“Your tea, Shifu.” Haung handed the small, delicate porcelain cup to the old man sat across from him. They both tapped the table twice with the fingers of their right hand and then sipped the hot, green and fragrant liquid.
“Haung, Jing Ke is... complicated,” Shifu began. “He is not one man alone. There are a multitude of him. It is how he operates. He finds likely candidates, teaches and trains them to play his role and use his name. His fame and legend spreads with each atrocity. Some only days apart, but thousands of miles distant from the other. You killed one of those men. The real Jing Ke would have killed you in short order.”
“Shifu,” Haung halted as the old man raised his hand.
“Haung, I was tasked with tracking down and killing Jing Ke many years ago. I killed four of his men and never came close to finding him,” Shifu explained.
“Yes, Shifu.” Haung looked into the other’s eyes, “I am sure I can handle an assassin.”
“Haung,” Shifu shook his head, “Jing Ke is not an assassin. He is a warrior, and a master. He may take work as an assassin but that is not how he was trained. I should know. I trained him. Believe me when I tell you, you could not stand against him. Not yet.”
Haung took a deep breath, his fingers gripping the thin porcelain tightly enough to cause the glaze to crackle. “You trained Jing Ke?”
“To be a fighter. I trained him to be a Taiji, not an assassin. He was, is, one of the best students I ever had.” Shifu looked away from Haung and took another sip of his tea. “He is my son, my adopted son. Let me tell you how I found him...”
* * *
The young officer did not wait for the horse to stop before leaping from the saddle. He sailed through the air, tucking into a somersault and landing on his feet, balanced. The long, straight sword appeared in his hands and he struck, twice. The bandits fell to the ground, blood spraying from their necks and swords tumbling from lifeless fingers.
Bandits in mismatched armour spilled out of the ramshackle houses that lined the muddy road, the village’s only thoroughfare. The weak cries of their victims followed them through the doorways.
“Get him,” screamed the largest and they all drew steel; swords, axes and rust-spotted daggers.
The young officer flicked the long braid of his hair around his neck and with a sharp cry he jumped forward into the midst of the on-rushing bandits. His sword flowed like a river over their guards and parries, washing away lives in a flood of bright red.
The young man smiled, proud, as the last slipped off his sword with a soft sigh.
* * *
“... I killed them all. Twelve in all. Back then, when I was young, that was my job. If a problem arose and it needed a quick resolution, I was it...”
* * *
His fingers felt the neck of every villager in every home. He closed the eyes of the dead and eased the passing of those too injured to save. The sharp knife he kept in the intricately inlaid sheath the best mercy he had. And, when possible, he bound wounds, or cut and cauterised if needed. The smell of burning flesh was sweet but repellent.
The village was finished. There were simply not enough people left alive to farm the land. The few survivors were staggering away from the ruins as the rain began to fall and the young man emerged from the last house, a small wailing boy in his arms.
* * *
“...they didn’t want him. His mother was dead, as were his three brothers. I never found the father. For all I know he was amongst those stumbling away. To them he was another mouth to feed, a drain on their non-existent resources. I burnt the village to the ground.”
“Shifu, how could you burn the bodies?” Haung asked, “Won’t they rise as ghosts?”
“To haunt a patch of land? No, Haung, I am sure even the dead will never want to return there.” Shifu looked down at the table, tracing the inlay with one finger, “I brought him home with me and raised him as my own.”
* * *
“You have to stand up to the other boys.”
“They’re all bigger than me, Dad.” The little boy’s sad, soft eyes looked into his father’s and the older man was tempted to gather him into his arms, to make it all right.
“Jing Ke, size does not matter. Heart and courage are enough for this.”
“They’ll hit me. They’ll hurt me,” a sob followed the words.
“Yes, they will, Jing Ke. But, by standing up to them, by fighting back, you will teach them that you are strong. That you are brave and not an easy target.”
“I can’t, Dad. I’m scared.”
* * *
“They picked on him because of his size, always small for his age, and because he was my son. They tried to get to me through him. It was not an easy childhood but he was bright boy. Timid and tearful but he cared for others. I loved him. So, I taught him.”
* * *
“Here,” he handed the boy a wet cloth, “wipe the blood off your face. The same boys again?”
“Yes, Dad.” His son’s voice was on the cusp of breaking and deepening.
“How many this time?”
“Four of them,” the boy pulled the cloth away from his face and examined the smear of blood upon it. “I gave them something to think about.”
“They’ll be back again, Jing Ke.” He put a comforting arm on his growing son’s shoulder, “Perhaps I should speak to their parent’s.”
“I can handle it, Dad. You’ll only make things worse.”
* * *
Shifu finished the last of the tea and placed it on the table. Haung followed suit and then looked up into the old man’s eyes, recognising the faraway look in them.
“He was a good son, a good student. He got stronger and faster...”
* * *
The loud, repeated thumping on the door reverberated throughout the house. It echoed from the walls and bounced down the corridors.
He sighed as he stood and, putting aside the scroll he had been reading, moved to answer the summons.
“How can I help?” He asked of the two red-faced and sweating men outside.
“Is your thug of a son at home? I want him punished. I want him beaten. Look at what he has done to my son.” The first man, dressed in the robes of a middle ranking administrator, shouted. He dragged his son forward, pointing at the teenager’s puffy and grazed face dominated by the large purple bruise around the left eye.
“And look at what he did to mine,” the second father, in the robes of a trader, waved at his son who limped forward, dragging his right leg and cradling his left arm.
“Are you sure that my son is to blame?”
“Both of the boys said so,” the Administrator raised an accusing finger at the homeowner whose gaze never left the loud man’s face. The finger drooped.
“In that case you had better come in to discuss the matter. I am sure we can resolve this,” the homeowner stepped back to allow them to enter. “Please, take a seat and I will find my son.”
He walked past the variety of swords that hung, displayed, on the wall towards the door at the rear. The two fathers and their battered sons stood in silence.
The owner returned with Jing Ke in tow. The boy’s face showed its own evidence of violence. The other boys saw him and took a protective step behind their fathers.
“My son, Jing Ke,” the owner indicated his boy with sweeping, open palm. “I have been given a brief account of the attack and it is a shameful business.” The two aggrieved father’s nodded, the Administrator going so far as to raise the accusing finger again before thinking better of it. “We, Jing Ke and I, wonder where the other five boys are?”
* * *
Haung saw a small smile form on Shifu’s lips that died a slow death.
“He was my son, my best pupil, and he became an assassin. He betrayed all my teachings and I had to stop him. I failed and now the task is yours, Haung.”