“Remember, Mi-Mi, Rainy, you two stay close to me, ya?” Mei Lin reminds us for the third time. Poor little thing. I guess she's nervous. Can't blame her, really. I'm nervous too. If I had a choice, we would have just left the city. 'Just may be a tiny bit of bloodshed'.
Giving her my best smile, I reassure her the best I can. “No need for you to worry, I won't let anything happen to you. Me and Sumila will protect you.” She gives me a very unladylike face, all scrunched up and angry, and I resist the urge to pinch her cheeks. We walk slowly, waiting for someone to announce us, before we enter the main stage. They make a big show of having everyone enter by rank of importance. It's a giant farce. We're in a pavilion, and at the far wall is the main 'stage', a large wide platform raised by a single step. Just one step higher, but all the face. I'm not sure if I'm using that right. The important people eat there, and everyone else eats outside.
Face is a sociological concept, of self prestige and respect. The Magistrate shows face by inviting us, we give face by accepting. It's not all as simple as that, but that's the gist. These people will kill and maim over face. It makes manners exceptionally important. If we had declined for any reason short of a death in the family, we would have alienated the magistrate, maybe even angered him over a perceived loss of face. Stupid concept. So when the invitation came, it sort of ruined my plans for a nice, quiet escape. I don't know what prompted the invitation, but I was specifically requested, along with Akanai and Taduk. I hope it's just Fung pulling strings.
We're currently inside the reception hall, and the building is massive. I wouldn't be surprised if a thousand people could fit in here comfortably. The Magistrate's Palace is on its own island, supposedly the center of the city. Hugely inconvenient, with one access bridge, and incredibly opulent. A magistrate is not a judge like I had thought, but rather a city ruler. With cities being so large, that includes a fair amount of power. Fung's daddy is a pretty big deal it seems. I wouldn't have guessed it. Pretty level-headed kid for having so much power. Fung's daddy raised him right.
The building is brightly lit, beautifully decorated with vases, painting, statues, and ornamental shelves. Musicians sit in darker, recessed areas throughout the entire building, playing some stringed instrument, in complete unison. The music is unobtrusive and simple, just single long notes, one at a time, making for an almost plaintive melody. The servants scurry around, serving wine in jars, not a drop spilled. Mei Lin glares at me when I reach for one, and I retract my hand, withering before her. So mean. It's not like I can even get drunk.
Surrounding us are the other guests all heavily armed, most of whom will not be joining us in the main stage. Personal guards mostly, I think. There are also a smattering of well dressed guests, all watching us, some with envy, some with anger, others with confusion. Taduk seems to know everyone, greeting people who approach us while we wait, introducing Mei Lin and myself to each person. Too many names for me to remember, but Mei Lin is a proper little lady, greeting everyone with a small curtsy, and making some polite small talk. It's a side of her I've never seen, completely different from the spoiled little brat I'm used to, a little debutante before my eyes. I just smile and nod, staying silent as much as possible.
Akanai, Husolt, and Sumila remain silent as well. Akanai and Husolt stay right next to Taduk, drawing stares from the guests. When Taduk doesn't introduce them, the stares change from interest to disdain or apathy. I don't know why he introduces me, and not them, seems a little rude. They don't seem to take any offense though. Sumila stands next to me, relaxed posture, but her eyes dart left and right, missing little.
After an enormous amount of greeting random people, a servant announces us as “Medical Saint Taduk, accompanied by his Daughter, Mei Lin, and his Student Rain.” Seems like we're first. So much face. All the face are belong to us. Sumila and her parents remain behind. I guess they aren't coming in? Medical Saint? Walking arm in arm with Mei Lin, the three of us approach a raised area, where a svelte, aged gentleman sits on a cushion. A raised area on the raised area. Stupid face things.
“Medical Saint Taduk greets Imperial Magistrate Tong Da Hai, and wishes him ten-thousand years of longevity.” Clasped hands and slight bow, just a nod of the head really. I copy him, a beat behind, while Mei Lin curtsies. I study the magistrate. He's wearing a beautifully patterned red robe with golden cuffs. Voluminous with large sleeves and a wide skirt, an intricate scene is stitched onto the front in colored thread. Three koi fish in a pond, surrounded by peach trees in blossom. So lifelike and detailed I can make out individual scales on the fish. I want a robe like that, it looks comfy. He looks to be maybe forty, but he could be seventy like Sarnai for all I know.
He lets loose a loud booming laugh. “Ha ha ha. No need, no need, old friend. Dispense with formalities. Let me see the face of the infamous Student.” He motions me forward and, with a push from Mei Lin, I step as close as I can without going onto the platform. I was specifically warned about that. The city guards standing nearby would tear me to shreds if I set foot up there.
The Magistrate stands and walks towards me, studying me, walking to my left, and then the right. At least he doesn't make me twirl for him. “Our Imperial Son tells me much of you, young Student.” He eyes me up and down. “He calls you a 'valiant young hero' and is quite taken by you.” He stares at me, expectantly.
I clasp my hands and bow, for lack of other ideas. “I would say that the title 'Young Hero' would suit your Imperial Son, Tong Da Fung, better than my lowly self. I thank the Imperial Magistrate for his kind words and for his gracious invitation.” Yes, that's how I have to refer to him and myself. Stupid titles.
He laughs again. “Humble indeed, Our Imperial Son speaks true.” He pinches my cheek. “We approve of the friendship between you two.” He signals a servant, who walks forward, holding a tray out for him, head down. On the tray is a jade coin on a leather thong. He picks it up and nods at me. My head bowed, he places the thong around my neck. A medallion, to signify friendship. A little over the top, but whatever. Fung isn't even here, oddly enough. I guess it's embarrassing to need to have your daddy okay your friends with an awards ceremony.
After a few words with Mei Lin, the three of us are dismissed and led to our seats by another servant. There are just so many servants, all with their heads down, I have no idea how they walk around without bumping into anyone. The seats are all floor cushions arranged in two sections, left and right, 8 rows deep, maybe 100 seats in total. We sit down together in our appointed spot, in the first row, at the Magistrate's right hand side, lined up perpendicular to him. Taduk closest, then Mei Lin and then me. There's a large open space between the two sides, at least 25 meters, leaving the Magistrate a wide, clear view of the front doors.
“Presenting Major General, First Class Akanai of the Imperial Defense Forces, Divine Blacksmith Husolt of the Saint's Tribulation Mountains, and their daughter, Sumila.”
What the fuck? Baatar is a Captain. How many ranks higher is Major General? And Divine Blacksmith? Damn I knew he had to be good, but Divine Blacksmith? I want a title like that. Or Medical Saint. Snapping out of my thoughts, I realize that people are whispering fiercely to one another. Many have sour faces, while others are lit in delight.
The three of them walk up to the Magistrate, who receives them standing. Sumila curtsies, but Husolt and Akanai stand straight as their weapons. Not even a nod. The Magistrate is all smiles though. “Major General Akanai and Divine Blacksmith Husolt, it has been far too long since I have been in your presences.” The Magistrate gives them a 45 degree bow. What the hell? If they're so important, why did we get introduced first? I look at my goofy teacher. I guess healers are just that awesome. “Please, your seats.” He sweeps his hand and two raised cushions are placed behind him, on either side. Akanai and Husolt step up, and sit on their seats, weapons horizontally placed on their laps.
I have no idea what's going on. Something is happening, judging by the looks of shock around the room. Taduk and Mei Lin are no help, just smiling at me, ignoring my questions. To both be seated behind the host, even I can figure out that means they're important. Sumila sits down next to me, my eyes pleading at her to answer my questions. She rolls her eyes, but is trying to hide a smile. “What do you want explained?”
“What's happening here, how high is Major General in ranking, and Divine Blacksmith?” I blurt them all out.
She counts with her fingers while answering. “Mama and Papa are helping in some political maneuver in favor of the Magistrate, but I'm not sure exactly what, they didn't tell me. Major General is the 6th highest military ranking, meaning, during times of war, Mama is able to take command of a single city's garrison, and any combatants within, if no equal or higher ranking military members are present. A Divine Blacksmith is the titled bestowed upon someone who can craft Spiritual Weapons with steel.” She smiles winningly. I think I've worn her down with all my questions. Almost two weeks ago, she would 'tsk' after almost every question.
“Your Dad said crafting a spiritual weapon was easy.” I was lied to. I kind of guessed it though.
She laughs. “Of all the things to focus on... For him, it probably is easy.”
We sit around chatting while the introductions continue, but the room's mood is a little tense. I don't know what's going on, but people keep staring at the four of us. Fucking politics. If it comes to fighting, I don't even know who I'm fighting against. I'll just protect Taduk and Mei Lin, and follow their directions.
I stiffen up when they announce a 'DuGu Tian Yi', a large man with long dark hair done up in a bun. Fully armed and armored, just like us, with numerous attendants. He doesn't glare at me or anything, but his eyes are cold when they pause on Sumila and me. Guess he knows why his son died, and blames us. Easier than blaming his own shitty parenting. Tian Yi sits on the opposite side, in one of the middle rows. Not too important then. Hopefully, nothing happens. I mean, it would be stupid if he just draws his weapon to fight us here. Unless duels to the death counts as party entertainment around here. It wouldn't really surprise me too much.
Finally, everyone is finished being introduced, and everyone is seated on pillows. Everyone else outside of the main stage stands, split just like the people on the stage. No one stands directly in front of the Magistrate, by design, it would seem. No one has been seated in our row, either, just behind us and across from us. Go Taduk, scoring us V.I.P seating.
The Magistrate stands, and so does everyone else, myself only a beat behind. The room is silent when he speaks, voice resounding, “We the Imperial Magistrate of Shen Huo City, Tong Da Hai, welcome all of our distinguished guests into our home.” Polite clapping from all. “Today, we celebrate the 100th year our family has held the post of Imperial Magistrate.” He claps loudly and sits back down, while servants begin filing out, placing small tables in front of the seated guests, one for each. A sumptuous meal is arranged on each, and when everyone is served, he smiles and raises a wine-cup. “A toast, to our 100th year of service to the Empire.” We all drink, applaud lightly, and begin eating. Finally.
It's difficult to enjoy to the food in the current atmosphere. There is a clear divide among the guests, as if we're two different factions, with everyone armed to the teeth. There are no smiles or chatting, just a silent meal, with several hundred people, with many more standing around to watch. I kind of wish I wasn't sitting at the front now. It would be nice if I had some bodies to help block out all the stern looks. The food is delicious, but it's difficult to eat cradling my spear. At least I'm not alone in that difficulty, with others in the crowd carrying halberds, glaives, and giant battle axes.
Everyone eats quickly, scowling at the stragglers. Worst party ever. The Magistrate claps twice, and servants begin taking away the tables. Everyone remains seated, and the glaring intensifies between the two groups. With a loud boom, the main doors open and a large group of city guards march slowly, resplendent in their red and gold armor, drums beating, four guards abreast, straight down the aisle towards the Magistrate. In the lead is a Fancy Guard, with more decorations on his armor and no pole arm. When they reach the stage, they split up, two rows surrounding the stage, Fancy Guard leading the remaining two rows to surround the Magistrate. All the guards remain facing forward until all in place, and as one, slam the butts of their pole arms into the ground before letting out an earth-shaking shout.
With a loud thud, the city guards all drop to one knee. Backs straight, no bowing for them. Fancy Guard speaks, with the cadence of ceremony. “Brigadier, Xue Chang, greets His Imperial Magistrate, Tong Da Hai. On orders from The Divine Emperor, I, Xue Chang, am present to accept the Token of Shen Huo City, to be held in accordance with the Laws of the Azure Sea Empire.”
Tong Da Hai stands, and pulls out a token made of beautifully gilded, pure white Jade. He kneels down on both knees, lowering his head as far as he can, while presenting the token in two hands to the Brigadier, who also accepts it with both hands. They all stand and turn to face the crowd, who all stand as well. Again, I'm just a bit behind.
Xue Chang speaks again. “The position of Magistrate of Shen Huo City is now vacant. Those who wish to challenge the former Magistrate, Tong Da Hai, for the honor of service, step forward now.”
Eight people in the opposing camp walk out and kneel before Xue Chang, announcing their names one by one. When they are done, Xue Chang begins listing out the format of the challenge. The contest is held as a best of three, one-on-one duels. Over 100, under 100, and under 25 years of age are the 3 categories. Past, present and future talent. The fight is won either when one contestant is unconscious or forfeits, and deliberately killing is forbidden, as is interference. Any champion can be called, but they must be present in the room, and the right to refuse is granted.
I guess this is the aforementioned bloodshed. Not bad, dinner and a show. Taduk was just teasing me. The tense atmosphere and separation makes sense now. The opposing camp aren't here to celebrate, but to challenge. It's an odd tradition, to fight for the right to govern. It's not like the strong will be good at city management. Or is it the strong choose who will govern? Then again, what do I know. If it works, don't fix it, right? I look around for a servant with wine, but Mei Lin pinches my thigh, smiling sweetly at me, daggers in her eyes. So mean.
“I am Man Giao, Brigadier of the Imperial Defense Forces. I stand for the Man Family, to challenge for the Position of Magistrate of Shen Huo City. I am 385 years old.” A tall, bulky, horned bastard, fully armored in steel. Not as bulky as full plate mail, but not too far from it. He stands imposingly in front of the Magistrate, carrying a shield and large round mace, grizzled looking, but in good condition. The city guards have knelt down, shields at the ready, allowing for a good view of the proceedings.
Akanai walks forward, ax-lance in hand. Ha ha that Man Cow is done for. I can finally appreciate Akanai fighting, since it won't be against me. She almost looks petite, with her 200cm frame dwarfed by Man Cow. In her tiny dress and well done hair, she seems no less dignified, standing with the bearing of a warrior. “I am Akanai, Major General of the Imperial Defense Forces. I am of the People. I stand for the Tong Family, to defend the Position of Magistrate of Shen Huo City. I am over 100 years old.” She stands regal and calm.
Even Akanai has some feminine hangups and won't say her real age. That's kind of adorable. It's silly, she looks fantastic for a 25-year-old, much less over 100. Man Cow laughs, a course grating rumble. “To face the Herald of the Storms is my luck and opportunity. Tomorrow my name, Man Giao, will spread far and wide, known throughout the Empire, as the one who defeated you.” Akanai doesn't respond, face neutral, eyes icy.
They stand at opposite ends of the fighting square, an area about 20 m by 20 m, lined by the city guards. No more words are exchanged, and they take their stances, Man Cow shield up and weapon ready, Akanai's weapon pointed forward.
“Begin!” Xue Chang shouts.
The distance closed in a blink of an eye, Akanai charges forward, lance drilling straight through Man Giao's shield, piercing into his meaty shoulder. The metal shrieks and he flies backwards, crashing into the city guards who are scattered by his weight. Akanai stands, arm extended, weapon tip red with blood. My hands start clapping, a cheer escaping my lips before I can stop it. No one else makes a noise, although Taduk does snicker at me as I sheepishly stop clapping, crumbling beneath the scowls, from city guards and opposite camp alike. I guess I made a faux pas.
Whatever, that was awesome. One hit, instant defeat. Man Cow didn't even realize what hit him. A giant chunk is missing from his shield, torn to shreds, and Man Cow lays unconscious. Sad thing about the guards though, I think some of them are injured. A beautiful charge, almost like she teleported across the distance.
My brow furrow as I think about it. How did she charge like that? Closing my eyes, I replay the scene in my mind. Her stance. Left arm forward, right arm back. Like she was playing pool with her weapon as the cue. Back straight, her feet, shoulder width apart, side by side. Both forward pointing, knees almost locked straight. How did she get such an explosive charge from that? Is it one of the Forms?
I replay the scene, again, noticing a few different details. One foot slightly turned, elbow raised level with her shoulder, head slightly tilted to the right.
Again, noting more details, the splay of her fingers, the twist of her wrist while thrusting.
Again, and again I play the scene in my mind, immersing myself in the study of her movements, deconstructing the brief movement.