|The Art of War
Author: Guede Mazaka
They are all orphans in one sense or the other, gone astray from the regimented patterns of society, beholden to nothing and no one except love and honor. Broken Sword remembers the horror of seeing his parents fall, and how the sound of their drops of blood hitting the ground echoed through the ripping of the weave that held him safe and warm in peace. He knows greater freedom now than he ever would have had within the knotted net of kinship ties and filial piety, but he still feels the cost that was torn out of him.
Nameless remembers nothing. He was too young—even now, with the delicate etching of time creeping over his face, he still seems too young. Calm and quiet, his eyes are the closest thing to rest that exists in this time, but when his sword is in his hand, he glides into a seamless frenzy. What he does know is what he has seen since Flying Snow’s father adopted him, what travails and ravages his country has suffered under Ch’in’s incursions, and those sights have stirred to life a wave that is still building in strength.
As for the women, Flying Snow knows only that her birth had killed her mother, and she knew only the side of her father that had fought relentlessly, yet never had ceased to eat and drink of despair till it had drowned him. Moon, she’s told Sky, came to Broken Sword with the blood of her slaughtered family mixed with the blood of the Ch’in soldier she had killed still on her hands.
And Sky remembers his parents, and he remembers everything that had happened, but he keeps his silence. Some wounds are better bandaged than exposed to fresh air. But he is as without family as the rest of them.
If these were different times, he might laugh at the strange ways they have come together. The daughter of a great noble and military line, proud and beautiful and talented, deigning to help twist up a peasant girl’s hair...and the peasant girl letting her gaze drift from her master’s demonstrations to the slim elegance watching from the side. When Broken Sword deftly trips his apprentice into embarrassment, Sky doesn’t attempt to moderate his laughter.
The gaze Moon gives him is hot with humiliation and anger, and the one from Flying Snow is not particularly happy, either, but it matters little to him. Even if Ch’in were not always filling the horizon with its black ants, manners would count less with him than they do with them. They think he is uncouth because he wears his clothes to rags and frequents gaming houses, because he goes his own ways and follows his own strategies. He pays no attention to boundaries and borders, whereas they devote much time to pulling the lines toward where they wish them to be.
He doesn’t think—he knows what he wants, and it is something simpler and yet more complex than their dreams of a restored Zhao. Ch’in walks in his nightmares, but a Zhao prison is little better than a Ch’in one; what Sky wishes is a land where one such as he may wander freely, without fear and watchfulness. He does not want All-Under-Heaven, but merely under heaven, all.
So he comes and goes, drifting in and out of the lives here. Occasionally he does coordinate with the others, because he does see the sense of an unbroken wall as well as them; he merely prefers the gateways.
It was in a gateway that he had met Broken Sword, the both of them fighting their way from opposite sides to the same exit. In the end, the way turned out to lead in a third direction, and had ended at the house of Flying Snow’s father, where Sky had grudgingly accepted food and medicine. Then, Flying Snow and Broken Sword had had the same dream, and Nameless had only been a thin-wristed student bent over rolls of bamboo strips. But he wrote quicker and clearer than any other scribe Sky had ever seen, the brush like a piece of lightning in his hand.
Sometimes Flying Snow calls Sky an alley cat, always sidling back once he’s had one good meal at a place. Her words are half-affectionate, half-pointed, and he always smiles and gives her the respect that is due to her. He drifts, but there are only a few places that call him back season after season, like rivers meandering towards the ocean. He treasures them how he can, when he can.
Nameless was not shy, he soon discovered, but merely reticent. And Broken Sword was never far from Sky’s sight, but gateways have keepers that should not be offended, and then Flying Snow still held the keys. Sky contented himself with teasing the Ch’in borders and testing the student, seeing whether the man’s refusal to take a name was merely feelings of inadequacy or something with substance.
Later, the war edged ever further into Zhao’s lands, and they flew ever farther into Ch’in’s. Sometimes when Sky visited, he could see the fire and flash still burning in Flying Snow’s eyes, and he could hear the awakened fury in her voice. She was growing past her childhood home, her land of green peace that she had offered Broken Sword, and she was developing a taste for the mantle of her father. Whereas he turned inwards, sought truth with the same ferocity that his sword sought Ch’in blood, and his fervor no longer sang in time with hers.
It was interesting to watch how Moon kindled from Flying Snow, despite the younger girl’s first belief that it was her master that inspired such in her. An old story, given new dress, and Sky was so intrigued that he stayed up too late one night speaking with Broken Sword while the two women skirmished with smiles and eyes behind them. When he finally returned to his room, Nameless had twisted the quilts into a knot around him and was breathing, steady and slow and light. For a long time, Sky squatted by the bed and listened to restfulness.
And then, for a sweet short while, he was too busy learning the taste of ink-stained fingers and memorizing how rough sword calluses could draw out soft silken cries.
He left. Sky needed air and rain and space in the best of times, and when war crashed nearly to the threshold, throwing up long lines of wounded and dead-spirited limping home from the battlefield, he couldn’t but go. He rode the storms, made his spear something that they feared as much as the wrath of heaven, and once in a while, he would steal into a chesshouse and play a languid game while he remembered the last remnants of innocence.
Nameless eventually found him, but Sky bedded a man then, and was in turn bedded. The other man spoke little about the commentaries and texts he had once loved so much, and only occasionally about Broken Sword. One night, with the screens shut and the candle between them, he faltered from meeting Sky’s eyes for the first time. And he mentioned the failed attempt.
Sky had been in the other end of the country then, and had not received word in time to come. But he had heard the rumors, and he had shaved off gossip’s dross till they had started to be sensible in a way that pained him. The news Nameless brought did not soothe him, though he did his best to soothe the confusion and uncertainty in the other man, who after all still had not partaken of the bitter cynicism of age.
There was a pause in the fighting—Ch’in drew back, and though Sky did not trust the artificial peace that was created, he nevertheless took advantage of it to bring them back.
When he walked in, Moon greeted him and brought him to Flying Snow first. That was the first sign. When he went to dinner, Broken Sword was already there and sitting by Nameless, speaking in low tones that ceased after he swept his robes out of the way and took his place. That was the second sign.
And when he went to bed, Nameless’ head on his shoulder and his hands stealing inside the other man’s robes, Broken Sword stepped out of the shadows by the door. That was the third and last sign.
By then, Sky was tired. His spear-arm dragged with a fatigue that never quite leached from his bones, his step slowed when it could, and his twist towards Nameless grew ever tighter. He could tolerate disorder everywhere else, but he’d become accustomed to its absence here. Perhaps even dependent.
What he did then, he did for peace. And then for other things, like the scar that arced over Broken Sword’s shoulder and the way the other man moved beneath his hands and the gentleness in how Broken Sword took Nameless’ mouth while Sky took Nameless’ wiry heat.
Afterwards, with Nameless’ hand curled around his hip and Broken Sword a heavy press against his side, Sky looked and listened. Flirtatious shadows on the screens. Light footsteps. But no feminine laughter—he and the other two hadn’t laughed either, or smiled, but had only clutched at each other. And that was when he knew he had only bought some time.
If they had had family still, and all the social trappings that went along with that, perhaps Sky would not feel this aching sore in his gut, and would not press his lips to Nameless’ skin as if it were about to disappear beneath him. Perhaps he would be able to rest his hand on Broken Sword’s back and feel the worth of what he has been given without resenting the cost that will be later exacted. But that is the counterweight of walking alone, with only themselves to bear the burden.
Sky cannot hold all the different paths of the future in his head. He fears the next day. His fingers begin to curl and he has to remind himself not to let them inflict injury on the warm bodies nestled against him. But sleep will not come, because he looks out at the gate and he does not know whether he can step on it alone once more, or whether he will choose company this time.