Author Topic: Faction Stories: Imperial Decree  (Read 1200 times)

Offline Red Cedar

  • Member
  • Salutes: 1
    • 24 
    • 28
    • 28 
    • View Profile
Faction Stories: Imperial Decree
« on: September 13, 2016, 12:26:32 am »
Another of my ideas, this one is for Yesha. Obviously I'm going with Chinese for them. This one is more complete in and of itself than the previous story, but if anyone wants to pick it up and run with it, send me a PM or something.

The days were all the same within the Way. Li Zhao was content. Then the Lost came.

He burned with shame as he ran from his father’s curses and his mother’s pleas and the shouts of his siblings. His ancestors would smite him for this, but he had to see! Scrambling down the rocky slope to the coarse sands of the northern coast, he stared up at the skies, his eyes wide and his mouth open.

Below the gray wall of cloud that had come with the spring rains, the pillars of heaven shook as the Warrior Caste did battle. Seven mighty dragon-ships bearing the Crane of Yesha stood against nine hulking demons of steel and lightning out of the north. He didn’t know the symbol upon their sides, only that they brought the Lost to make war upon those who had found the Way. For most, that would have been enough, but even as they spat thunder at his people, he wished with all his heart to know why, to know who, to know what it was that drove them without knowing the Way.

His heart leapt into his throat as one of the Lost ships flared like the sun and began to crumble and twist apart as it fell, pieces falling like rain. Then he realized it was falling at him and he dove behind an enormous driftwood log, his wits scattering like grains of rice and he knew only fear and regret. The faces of his family appeared before him.

The earth trembled at the force of the crash and a searing hot wind engulfed him. The sound swallowed the world. He waited to meet his ancestors. Then he waited more. Then he saw his own shaking hand resting on the sand in front of his eyes and knew he was alive. Slowly, he forced his shivering body upright, hauling on the log, and found a jagged slab of metal had torn into the earth only a few paces away. He collapsed to the ground again at the sight and it was another long moment before he could get back up. But get up he did, and made his way towards the main body of the wrecked ship, across the blackened beach, often looking up at the sky where the battle raged on, but the Lost ships seemed to be withdrawing, back towards the north.

It burned and smoldered in places, and he could hardly tell that it had only moments ago been an airship at all, it was so mangled and broken. Then he saw the first body. He had never seen a dead man before and it was strange how…alive he still looked. The Lost man was quite young, it seemed, and his open eyes stared forever up at the sky. The only marks Li Zhao saw on him were a handful of bloody rents in his thick blue coat. It must have been enough, or perhaps the fall killed him. But he was very still. Zhao wanted to close the staring eyes, but he dared not touch the dead flesh. He moved on, closer to the wreck. Then he heard the voice, in halting, poorly accented Yezi.


He whirled about to see that one of the people he had thought dead had rolled over and was reaching out to him with one hand. He froze in place, caught like a wolf in a trap.

It was a woman, but that was no surprise, for the Way permitted all the merited to do as they had earned. What was surprising was the pained blue eyes and the unruly mop of gold hair. Her outstretched hand held a small gun, such as those the Warrior Caste was permitted to carry, but it shook so that he found he did not fear it. He walked slowly over to her, his hands raised.

“No…hurt,” he said slowly, fumbling for the simplest words he could think of. “No dead. I help.”

He could hardly be more foolish, he knew, but the battle still raged, though it had moved out over the cold sea, and the Warrior Caste garrison at the nearest town would not get her soon enough to save her life. It was the duty of all those of the Way to preserve the lives of the Lost so their minds might be opened. He was only doing what any should have done, or so he told himself. He would take her to the healer so that when the soldiers of Yesha came, she could be taken away like all the others, to the foreign settlements where former Lost could be with their own people who had found the Way.

“Help…” she said again, gesturing feebly with the gun. “Help? Live?”

“Help live,” he said, nodding, and she relaxed, letting her arm thump to the sand. He reached down and took the gun from her limp grip and threw it away, ignoring her strangled protest. Then he pointed towards the village.

“I get help,” he said, pointing repeatedly. “There. Help there.” She seemed to understand, for she nodded and pointed the same way. He turned and ran as fast as he could. It would take some time for the soldiers to arrive, even once they knew of the Lost captive. Perhaps he could ask some of the questions that had tormented him since he knew of her people? For the first time, he was glad he had disobeyed his elders to come here.

It was two days before he saw the Lost woman again. His father was angry with him and his punishment was to receive the hardest work on the farm. There were days he feared his feet might well freeze off from wading in the icy cold rice paddies much of the day for the spring planting. But his father was right to do so, Zhao had disobeyed a merited superior of the caste in regards to wisdom. It was the Way. Zhao remembered to thank his father for not sentencing him to something worse. When he was younger, he had nightmares about the time when a disobedient son from the Gao family was sentenced to twenty strokes of the cane.

At least Healer Lao came each evening to tell Zhao of his patient’s progress, and commended him for thinking not to move her by himself. But that brought more guilt, for Zhao remembered when he returned that the Lost woman was not where he had left her, having crawled over to where he had thrown her gun and the gun was nowhere to be seen. He had said nothing, fearing for Healer Lao’s life, but nothing was stopping him now. He told himself there was nothing to be done until the soldiers came. Word had been sent, and a detachment of the Laborer Caste was being sent to clear the airship wreckage on the beach and that which had washed ashore, so that it might be repurposed in some way. And soldiers would arrive soon to take custody of the prisoner. He didn’t have much time.

Now, finally, his father had agreed to let him go and speak to the Lost woman after the evening meal, and it was all he could do to stop himself from bolting down his food and keep to a walking pace until he was out of sight of the house. Lao was expecting him, of course.

“It is good that you wish to know why we follow the Way, Zhao,” he said, leading him into the little hut where he kept his more seriously injured patients and where his apprentice, Xiahou An slept. But as fortune would have it, An was off tending to a sickly newborn at the Yu household. “But,” Lao went on, giving him a stern look, “You must tell me, if you are able to speak with her, what it is that she says. Wisdom comes from many sources, that is how we found the Way, and you must not think her words exist somewhere outside of it. They are nothing more than a corruption of its teachings, for it exists within us all.”

Zhao bowed respectfully.

“Yes, Healer,” he said.

“And you have heard what Teacher Yan says about the Lost nation to the north, so there is nothing further of value you need know about it and its people. I trust you will discover this for yourself and your curiosity will be sated. It is good to question and learn for oneself, but only within reason.”

Zhao bowed again.

“Yes, Healer.”

Lao frowned at him for another moment, then chuckled.

“You would have won the merit of the Sage Caste, Zhao, if you had been able to go to the District Examinations, you are so eager to instruct and learn from it. Go on, then, before it grows too dark.”

“Thank you, Healer,” Zhao said, grinning at him, and entered the hut.

The Lost woman was laying on one of the three cots, and sat up as he walked in. Her old clothes lay in a neatly folded stack at its foot and she wore one of the spare tunics Lao kept on hand for his patients. Zhao smiled awkwardly and bowed a little, unsure what precepts applied.

“Hello,” he said, remembering to speak slowly, and pointed to himself. “Li Zhao.”

She smiled a little and pointed to herself.

“Saffi Eriksdottr.”

He blinked, unsure how to pronounce such a long and strange name.

“Um…Zhafei?” he tried.

She shrugged.

“Zhafei,” she said, and he chuckled nervously. She reached over to the little table at the side of the cot and picked up a calligraphy student’s sandbox. The shallow, long space of sand was meant for practicing Yezi characters. He watched, fascinated, as she took up the practice stick and wrote with her one good hand, the other arm being splinted and held firmly in place.

Hello, Zhao.

“You speak our language?” he asked, confused. She smoothed out the sand and wrote again, trying to make the characters as small as possible, and sometimes having to erase it and keep writing from the middle of a sentence.

I study old writing. Some old writing is like your language. I can read and write it, but not speak it very well. If you write your questions, I will understand you much better.

Zhao picked up a spare writing stick at once and eagerly scribbled his first question.

Why did you come here with your ships?

She winced, her eyes falling, but replied at once.

There are ancient cities and ruins in Yesha your people refuse to enter. We came for the knowledge and power within them.

Well, that made little sense to Zhao. A frown creased his features as he wrote again.

But the ancestors of old destroyed the world! Why seek such knowledge again? We should make our own way forward.

Her own expression took on a stern set.

All the knowledge you have, the Old Ancestors had before. You are not making your own way, you are rediscovering what they lost, and doing it poorly and slowly.

He sighed. So it was just as Teacher Yan had said, then, the Lost truly did not understand. But why?

Why do your people refuse the Way?

Now she seemed just as confused as him.

We do not wish to be slaves and to have our lives decided for us.

I am not a slave. I tested at the local examinations and my greatest talent was for farming. I do what I am best at. My life was decided by my great skill, not someone else.

But are you happy here? If you could, would you go somewhere else, do something else?

He hesitated in his answer and saw a grim smile appear on her face. Scowling, he wrote somewhat quicker than necessary, scattering a few grains of sand across her blankets.

I follow the Way. Anyone’s life can be happy if they achieve inner harmony and are granted the respect due a skilled and merited worker. Even though it seems to me you are a scholar, studying old languages, you came to Yesha on a warship. Does that make you happy?

No, but I chose it.

He gaped.

You chose to be unhappy?

I chose the best way to serve my nation, with skills I learned because I wanted to learn them and was lucky enough to have the chance to do so. I can be unhappy that my work is difficult and now that it has killed me, but I am satisfied that I did the best I could.

He scratched his head with a sigh, unsure what to make of anything she said. Perhaps Lao was wrong. Trying to understand the Lost way of thinking was just making his head hurt.

I am sorry I cannot tell you about the Way in a method you understand.

She smiled at him again, and he felt a little better.

I understand, I simply do not agree. She hesitated, then continued. Would you come visit again tomorrow? Your doctor is kind, but he tells me nothing. He says he is not the one to teach me of anything about Yesha.

Zhao shrugged.

If you want me to, yes. Perhaps I can try to teach you a little Yezi and you can tell me about your country. I have heard it is very different from here.

I look forward to it.

He bowed one last time and began to turn to leave, but she held out an open hand. He slowly held out his own hand and she took it and squeezed, shaking it up and down, then let go, laying back down on the cot. Zhao left, but all the questions whirling about his head like fireflies told him he wouldn’t get much sleep tonight.

The next day, Zhao emerged from his family’s house to find one of the Yeshan airships from the great battle looming at one end of the village like one of the great dragon lords who ruled the sky. Not only that, but a group of soldiers was in the village square, he could see their bright uniforms even from a distance. They would be speaking to Mayor Xu, no doubt, and the Council of Elders. Zhao broke into a run as he made his way down towards them. They were going to take away the Lost woman before he could even ask any questions! He should have expected this, but he had thought perhaps it would take a little time for them to check in with the village.

As he drew up, he saw it was indeed Mayor Xu. Zhao at once bowed low before the soldiers, but did not dare to speak. He greatly hoped the mayor would ask him to, though. Xu seemed glad to see him.

“Ah, good morning,” he said. “This is Li Zhao, the young man I was just telling you of who found the survivor and saw that her wounds were attended to. Zhao, this is Lieutenant Po Kai of the Imperial Navy. He has asked to speak with you.”

The Lieutenant stepped forward, giving Zhao an appraising look. He was a tall, lean man with sharp, angular features and narrowed, intelligent eyes. Not one strand of dark brown hair was out of place on his topknot.

“I am told you disobeyed your father and elder to observe the battle,” he said. “What drove you to lose the Way, even briefly?”

Zhao went very pale. When he was younger, he had nightmares about the time when one of the Gao family’s sons was sentenced to twenty strokes of the cane. The Mayor and elders were usually much more lenient with the laws, but if he needed to show that Luxen Village still followed the Way, Zhao could be in for a lot of pain. Zhao knelt at once, bowing his head.

“I wished to know more of the Lost, sir,” he stammered weakly. “I have not learned the lessons of my teachers, for I do not understand how they can refuse the Way when it is explained to them and I wish to know more than I need to about them. I am ashamed.”

“There are some things that cannot be fully tested by the Examinations, Farmer Zhao,” Po said, sounding thoughtful. “One of them is dedication. If you would risk death to learn more of the Lost, perhaps you have more merit than for farming.”

Zhao kept his head down, but a wild, foolish thought took shape in his mind.

“Mayor,” Po said at length, “With your permission, I would like to offer Farmer Zhao my patronage for a Reexamination at the Provincial grade.”

Xu bowed slightly, but there was no smile on his face, to Zhao’s surprise.

“It is granted, Lieutenant. Zhao, do you wish to accept Lieutenant Po’s offer?”

Zhao’s grip on his knees grew white-knuckled. It was all happening so fast! He had never dreamed of anything like this! To be offered the chance to test his merits against the entire province, with so many more castes and tasks laid out before him than the Local grade Examinations could offer!

“I-I would be honored to accept, sir,” he managed to get out.

Po finally smiled, a little thing, quickly gone, but it was there.

“Rise, Farmer Zhao. You will come with us aboard the Cleansing Fire from the Skies, for we have been ordered to transport your Lost prisoner back to the provincial capital. From what your Mayor and healer have told us, she is a scholar-soldier of some sort among the Lost. When she accepts the Way, her knowledge and merits will serve Yesha well. It will be well to have you along. You saved her life, and it is likely she will be more willing to talk to you. We have a translator aboard as well, that speaks her tongue. Do not bring more than twenty pounds, for all weight is precious in the air. We depart in one hour. Do not be late.”

He bowed to the Mayor, then turned on his heel and led his squad away towards Healer Lao’s house, leaving Zhao kneeling in the dust, still profoundly shocked. Xu took hold of him and hauled him to his feet. The mayor still seemed sad and frustrated.

“It is a good thing you took his offer,” he said. “You will go far on your merits, Zhao, I am sure of that.”

“But?” Zhao asked the obvious question.

Xu shrugged with a sigh.

“The higher you go, the farther it is to fall. Your Lost prisoner learned that lesson well, as have too many soldiers and lords of Yesha. Here, at least, you would have been at peace.”

Zhao lowered his gaze.

“I am sorry, mayor. But I must follow my merits as the Way demands. How could I be at peace if I am not at peace with myself?”

“There is more than one kind of peace and merit,” Xu murmured. “Ah, but enough, we waste time. Go and say farewell to your family, Zhao.”

Belatedly, the idea struck the young farmer as though a second airship had fallen on his head. What would his father say? His mother? His brothers and sisters? He would have to leave, who knew for how long, and even if he attained greater merit and standing, his home would never again be in Luxen Village. He turned around and began to walk slowly back towards his house, each step a long distance. The Way had never seemed quite so long a road to follow. But all he could do was keep walking.