Wu Jian cried out as he was struck in the face. The world tilted as he spun like a top. He struck the snow-covered ground with a harsh thud, crying out once more as he smacked his elbow against the cold surface. A stinging sensation spread from his cheek to his jaw. His elbow stung fiercely, blood trailing across his skin, dripping to the ground. He reached up to touch his cheek and jerked it away with a hiss of pain. The sudden movement caused his elbow to cry out in pain.
Tears gathered in his eyes.
“Ha ha ha! Look at this wimp! Check it out! He’s actually crying!”
“Can you believe this pathetic shrimp is the heir of our clan?”
“There’s no way we can let a baby like him remain the clan heir. He’ll bring shame to our forefathers. I think you should be the clan heir, Master Yong.”
Three people stood over Wu Jian. All of them looked similar. Wu Yong, Wu Ming, and Wu Fei were all members of the Wu Clan, like Wu Jian. Wu Yong was Wu Jian’s older half-brother. He had dark hair like Wu Jian, but his eyes were cyan instead of black. At ten years of age, he was two years older than Wu Jian, which meant he was bigger and stronger too.
Because he was the son of their father’s second wife, Wu Yong was not the clan heir despite being stronger. That could change when they both came of age. He could challenge Wu Jian for the position, but this was how things were right now. Wu Jian wondered if that was why Wu Yong constantly tormented him. Was he jealous that someone much weaker than himself was the clan heir simply for being the son of their father’s first wife?
He often bullied Wu Jian whenever no one else was around. That was why Wu Jian tried to stay in places that were crowded, but Wu Yong and his lackeys caught him when he was coming back from the restroom.
Snow fell from the sky as Wu Jian lay on the ground, tears pricking his eyes. Freezing cold trails of water caused his cheeks to tingle, mixing with the sting of where he had been struck. His hands and shins felt like they had been turned into blocks of ice as white powder gathered on his body. Perhaps he should be grateful to winter’s chill, for the coldness has numbed his cheek and elbow to the point where he couldn’t feel the pain as acutely.
“What’s the matter? Get up. Stop acting so pathetic!”
“You shame our clan by looking like a girl! Are you a man or a woman?!”
Wu Jian sniffled and tried not to cry. Their words cut deep. What made them worse was how nothing they said was false. With his pale skin, glossy black hair, and delicate appearance, he really did look like a girl. Everyone always said so. Even his father often said he wished Wu Jian could be manlier.
As his three bullies continued to taunt and tease him, someone leapt onto the snow and rushed over to them. It was a young girl about the same age as Wu Jian. She had pure white skin, long dark hair, and eyes that were the color of the sky. She stood in front of Wu Jian and spread her arms wide as though to protect him. With her back turned to him, he could not see her expression, but he could well imagine the glare she was directing at the three boys.
“What do you three think you’re doing?!” asked the girl. Her voice was young and girlish, but her tone was sharp and cutting like a drawn sword.
The three boys froze.
“Now, now, Meiying, we weren’t doing anything,” Wu Yong began, stuttering. His cheeks were red. “We were just giving my younger brother some pointers. That’s all.”
While Wu Meiying was considered an oddball by most members of their clan because of the strange things she often said, her pretty appearance was enough to earn her the admiration of all the boys their age. Even some of the older boys were smitten with her. Wu Jian often got many jealous glares thrown his way because they were always together.
Wu Jian couldn’t see Wu Meiying’s face, but then she turned around and looked at him. Her vibrant eyes gazed into his, then looked down at his bruised cheek and the blood dripping from his elbow, and her face flushed with anger as she whirled back to the three boys. Her glare must have been powerful because all three took a step back.
“You are giving pointers to someone outside of the training hall? Do you take me for a fool? I know what you are doing. You will stop bullying Wu Jian right now, or I will tell Uncle Wu and Aunty Àiliàn about this,” she declared.
Wu Ming and Wu Fei looked toward Wu Yong like they didn’t know what to do and were waiting for his orders. On the other hand, Wu Yong gazed at Wu Meiying with a face that Wu Jian couldn’t place. All he knew was that he didn’t like it. He didn’t want other boys looking at Wu Meiying like that.
“Tch. Come on, you two. We’re leaving,” Wu Yong said at last. He gave Wu Jian a glare and said, “You really are a disgrace. Someone who hides behind a girl for protection isn’t worthy of leading the clan. I promise you, I will take away the position of clan heir once you come of age.”
“That is not for you to decide.” Wu Meiying bared her teeth at the older boy.
Scoffing to hide how unsettled he was, Wu Yong turned around, gestured for his two lackeys to follow him, and walked off. Wu Meiying waited until she was sure Wu Yong was gone, then turned to Wu Jian. She knelt and gave him a kind smile.
Despite being the same age as him—eight years-old—she seemed so much older than he did. The way she stuck up for him was just one example. She was a lot better than him at their lessons, was better than him during their combat training, and acted so mature most of the time. She always knew what to say, what to do. It was like she could do anything she put her mind to.
That was why he looked up to her. It was why he always relied on her for protection even though he felt ashamed doing so.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
Wu Jian wiped his nose and tried to suck in his tears. The truth was he felt pathetic. Wu Yong might have been a bully, but he was right about one thing. Wu Jian was always hiding behind Wu Meiying for protection. Whenever someone picked on him because of his girly appearance, or because he was weak, or for any other reason, she would be the one who saved him. He was happy that she cared so much, but he also felt weak because he needed her to protect him.
Wu Yong is right. I am pathetic. How can someone as weak as I be the clan heir? Maybe it would be better if I let Wu Yong become clan heir.
“Come on. Let’s go to the hospital wing and get you patched up,” Wu Meiying said as she stood up and held out her hand. Despite his conflicted feelings, Wu Jian took her hand and let the girl lead him away.
While everyone else in the clan looked very similar to each other, Wu Meiying alone looked different. Her face, hair, and general appearance had none of the similarities shared by members of the Wu Clan. She was not a member of their clan. His mother had found Wu Meiying one day, abandoned in a basket, and taken her home. She was then adopted into the clan and named Meiying.
The name Meiying meant “beautiful flower.” It had been his mother’s hope that she would grow up to be a beautiful young woman, and it looked like her wish was coming true. Wu Meiying was easily the prettiest girl in the entire clan. Even the people who didn’t like her because of the odd things she said often expressed admiration for her beauty.
The hospital wing was located in a building not far from where Wu Yong had bullied him. It was a big building. They walked across the walkway, entered through the shoji door, and came into an empty room. It had beds and medicine cabinets. Nobody was there at the moment, but Wu Meiying didn’t let that bother her as she led Wu Jian over to a bed, sat him down, and walked to the medicine cabinet. Wu Jian said nothing as he watched her rummage through the cabinet. She came back moments later with cotton pads and ointment.
“Hold still, okay?” she instructed.
Wu Jian nodded. “Okay.”
Wu Meiying dabbed the cotton in the ointment, then applied some, first to his elbow, then his face. He flinched when an itchy sensation spread across his elbow and cheek, but it was soon replaced by a soothing warmth. As she applied ointment to his face, Wu Meiying spoke again.
“Did those three hit you anywhere else?”
Wu Jian shook his head. “Just my face.”
Wu Meiying huffed. “It’s not ‘just’ your face. It’s the ultimate disgrace to slap someone like they did, and they did it to you. I cannot believe they would hit their clan heir in the face like that. Hmph. The nerve of them! I’ll show them what happens when you hit my Jian next time we spar. I’ll beat them to a pulp.”
Wu Jian looked down and said nothing. Since he was so small, his feet didn’t reach the floor. He kicked them listlessly and let Wu Meiying finish spreading ointment on his face. She finished by placing a patch made from bamboo leaves over it. His elbow was similarly patched up.
“You know… maybe if you learned to stand up for yourself, they would not pick on you so much,” Wu Meiying said hesitantly.
“How can I do that? Wu Yong and his friends are so much bigger than me. Even if I did stand up for myself, I would just get beaten more. That’s what happened the last time I tried to stand up for myself,” Wu Jian said. It wasn’t like he hadn’t stood up for himself before, but the last time he had done so, it resulted in a much more violent beating. He had learned his lesson and never tried to stand up to his bullies again.
“Maybe at first, but you can always… get… get…”
“Meiying? What’s wrong?”
Wu Jian looked worried as Wu Meiying trailed off. Her eyes had become vacant and glassy. She swayed where she stood like she was dizzy. Wu Jian had seen her get like this before. While not frequent, it happened enough times that Wu Jian understood what was going on. Wu Meiying was about to predict the future. A shiver ran down his back. Every prediction she had ever made came true. He wondered what she would predict this time.
He waited for a few minutes, but when she just remained standing there with that glassy look in her eyes, he became worried. It had never taken her more than a few seconds to come back. That she was staying like this made him worry that she might have lost her soul.
“Meiying? Are you okay?” He placed his hands on her shoulders and lightly shook her.
Blinking several times, Wu Meiying’s eyes regained their original clarity. She looked at him with a soft gaze that made his face heat up. He didn’t know why she was staring at him like that, but then she cupped his cheek and stroked it with her thumb.
“Do you love me?” she asked.
“Of course I do,” Wu Jian said without hesitation.
“And you want to marry me, right?”
“Yes. Of course. Didn’t we… didn’t we promise we would get married when we grew up?”
Wu Meiying nodded, her face more serious than he ever remembered seeing it. A chill ran through him. Why was she looking at him like that?
“Listen, Wu Jian. Please listen carefully. If you want us to get married, to stay together like this forever, then you must become stronger. If you don’t…”
“Will something bad happen if I don’t?” asked Wu Jian, a tremor in his voice.
Wu Meiying’s lips trembled. “If you don’t become stronger, then I’m afraid… I will be taken somewhere very far away, somewhere you’ll never be able to reach me. I don’t want to be taken away from you. I want to stay with you forever. So, please, promise that you will become strong. Become so strong that even if I am taken away, you will be able to reach me.”
Wu Jian did not know why Wu Meiying was saying all this, but he had a very bad feeling about it. He believed her. If she said she would be taken somewhere he couldn’t reach her unless he was strong, then it was probably true. Wu Meiying often made predictions like this, and they always happened just like she said they would. That she would say something like this shook him up. He swallowed heavily and nodded once.
“Okay. I promise. Starting now, I’ll train hard and become stronger.”
Wu Meiying’s smile reminded him of the cherry blossoms that bloomed during the new year. It stole his breath. For the sake of that smile, Wu Jian would gladly walk through fire and lava. He would tear apart the heavens themselves if it meant he would get to see her smile like this all the time. As he looked at her smile, only one thought occurred to him.
I have to get stronger!