall for their midday rations. Before any true rest could be gotten, they were back in their armour and on another training field, this time using the same weapons on horseback.
Jiang was completely exhausted again, and so was exceptionally relieved when the sun began to set. After the evening meal, their group was split into magic and knowledge classes to conduct studies of strategy, and become proficient in their gifts. Jiang joined the advanced battle magic group due to his grades and skills with fire manipulation.
The first task their instructor, Lead Strategist Chan Hui, set Jiang involved releasing the flames from within his hands, and controlling them completely. He would have to push them to the other end of the room and burn only the small paper targets. Jiang had only developed a basic control over producing small flames on his own, so there were quite a few potentially disastrous close calls.
After being told to break for a while, Jiang sat and watched the disrespectful girl from earlier command the invisible force. Over dinner he had discovered that this girl was Li Ai, the emperor's niece. But she was treated as his daughter due to impotency preventing him from siring children of his own. With her gift of invisible force she was able to push entire training dolls across the room, a feat which motivated Jiang to catch up as quickly as possible.
That day he gathered more fire between his palms than ever before. He touched a target across the room and caused the flames to burn that piece of paper only. Chan Hui was not impressed by his ability to hit just one target in two hours, but Jiang was pleased by the rapid improvement. Once he had a vision, he could work to attain it, he reminded himself.
Before turning in, the Advanced Battle group received a lecture from Master Chan regarding stratagem he had utilised in the past. They performed a practical exercise where they had to give orders based on a battle laid out before them. Jiang performed above everyone else, but although he was treated with slightly less contempt, still no praise was forthcoming. Jiang tried to placate himself with this achievement, but he couldn't ignore the sting.
Jiang was woken early the next morning by one of his classmates. The quiet boy shook him gently by the shoulder, but even that caused Jiang to groan in pain. His muscles ached from yesterday's intense workout, but he knew he would have to do it all again today, and every day, until New Year.
The other boy smiled apologetically before hurrying off to don his armour. Jiang hadn't caught his name yet. He rolled out of bed and washed quickly. It was a struggle to reach in certain directions, but eventually he got his armour in place and hobbled off to the weapon rack.
He winced when he had to reach to the top of the rack and remove a tall spear. Somehow it felt about twice as heavy as it had yesterday. When he joined the line and saluted, Master Huang noticed his discomfort immediately.
"Today we shall practice with the weapons we need to work on the most," he stated, and then continued on to call out family names. Roughly half the class stayed with the spear, the older students moved away to practice advanced tonfa moves, and four others joined Jiang at the archery range.
Everyone ignored Jiang, except the boy who had woken him. "Thank you for getting me up earlier. I am Bai Jiang. Who are you?" Upon closer inspection, he appeared to be quite thin, and even shorter than Jiang.
"I am Guo Da. It's no trouble; I know how tough the first days are. I only trained in healing until three months ago. They need someone to replace my father, who died in the recent skirmish against Tanaka." He drew back the bow string until his little limbs shook. The released arrow whipped through the air, but only just hit the edge of the straw man they were supposed to be striking in the head or chest.
"Careful!" Jiang called, "you'll hit me next!"
"Oh shut up…" The small boy blushed. "I can barely even see it from here!"
"I was just kidding. But that's weird; it's not even far away." Jiang replied, his own arrow escaping his protesting arms and thudding into the knee of the training dummy, instead of its stomach.
"I wouldn't know, I was born this way," Guo Da replied, lining up another shot for the head.
Their conversation ceased and they held a companionable silence until midday came around. Over their rations, Jiang inquired further into the healing process. Once he got Da talking about something he was interested in, the reserved boy became much more enthusiastic.
"… well, I can use both the tissue knit and the symptoms reliever techniques. Usually you can only use one, like with fire and invisible force. Sometimes I even get excused from training to patch up returning soldiers. Tanaka is trying to attack us along the river with their weak naval force, you know, but it's not having much effect…"
Jiang was content to continue listening. Guo Da seemed to know everything. As a healer, he was able to overhear a lot.
"At the moment, Tanaka is too afraid to try coming through the mountain passes, so we need to quell them before they get too confident. Well, that's what Sir Zhang Hua said, anyway."
"Huh?" Jiang interrupted the flow of words when he heard the familiar name, "Isn't Zhang Hua a combat officer? What was he doing in the healing wards?"
"Oh, well, it's kind of confidential…"
Jiang looked about cautiously to make sure no one would overhear them, but Da just continued on without worry.
"We actually suffered a rather hefty loss last week. Every person with healing ability was called. As far as I know, Sir Zhang only has symptom relieving and perception abilities." He paused and grinned before continuing, "He's a crack shot; you should ask him to teach you how to aim a bow properly. At least I have an excuse!"
Jiang shook his head, but felt his lip curl nonetheless. "I'm not that bad. An arrow in the knee of everyone on the other side would prevent an advance!"
They both laughed quietly so they wouldn't be overheard by the higher ranking officers. They were supposed to eat quickly and continue training, not stop for a chat. Jiang gasped as laughing hurt his already tired stomach muscles, and suppressing the laughter only made it worse.
"Oh no, we have horses up next. I know Master Huang already tried to help me out this morning, but I'm still not sure I can take much more."
A sigh of exasperation came from behind him. Jiang turned quickly only to find Li Ai in the middle of returning her dishes. "You're not supposed to join the army if you're weak! How old are you anyway, eight?"
He wasn't sure if his short stature had misled her, or she was intentionally trying to anger him. "Ten, actually, but that didn't stop me from scoring higher than you yesterday."
The teenaged girl fumed. "Shut it you low class! Your brain won't protect you from being killed on a chaotic battlefield." Her threat didn't make much sense, but she stalked off before he got a chance to point this out.
Jiang's training followed this pattern for the next six months of his life. His muscles grew harder, his feet became quicker, and his ability with fire grew exponentially. With each lecture his strategic abilities also increased, leading Zhang Hua to take a special interest in him.
Before he knew it, the New Year had come around. Jiang returned to his old residence and waited opposite the gate, wondering if his mother would come by here to see him, as they had planned before they were evicted from their home.
As he waited, he heard things. Some of it gossip about his family. "Didn't the Bai family used to live here?" A woman asked her male companion as she read the sign next to the main gate. It now read 'Yu'.
"Yes, I hear the lady of the house is now a lady of the night," the man replied, a smirk playing on his face.
Jiang's gut froze. He wasn't stupid, and he had read books. Despite his age, he definitely knew what that meant. And if it was true, he would probably never be able to find her again, at least not with only 24 hours a year at his disposal.
The woman slapped her companion's shoulder with her crimson folding fan. "Don't be so lewd! I feel sorry for the woman if that truly is the case."
Jiang stared hard at the ground, but it was not the cobblestones he saw. Sometime after the street emptied, he finally stood and slowly returned to the barracks. There was no point in waiting any longer.
Five years on…
Yuen Tai pulled the white mourning robe around him more tightly in an attempt to both block out the cold wind, and hide from the world for just a few moments more. He shivered as the light flakes of snow occasionally blew into the shrine. Even though he was in Smith territory, it was similar to those found in Li. It was uncomfortable here, but he didn't want to face a harsh reality just yet.
"Father!" The sob escaped his lips involuntarily, but it was muffled by the already tear-stained sleeve of his robe.
Solitude allowed his emotions to run free. The rest of the Smith faction was out celebrating their recent victory against the pirates that had plagued their lands for far too long. Tai, meanwhile, was prostrated before his father's ashes. In honour of his recent death, the urn was still on display.
His father had fallen in battle as a hero, right before his teenaged son. The pirate sword sliding effortlessly through the gap in his armour was not a sight Tai was like to forget any time soon. To make matters worse, the bastard who killed him had the gall to switch sides before Tai could have his revenge. He felt betrayed by his own lord, who had let the wretch remain.
Tai worried about how he would fare on the battlefield without his father's guidance. Defeating the pirates had not solved all of their problems. Tanaka, their allies to the far east, were requesting assistance in their campaign against Li. The tyrants disgusted the Smith leader, Queen Marigold, so he knew he would be back on the field of battle within the year.
But more than any of that, his father was the only one of Li he knew. Tai was a half-caste himself; his father had defected from Li to marry his mother, who had died giving birth to him. He did not know anyone in Smith who had more than a vague idea of his ancestors' language or culture. Loneliness was something he would soon have to face.
"Father!" he cried out again, too grief stricken to remain silent, or say anything more. The wind died down and his sobs echoed in the small shrine. Over his laboured breathing, Tai thought he heard a footstep.
His fists clenched as he heard the noise again. Someone was moving around behind him, at the entrance of the shrine. Someone was watching.
Since most of his allies would either be passed out from too much wine or still celebrating, he couldn't imagine who of Smith would be lurking outside a shrine dedicated to a Li religion. Tai shifted his arm to wipe away the tears, which also created a gap he could peer through to get an upside-down view of the world behind him.
He spotted a pair of mangled leather shoes attached to shins wrapped in fraying, off-white material. At the knee this graduated to a pair of baggy, faded red pants. Of course, it was the filthy, murdering pirate himself.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded in a cracked voice. The loose mourning robe that had once belonged to his father concealed his twin, oddly thin and light, machete blades well. He reached for them as he stood. Staying steady and upright posed more of a challenge than he thought it would, but he was ready to fight if it came to it.
"Yuen Tai," the ruffian said, now approaching him in his uneven swagger, since he'd been spotted. Even the way he walked was infuriating. "Look, this isn't a personal thing. How could I know he was your dad? It was either me or him." The pirate rubbed the side of his neck and wore a look of discomfort. As he should, Tai thought.
"Better my father than an ingrate like you," he snapped, wondering how his grasp on the Smith language was better than a native's, who presumably knew no other. "What's that, anyway? Your idea of an apology?" He narrowed his bloodshot eyes and waited for a response.
The pirate's bushy brows twitched and he angrily responded, "Please, mutt, if that dog hadn't beat me to the chase, I would have been your father!"
The dam holding Tai's emotions in check burst with that statement. His composure was lost to a tide of rage. "Fuck you, and the last eighteen generations of your family, Wendel James!" he screamed. A small part of him thought that insult didn't sound nearly as good in the language of Smith, but the rest of him pulled out his swords and stepped into the snow outside.
Tai shuffled closer, face fierce, blades whirring and glinting in the light of a lit torch. Wen barely looked intimidated, but his stance widened and his eyes became more alert as the younger man approached.
Wen dove between his attacker's legs and slid along the ground. Tai hesitated minutely in his confusion, but the crazy warrior had already popped up behind him. A large, calloused hand closed over his right wrist. Tai whipped about and struck out with his left, attempting to spill his attacker's guts.
The pirate shoved his thumb into the pressure point on the back of Tai's right hand. He cried out and dropped his sword, and even his left hand slowed. This opportunity was taken advantage of, and Wen leapt out of range.
"Come on, kid, that's enough. We were ordered to not kill each other."
Tai had sworn loyalty to the throne and Sir Arthur Windsor's regiment two years ago. Bound by orders, he swore bitterly and turned away. He sheathed his sword before retrieving the other.
"Ok, now you have that out of your system, let's go get a drink or something, eh?" He casually slung an arm around the shorter man's shoulders. "We could be chums, you and I. The most terrifying vanguard on all the continent!"
Tai was too surprised by this complete about-face to even contemplate being civil in return. "I wish we were still strangers," he said, pushing the other man away and stalking towards the barracks, rather than the dining hall.
Tai silently apologised to his father as he removed the white robe and his weapons. He crawled under the thick bedclothes. Sleep was a long time coming.