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.
With a wince, Wu Jian pushed himself up. He reached up to touch his cheek and jerked it away with a hiss of pain. The sudden movement also sent a sharp jolt through his elbow.
Tears gathered in his eyes. His actions caused his bullies to jeer at him.
“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 just like him. Wu Yong was Wu Jian’s older half-brother. He had dark hair and the shape of his face was similar to Wu Jian’s, 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!”
“Stop bringing shame to your clan, you pathetic excuse for an heir!”
“You look like a girl. The least you can do is act like a man.”
Wu Jian sniffled and tried not to cry. Their words cut deep. What made it 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, hurling insults that cut deeper than his injuries, 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 the same color as the bright blue 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 directed 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 whenever they were always together.
They were almost always together, so he was pretty much always glared at.
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 on 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 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 this 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 Ming and Wu Fei hesitated before chasing after him.
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 she 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 that 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, for being a coward, 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 me 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 appearance.
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 she rummaged through the cabinet. He sat there with his head lowered.
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 to 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.
When was that? It had to be just after Wu Yong began picking on me…
Wu Meiying bit her lip. “But… isn’t it frustrating to be looked down on like that?”
“It is frustrating… it’s really frustrating,” Wu Jian admitted, and as he did, the tears he’d been keeping carefully in check flowed down his face. “I hate it. I hate being so weak. I hate being a coward. I don’t want to be weak anymore. I don’t want to be afraid. I don’t want to be a disgrace to my father. I want my family to be proud of my… but I just… I just…!”
As bitter tears of frustration poured from his eyes, Wu Meiying pulled his head toward her and hugged him tight. She rested her cheek against the crown of his hair. Wu Jian stifled a sob as he wrapped his arms around his best friend and cried out all of his frustration.
“Do you feel better?” asked Wu Meiying.
“Sniff… sniff… a little.”
“Good. Wu Jian, you don’t want to keep being like this, right? You want to change, right?”
“Of course I do. I want to be stronger. I want to be more courageous.”
“Then would you listen to my suggestion?”
“What is it?”
“Right now, you’re not doing anything to get stronger. You only train during Instructor Lan’s lessons, but that’s not enough to get stronger.”
“So you’re suggesting I train outside of our lessons?”
“If you want to get stronger, this is the only way. I know for a fact that Wu Yong and the others are training outside of class. I’ve seen them.”
“Okay. I’ll train hard. I’ll train really hard so I won’t bring disgrace to my family anymore.”
“That’s the spirit! And I’ll help you! I… I…”
“Hm? Mei? 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. A shiver ran down his back.
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.
“Mei? Mei, 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.
“Did you see something?” asked Wu Jian.
Wu Meiying bit her lip, then pressed their foreheads together. She looked seconds away from crying.
“I… did…” she confessed.
“What did you see?”
“I don’t know if I should say…”
“Is it that bad?” Wu Meiying nodded. He took a deep breath. “Then I think you should tell me. It might help.”
“Okay,” Wu Meiying whispered. She took a deep breath. “I saw… you… you were lying on the ground in a puddle of blood, and you weren’t moving. I… I screamed your name out over and over, but you didn’t respond, and I couldn’t reach you. Someone was dragging me away, and I… I… I’m so worried, Jian. What does this mean?”
Wu Jian said nothing as Wu Meiying began crying now. This time, he pulled her into a hug.
Wu Meiying often made predictions. They usually weren’t serious. She once told Wu Hao that he would break his arm climbing a tree. He didn’t believe her and several days later broke his arm after climbing a tree. She had told Grandpa Son that he would suffer a back injury if he kept overworking himself. He had laughed her off and told her not to worry, that his body was stronger than it looked… only to suffer a back injury that put him out of commission for a week because he had overstressed his spine. Right now, she had a vision that made his blood run cold. Was that in his future? Dying as the girl he loved was taken from him?
I refuse to accept that.
“I don’t know what it means, but I won’t let it come to pass. I promise, starting now, I’ll train hard and become stronger. I’ll become so strong the future you saw will never happen.”
Wu Jian was sick of being weak, sick of being a coward, and sick of being a disgrace to his clan. He wanted to make his father proud. He wanted his clan to think highly of him. He wanted to be stronger for himself, but more than anything, he didn’t want to see this girl cry.
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.
“Thank you, Jian… really… thank you so much. I don’t want to be separated from you.”
“I don’t want that either.”
Wu Meiying pulled him into another hug that he happily accepted. As he and his best friend in the entire world held each other tight, a single thought occurred to him.
I have to get stronger!