Steadily a plan began to form in Ru Yi Wen’s mind. A plan to get his first plan back into action. One that accounted for his current state of being caught before he even left the palace grounds. Outside the treasure house in the alleyways between pavilions, Yi Wen sat on the ground with two palace guards set on watching over him until he could be moved safely back to his own quarters in the east of the palace complex, away from the center and king’s quarters. Bloodied and covered with makeshift bandages from his well-meaning protectors, the royal cultivator’s new plan was hardly a work of art. Panic and desperation was written all over it.
“I am sure we will have your attackers at hand at any moment, your grace.” The youngest of the two nodded thoughtfully, while the older one grunted and turned to offer a hand to him.
“Let me help you to your feet, your grace.” As he reached down, Yi Wen guessed it was just as good an opening as anything else at that point.
Grasping the man’s hand, the young official simply drained the energy of the older man until he slumped over. The young guard mistook the slump for an attack and moved to protect Yi Wen, until he earned a punch to the gut for his efforts. Standing up, Yi Wen let the second guard flop onto his colleague. He stood there for a second thinking about the small heap of unconscious guards before checking his bag and then his clothes. Patting his person he felt the hard metal lump across his chest and sighed. His package had not been knocked loose in the fall onto the guards in the alley.
Leaving the two guards there, Yi Wen scrambled up the wall he had fallen from earlier. This time he was determined not to drop in on any more palace security. Running low and along the tops of walls. Yi Wen managed to reach the canal alongside the palace much later than he planned, and guards had taken to boats patrolling the canal. More hastily thrown together plans formed with each boat that he had to wait to pass by. Everything from simply hopping on and then off a boat to trying to start a fiery distraction.
Ultimately, it was a boat springing a leak in its own that caused the patrolling guards to become distracted enough for Yi Wen to dive in and swim the canal. Even after doing so, he could hear arrows land at his feet as he took off into the strip of forest separating the palace from the city. Launching from the ground, he took to the branches, hopping to and fro to try and keep ahead of the growing surge of guards in the trees below. The package chaffed him as he jumped along, until he crossed his arms over his chest as he switched from treetops to rooftops. Tears ran down his face as he felt a rush of relief knowing that had he chose any other night other than a new moon, the ridiculousness of him running amok, slipping and sliding across the roof tiles as they clatter to the ground, with his arms crossed like a child throwing a tantrum, was more than he could stand.
Tear streaked and dying on the inside, the fumbling escapee finally skidded across the last roof of the city slums and landed in the dust of the road before running off into the dense mountain forests surrounding the city. He ran full tilt for as long as he thought his body could withstand it. Tree branches snapped by him whipping at his face and arms causing him to make small yips at first, but eventually he gritted his teeth and kept going. After a long time of muscles burning, lungs worn, and skin stinging; Yi wen simply ran half-conscious through the forest, not even sure when he should stop running or if pursuers would still be following. By the time he tumbled into what he thought was a clearing and down a small slope into the river, he was barely conscious of what was going on.
Shu laughed. The quality of rogue cultivators roaming Scholar’s Terrace had fallen over the years, and the three he and Jia just finished dispatching were pathetic.
“They obviously don’t patrol Terrace like they used to.” Jia adjusted her clothes again.
“It’s been long enough. The patrols were not keeping us out anyway. I am just upset any one can climb up here now. ..Why do you keep fixing your clothes? Are you getting fat?” Giving her a once over, Shu looked between his robes and hers.
“Your head is fat. No, I just...haven’t worn these in a while. I guess I forgot something…”
“Well, keep at it. If you look unkempt. we are going to hear about it for as long as we live.”
“Please don’t…” She looked carefully at a strange gather near the waist of her robes as Shu continued climbing the reclaimed steps carved into the cliffs of Scholar’s Terrace. The dense forest trapped mist and clouds alike as the mountain rose towards the sky. The mountain’s southern face fell in sheer cliffs with flat grassy land between drops. The two still had another terrace to climb before they reached the library. Innocuous stair climbing was essential when the patrols first started, but it was never standard practice when they lived there. Time and repetition had not made the climb anymore pleasant. Shu was catching his breath by the time he reached the right clifftop. His body was prepared, but his spirit was weak and neither wanted these steps. Very quietly he started laughing to himself while he waited. Jia crowned the steps already armed with her staff by the time Shu whipped around.
“You put stitches in my clothes.”
“You called me fat! Now fight me!”
Finally at their destination on one of the highest terraces, the two had sorted out their differences. Jia double checked her clothes now that Shu let out the stitches he put in. He stretched out his bruised hands and massaged the staff-beaten knuckles and palms. The two of them examined the clearing for other people before Jia gave him the nod to start setting up. Shu gathered his pack and Jia’s, taking them out to the center of the clearing with him and then backing up until he was happy with the placement.
She walked along the edge of the clearing. The trees around them had grown back thick and the sound of birds hailing the sunset was beginning. Looking over, she saw Shu was still in the midst of setting up camp, while the more ceremonial fixtures were placed already. From afar Shu looked like a tall patch of bamboo floating around a set of candles as the sunlight died and she could see less and less aside the green of his cultivation robes. The clearing was bigger than she remembered. In an incense stick worth of time she could probably walk most of the edge of the clearing. Looking back to see if he was ready yet every so often, Jia finally raised her hand to feel where the treeline met the sheer rock face. Old soot still embedded in the rock came off as she continued walking and dragged her hand roughly along the wall. Bit by bit, her fingertips were blackened.
Gently Shu rang a small bell and Jia nodded and headed over. Sitting down she reached for the bell when Shu cleared his throat and suggested she go first. She raised an eyebrow at first, but sat herself down into lotus position anyway. As she sat quietly, barely breathing, Shu took his turn looking at the terrace. From where he sat, he could only see glimpses of the ghosts milling about on the terrace. Wisps of spirits that fed haunting memories. The clearing felt much bigger to him when the grand library sat in it, filling the space with wood, statues, and gilded totems. The stronger ghosts were obviously interacting with something unseen and he could guess they were still milling about the shelves of the old library as they too wore his robes though their faces were fading and he could only recognize a few.
Shifting himself, his thoughts wandered back from the busy ghosts to the forest and he kept scanning the trees for live people instead. There seemed to be an overabundance of deer on the mountain somehow, as he could barely go a moment without seeing the glassy reflection of their gaze looking back at him. So, he turned his attention from the creepy forest dwellers and looked to the rock face where scraps of paint and heaps of soot still clung to the wall. Most of the scenery painstakingly depicted there had been obliterated by fire, and even more of it by years of vandalism. Still in the eyes of his memory, he could still picture the visage of the Founder on its wall. It was the only part of the mural that he could really remember.
His parents always told him the mural was done long ago, but not nearly long enough to be of the real person. Strangely, that did not keep him from being forced to kneel on rice when he commented on how pointless that was. The memory was almost laughable in a world where much of the mural’s subjects had been erased; when he and Jia needed the reminders of their history the most. Bells sounded softly from the bracelet around Jia’s wrist and Shu sighed, moving his lips silently he started practicing what he was going to say.
From Lotus position, Jia allowed herself to think and feel past the limits of her corporeal body and she focused on the content of the clearing. Focusing her energy on what she had seen and not the darkness she could see now at the back of her eyelids. Slowly as she opened her eyes in the inauspicious plane, the library appeared before her. The mundane was barely visible from where she sat, the physical bodies of trees and animals little more than ghosts in this plane where everything was a spirit already. As people gathered closer to her she stood up, looked back down to barely visible Shu and then checked her clothes and bracelet. When she was sure she had everything, she stepped away from her own body and joined the other spirits. They lead her quietly from the opening of the library to a small desk farther in. Among the quietly chattering crowd were people long gone from the mundane plane, but regular fixtures there at the library: her mother, some martial uncles, old teachers, one or two old masters. Behind the desk was the eldest leader of the sect when she was a child.
Bowing deep Jia folded her hands and greeted him. The crowd rearranged into rows of onlookers on either side. He raised his wrinkled hands in a greeting and gestured to the cushion before the desk. Nodding, she sat gingerly. He cleared his throat. For a powerful man it always surprised Jia to see how aged his spirit was, the folds of his face that deepened when he smiled and he had a never-ending beard that he stroked when he was thinking of creative ways to correct someone’s behavior. It never occurred to any of the children that he would actually look like this when he joined their ancestors.
“Still pondering on how old I look there, young Jianxia?”
Jia almost jumped, but reeled herself in at the last moment. “I apologize, Laoshi. It is just...very unexpected, that is all.” She folded her hands in apology. He chuckled, stroking that beard of his. “Please don’t tease me, Laoshi.”
“All right, all right. Shall we begin the business which has us convened here?” He looked to the crowd of nodding people and lastly to the young man standing just to the side and behind him.
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