Author: Guede Mazaka
The river has flooded recently and left behind its thick coating of silt to soften the riverbank. Where their feet have treaded, careless and casual, there are now deep half-moon indentations slowly filling with water.
Nameless has been careful and circumspect, even though no one else is in sight, and so he walks on the beaten path. If asked, he can say that he went to inspect the bank for vagrants. But Sky is sure of himself, striding along now on the grass and now on the trail. He could walk without leaving a single mark upon the earth, but instead he seems to take special care in stamping his presence on the soil. It is the same with his frequenting of chess houses, his bold blatant incursions into the heart of the country. He breaks through the steel bands of order as if they were nothing more than the threads in a spider’s web.
Even now, his laughter shakes his long tail of hair the way a proud stallion tosses its mane, and his talk is full of the coarse, crude humor of the life he says exists outside of Ch’in’s brutally colorless order. He tells of highborn women falling for rascals and lowborn whores eeling their way to the palaces of lords and kings, of fairies descending to consort with men, of bandits and cheating merchants and lying scholars. He tells of the Ch’in men he has sent to their ancestors in the weeks preceding this visit, with no sparing of compliments to himself. He tells of the Zhao warriors and their courtly honor, which he derides as so much useless gallantry even as he catches Nameless’ cap when a stiff breeze knocks it aslant and then off.
“But for all that, I would rather live under them than under your Ch’in lords, with their ranks and ranks of soldiers. Well-trained, but no more spirit and no more life than the broken-down horses of your messenger service.” Sky smiles, one half sharp, and sets the cap back on Nameless’ head.
“They are not my lords,” Nameless corrects. He looks about to see that no one yet has come across them, and by the time he finishes, Sky has already reached the river.
The other man reshoulders his spear so he can remove the leather spearhead cover without glancing up from the waters. When he touches the very tip of his toe to the surface, only one circle forms before the swift current of the river absorbs his small disturbance into its larger one. “True enough. I never thought to find such as you here.”
Since he discovered his true birthright, Nameless has learned many things from many masters. But all of them preferred the serene to the wild, the controlled to the chaotic, the patterned to the organic. Save for Sky, who alone would hold practice on a flood-swollen river.
One leap puts the man into the middle of the river, his feet riding light over the long brisk ripples as a sunlight on air. His robes he bundles a few inches higher about his waist so that they do not drag in the water. Then he settles back into a slouch some fools might deem unguarded and beckons for Nameless. He whistles as well, but in contrast to his low taste in stories, the tune he chooses is a song of the high court.
When Nameless steps upon the water, the earlier roles are reversed and it is him who has to dance from spot to spot, striving to keep his feet from sinking too deeply into the water. Smooth calm lakes are to him as the earth is, and there he would be Sky’s equal, but here he is still a clumsy student with leaden feet.
Nevertheless Sky does not deign to delay his first feint, and Nameless does not wish that the other man had.
They parry and counterstrike, each probing the fluidity of the other’s defense, hoping to find that one opening that would crystallize the opponent’s guard into something collapsible. It is a close match, for Nameless has come far, but in the end, it is he whose concentration breaks the fragile balance. His leg falls knee-deep into the water, and then the rest of him follows so he stands waveringly on submerged slick rocks while silver nudges lightly at his throat.
“And once again, no,” Sky says, grinning again. He is lofty as a god on his undisturbed perch, and he knows. “Don’t mistake this for a matter of trust. The whole undertaking hinges on your ability to betray the land that fed you.”
Then he lowers his spear and takes one step away from Nameless, turning profile towards Nameless’ sword, which still hangs heavy above the waters. Around them the water rushes around, buffeting Nameless’ back, and the growling current speaks of long frustration.
But, Nameless acknowledges, it is not the water or the frustration that swings his sword, that pushes his body into a lunge that, startlingly, catches Sky into the water.
For a moment afterward Nameless is frantic, dropping his sword and grabbing handfuls of wet cloth out of the way. His fingers search and discover no wound just as Sky blows out a long arc of water and stands, Nameless’ sword in his hand and a twist of regret around his mouth.
A moment beyond that, the other man presses the hilt back into Nameless’ hand so hard that the flesh is cut. But the river’s cold waters soon numb that, and the blood is swallowed up by the dark clear blue. Sky’s spear is on the bank, head buried in the black earth like a warrior’s grave marker flagging under the weight of time, and his hands are clasped around Nameless’ wrist so the sword-tip rests against his chest.
“And now—yes.” The other man bows his head so his hair, wet and come loose, drips a veil around them. His breathing is slow and shallow and unsteady, as when just waking. “I will write a note of introduction to Broken Sword and Flying Snow for you.”
“The Imperial guards will be here on the eve of tomorrow,” Nameless replies, throat catching ever tighter. His voice is soaked in the dampness that gathers between them, threatening to drag them further into the water, and he realizes only now that this is the end of the vulgarity, the teasing, the story-telling.
He wades out to put his sword alongside Sky’s spear, and before he can turn around there are hands at his waist and a wet, hot mouth on the back of his neck. But when he twists to face the other man, the rush slows and the lingering begins, for they have already begun their leave-taking.
* * *
Later on the road to Zhao, Nameless thinks on what it has taken already, on what he has given up both for the country he wishes to destroy and for the country he wishes to save. For even if he succeeds, he and Sky will still not see each other again.
Even if he lives, they will not see each other again. He would not allow it after learning his true capacities for loyalty and faith.
When the blazing sun forces him to sip the water he has brought with him, he tastes the lament that was on Sky’s tongue. When the rocking of his horse bangs his hilt into his side, he tastes first the fury and then the fear that had accompanied that one strike that had decided it. And he turns his head forward to the road and to the only article of devotion he still retains.
Ch’in will fall. And he will be waiting for it, because he has already lost his footing.