|All Under Heaven
Author: Guede Mazaka
He parries ten blows and feels the eleventh slip through his guard. The men of Ch’in are like ants: not particularly skilled, but not spirited, either. They rise and fall like a waterfall of pale blurring ripples among rocks of helmet and armor, and they flow endless as the yellow waters of the river. His arms are tired, and a trace of wet hot burn is etching down his sleeve. His footing slips.
Just before he falls, he sees a silver fish flashing through the darkness, and twinned pools of calmness.
* * *
The screen to the veranda is slightly ajar so his weakened gaze is not unduly strained by either blackness or brilliance. Outside, a willow weeps golden tears onto the hard brown dirt, and inside, the style of the enemy predominates.
A servant, plain and silent, comes once in a while to bring food, water, changes of clothing—cut like the cut of the people of Zhao. She is an old, married woman, and no matter what he says, she will not volunteer any more information.
He does not know where his spear is, and he can feel the hollowness whenever he closes his fingers into a fist around the sheets.
The bandages and the medicine are skillfully done, but somehow he feels the lack of detachment that marks the doctor. When his injured leg can just bear his weight, he pulls himself up and runs his fingers over the spare lines of the room, the few pieces of furniture. On one shelf, he finds well-thumbed classics of the Confucians. On another, he finds Sun Tzu’s writings. Wood strips of notes are intercalated with the texts in the sections on spies and intelligence-gathering; they bespeak a learned, thoughtful, compassionate man that is nevertheless drawing nearer to the attraction of force. If he were Broken Sword, perhaps he could see more in the sharp, precise brushstrokes and the occasional meandering swoop of ink.
Behind the one cabinet, which holds only spare blankets, he finds a cut brush. When his thumb rolls over the smooth, slightly blackened sliced ends, he can almost feel the passing of the sword that halved it.
This he recognizes, and knows, but he still does not understand.
* * *
One night, he looks at the shuttered screen and sees darkness rattling the slats of dim torchlight that pass through. When he moves the door, a shadow leaps onto the far wall and whirls a storm across it.
The man outside completes his practice and carefully sheathes his sword before glancing over. For a long moment, they stare at each other.
He thinks he sees a man of Ch’in. But he cannot say that he is certain. That disturbs him long enough for the man to give him a slight bow and depart.
In the morning, he opens the inner door and finds his spear, which has been cleaned with the same meticulous, meditative care that his host had taken in putting away his blade without signaling surrender or contempt. When he wraps his hands around the shaft, he finds that he can move without anything more than a dull ache afflicting his wounds.
Pillowing the spear is a leather bag for the head. There is no money, no passport, and thus nothing to offend his pride.
He takes his leave of the house that day, but only after searching the place for any sign of the other man. After an initial protest, the servants only follow him like silent dogs, quietly watching and noting in a way that grates his nerves. They will say nothing more than that the master is about his business.
Once out on the street, he scratches the details of the house on his bones and walks away without a backward look.
* * *
The flame is only the tiny bit topping a candle. He holds his palm above it and wonders if the heat will crack his fortune out of himself.
In the corner, drunks sing and dice and grumble about the local prefect. A wash of foul urine coats the entire dank hole, and the smell of greed makes the women stale and hateful to him. He confines himself to a single cup of tea, which he watched be made, and holds his own counsel.
* * *
Departing from the chesshouse one day, he nearly runs over a man, so quiet and unobtrusive the other is. Then he looks again, and recognizes the eyes and the sword, and wonders that he missed it before.
Hours-old rain dews the eaves and slicks the rocks as their first words tentatively flow around each other, then merge. They speak of Ch’in and Zhao, of the king that would be emperor, of war and conquest and waste. While the masses of humanity wash over the streets, like so many erroneous ink-blots on the paper of the land, they touch on the delicate matters of loyalty and identity. The other man moves his hands once to show a scar that stamped him as a man of Zhao so long ago, no matter what stories his foster parents layered over it, and silk restlessly whispers over newly-healed scars from Ch’in.
* * *
The prefect knows where the secluded alleys, the forgotten bends of the city, all lay. He cradles himself against the stone walls of one and raises his eyes to heaven as their hands stress the grain of their clothes into distorted waves, as their bodies mourn and rage and argue further. Neither of them say anything about the bite of salt on the tongue, or the clang of metal as the spear tilts from its resting place to the pebbles spiking the ground.
The man’s sword remains against his back, hidden but with the hilt showing so Sky can remember the war ravages without as well as within.
* * *
Like Yü carving order into the flooded earth, they arrange and direct so the attention of the Imperial Guards flows, slowly but surely, towards this insignificant district. In the mornings and afternoons, the prefect keeps the law of his adopted country. In the evenings, Sky cuts its tendons in favor of their birth land while the other man closes up his office and writes many letters to the capital.
One twilight, Sky finds his way back to the house. He walks into the courtyard and lays his palms against the willow, now devoid of all leaves, and he presses his flesh into the bark until the roughness draws blood. The sap is falling, burying itself for the death of winter in blind faith that spring will lift it to life once more.
His forehead thuds against the trunk, and his wrists do not cross under it to soften the impact, but instead cross lower, round bones shoved up in his teeth so his cries deflect back within himself. Nails roll his robes out of the way, fingers run their sword-calluses down his back and their brush-calluses between his legs, drawing heat up from somewhere to warm them both. He rocks up on his toes and bites down on his skin so his own sinews shiver nervously against his sharp teeth, and he sinks back into palms curving his waist and a warm mouth resting on the back of his neck.
Voices will not come, but they speak of this anyway.
* * *
His side hurts with every breath, and his ribs wish to burst against their confining bandages. His hand restlessly fingers the smooth, almost warm end of his spear where the chop went, and he stares at the chess pieces on the table as if thought alone would move them. When the rain comes, he holds out the spear-shaft so it catches a roof-drip on one end and glides it down to the board, washing away the flat round stones. No one has partnered him, so it matters little.
Zhao rises all around him, glorious and beautiful in a defiant explosion of life. But when he looks toward the border, he sees the creep of black winter coming soft beneath the color, which turns all red with the blood of sacrifice.