I recently replayed Jade Empire for the first time since it came out, and I'd forgotten what an amazing game it is. I was especially intrigued by the character of Sagacious Zu and his tragic story, though I didn't think about writing a love story for him until near the very end of the game. This has been a challenge, mainly because Zu only has a few lines through the game to make me think he cares for the PC, and also because he's a pretty depressed and angry guy. But I hope I pulled it off and that his personality stays true to the game. This will be a five-chapter story covering the events of the game.
I'd love any and all feedback on this - I have no beta reader and few friends who have played JE, and none of them have played it recently. Reviews make my day (and make future chapters better)!
Hope you enjoy!
Sagacious Zu was not ready for his life to change, but that didn't seem to matter at all.
His overly-complicated and dangerous service with the Lotus Assassins had only gotten worse once he killed some of his fellows to save the young Dawn Star, but things had simplified upon giving the child away and staying only in the swamp near Two Rivers. He lived alone in the swamp and was so accustomed to solitude that he no longer missed having other people around. At this point, he would even go so far as to say he preferred being alone to the company of others.
But even he hadn't realized how much those years alone had changed him. He'd never been the type of person to feel comfortable in groups or make easy conversation, but once, before the Lotus Assassins, he had been able to at least talk to other people. Upon joining up with Radiant Jen Zi and Dawn Star, he felt like every word he spoke was a wasted one, and any moment of attention given to his two new companions was one of distraction where an enemy could be sneaking up on them.
He hadn't been with them long, but even in their journey so far, Radiant Jen Zi had made it past hired mercenaries and armed bandits roaming the swamp, defeated Gao the Lesser – after telling Zu to stay out of it, to his annoyance – and rescued her friend Dawn Star. He'd seen her training, and now he got to see her in action. He allowed himself to be a little bit impressed.
They walked calmly the caves – Jen Zi and Dawn star were calm, at least; Zu didn't allow himself to relax, so he took the role of rearguard, hiding in the shadows like always, thinking darker thoughts than Dawn Star and Jen Zi were willing to. The two girls were talking away without concern, clearly happy to be reunited, ignoring the fact that enemies might still lurk in the cave. He shook his head in silent judgment at their carefree attitudes and continued watching for any surprises.
Death comes from above, he thought as he looked around behind them again, checking for danger. It seemed as if they'd cleared out the entire cave, but one could never be too careful. They were so quick to dismiss Gao's threat as nonsense. They have no idea what we could be getting into, and I won't be the one to tell them.
"I just can't believe Gao really thought he'd be able to get away with this," Jen Zi said, shaking her head.
"I don't think he expected you to come after him so quickly," Dawn Star replied, clearly relieved that she'd been found before Gao was able to get her on a flyer and beyond the reach of her friend. "After all, he knew Master Li was about to send you into the Spirit Cave. He probably thought we'd be long gone by the time you made it out of there. What happened down there, by the way?" she asked curiously.
Spirit Cave? Zu wondered, stopping his constant scanning of the area for a moment to pay more attention to their conversation.
Jen Zi paused for a moment, and he glanced at her. She seemed to be carefully considering what to say. "Many things I did not expect," she said, more serious than she was a few moments earlier.
Dawn Star seemed a bit confused by her friend's reluctance to speak on the subject. "Was it safe, at least? What kind of challenges did you face?"
"Many kinds," Jen Zi replied, still looking thoughtful. She glanced up to see Dawn Star looking concerned, and she smiled and told the other girl not to worry with a shake of her head. "Don't worry about it. I just haven't had time to process everything that happened there yet. I'll tell you all about it once I figure everything out myself, I promise."
This seemed to comfort the other girl somewhat, and Zu was surprised when she turned around to smile at him. "Well, can you tell me about our new friend? I would hate to get back to the school and find that we never see you again."
Jen Zi smiled as well, glancing back at him as well while they walked. "I've told you all I know. Sagacious Zu is not one for socializing."
"I don't see the point when there are likely dangers around," he replied bluntly, continuing to look around the cave for hidden attackers as they walked. They can feel free to waste time chatting. I have more important things to do, he thought. Once they're back at Two Rivers safely, I'm free to come back to the swamp and let everything get back to normal. The two girls exchanged quick glances at his shortness and continued walking, in silence this time.
They made it out of the cave without incident, but Dawn Star looked slightly ill when she saw Gao's fallen mercenaries scattered about the camp. "What happened to Gao's men?" she asked. She knows exactly what happened, he thought. She just doesn't want to think about the fact that her friend killed people getting to her. "I thought they abandoned him, but it looks like you had to fight them all!" She shuddered slightly. "I didn't realize you took that much of a risk getting to me. Thank you."
Jen Zi shrugged. "I didn't want to fight them all, but there was no real choice."
Zu had to stop himself from scoffing at that comment. He saw the way she fought – it was without hesitation or doubt. She struck with all the force and skill she'd learned in her twenty years of study at the school; she didn't hold back when she and Dawn Star were in trouble. He wondered, when he looked at her while she fought, if the light he could practically see in her eyes was a fierce joy at using the skills she'd worked so hard to master.
He'd gotten lost in his thoughts while Jen Zi and Dawn Star chatted, but his attention was quickly pulled out of his mind and towards the sky when he heard the familiar roar of flyers passing overhead. He tried to make a quick tally of how many, but quit counting when he realized the number didn't matter – if they were going toward the school, there were more than enough to destroy the town and every person there.
Dawn Star looked perplexed, but not afraid. She'll learn to be soon enough, he thought, somewhat sadly. "There are so many. Where are they coming from?"
"You should be more concerned with where they are going," he told her. He glanced at Jen Zi, who was still watching the flyers, a serious look on her face. "You may have won a victory over Gao the Lesser, but it looks like he put things in motion that have outlived him."
Dawn Star frowned. "What? What do you mean?"
He sighed. "These machines have weapons," he explained. I never wanted to have to tell them this. I should never have come along. Jen Zi would have been fine in the cave without me. "They drop casks that explode on impact. There will be soldiers on the ground, as well."
A look of horror finally appeared on Dawn Star's face. Now she understands, he thought, somewhat sadly. This attack was not my fault, but they will remember I was the one to tell them the truth of what was about to happen. "Was… was that what Gao meant? He said something about death coming from above for Master Li!"
Jen Zi finally turned her attention back to them. "He kidnapped you so you wouldn't get caught in an attack?" she asked in disbelief. He couldn't blame her for doubting this – even from his limited knowledge of the man, Gao the Lesser didn't seem like the type to protect anyone but himself, especially being the son of a man Zu knew to be less than charitable towards others.
Dawn Star shook her head furiously. She was not handling this well. "It doesn't matter! We have to get back! The students… everyone needs our help!"
If she's this bad now, she'd be worse if she saw what they're doing to her home and friends, he thought. Jen Zi would have trouble handling it too. But at least Dawn Star lived somewhere other than Two Rivers for a time. Jen Zi has been there her whole life.
"Walk away, Dawn Star," he advised. I'm one to talk about running away from painful memories, he thought bitterly. "You won't get there in time. Better to avert your eyes than see something you care about fall to ruin. Save yourself the pain."
Jen Zi folded her arms stubbornly. "We have to try. There has to be a way!"
Dawn Star shook her head and looked at the ground, pacing a bit anxiously. She suddenly looked up at the Mosquito Flyer in the camp and pointed at it. "This… machine of Gao's," she said urgently, "do you know how to make it work? Could you fly it?"
He scoffed at the question, hoping to show them how ridiculous the idea of going back was and dissuading them from wanting to see what he was sure would be a massacre. He was skeptical of either being able to handle what he was positive they would find. Their whole lives have been in this sheltered school and small town, he thought. They'll be helpless when they see it destroyed. If nothing else, I have to stop that from happening so they can move on with their lives. "I doubt there are two people in the Empire that know how they work. It's a baffling combination of magic and artifice."
"I just need to know if we can control it safely," Jen Zi told him flatly.
Zu sighed, walking past the two towards the flyer. He climbed up and glanced inside. It's been twenty years since I flew one of these, he thought. What are the chances I actually still remember how to work it? Unfortunately for him, the controls seemed to be relatively the same as the last flyer he'd used. "We may be able to do it among the three of us," he said, making sure to sound as doubtful as he knew how. "I was told they are simple to control." No need to tell them anything yet, he thought.
"So you don't really know," Dawn Star said, sounding annoyed.
He jumped down from the machine and glared at her. "If you actually cared about the safety of this machine, you wouldn't be about to fly it into a swarm of enemies. What guarantee do you want?" he asked, aggravated. He sighed and turned back to Jen Zi. "There is a handle attached to something like the reins of an ox yoke. You move it left and right, forward and back. It should swim through the air fairly smoothly." He shrugged.
"So it's like flying a swimming ox," Jen Zi said, looking at him incredulously. "Well that helps." Helping wasn't my intention, he thought.
"Will you come to help us, Zu?" Dawn Star asked hopefully. "You seem to have a good heart."
How little she knows of me, he thought. She will learn that I'm not to be trusted soon enough, and I can return to the swamp knowing I did what I could for these two. "If… you are intent on returning, I will accompany you," he told her hesitantly. "I have already done more than I wanted, but I could not avoid this forever."
Dawn Star tilted her head to the side slightly as she looked at him. "You are an interesting person, Sagacious Zu. Your eyes hold a great sadness that is oddly familiar to me, but I don't know why."
He glanced at Jen Zi, who half-smiled at him. "I tried to understand his trouble, but he won't let me." And I never will, he thought, determined to shield her from the harsh truth of his past as much as possible. She never needs to know what I did. What I could do again.
He didn't respond, and instead headed for the flyer. "Perhaps I am imagining it. We will discuss it another time," Dawn Star said as he walked away. She sighed. "I hope we are not too late."
If we aren't too late, we'll be dead, he thought as they climbed into the flyer. If it's anywhere near as bad as I think it'll be, the school doesn't stand a chance even with our help. The only difference would be the addition of three more corpses.
Jen Zi motioned for him to take the pilot's seat, and he grimaced but did as she requested. "These are the controls," he told her, pointing to the various buttons and levers in front of them. He instructed her as best he could with the limited time they had, telling her what each part did as he used it to get the machine off the ground. She nodded seriously as he spoke, focusing intently and clearly trying to memorize all the information he was giving her.
Once they were flying, the noise from the rockets prevented any conversation. When other flyers appeared and began attacking them, they were all far too busy dodging attacks and firing back some of their own to even consider saying anything. But the three of them were still able to look out the windows of the flying machine and see the destruction of Two Rivers below.
It's as I feared, then, he thought, returning his attention to the controls. There is nothing to be done, but they want to see the ruins anyway. We all bring such pain on ourselves.
In the few moments of break they got between attacks, he glanced at Jen Zi and Dawn Star to see how they were handling what they saw. Dawn Star looked to be holding back tears, and Jen Zi was holding on to a bar so tightly her knuckles were white.
At last, they seemed to come to the end of the fighters – the other flyers had either been destroyed or completed their mission, going back to wherever they came from. He did his best to land them safely near the town and school, trying to find a safe place among the burning wreckage of buildings.
Dawn Star leapt out of the flyer immediately and looked around in a panic, desperately trying to find something that hadn't been destroyed. There's nothing left for them here, he thought. The Assassins are very thorough.
She stopped moving around so quickly, standing still for the moment. He saw tears beginning to run down her face. "No... This can't be!"
He shook his head. "It is what I expected," he said honestly. If they'd just listened to me... "I am sorry you had to see this."
"I saw the smoke from the air, but I didn't think…" She paused a moment, trying to calm herself, "I didn't think it would be so bad. Everyone… everyone is gone."
Jen Zi climbed out of the flyer at last. "We will find survivors," she said, her voice emotionless. "There has to be someone left."
Dawn Star wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "I hope you are right. Master Li wouldn't let this happen. Not without a fight." She shook her head in disbelief, looking around again. "Guide Zu to the heart of the school. We will meet there."
Zu was surprised at Dawn Star's willingness to stay behind when there could be survivors up ahead, but he understood after a moment's thought – she was not handling this well, as was to be expected. She clearly needed a few moments to collect herself before venturing into the school, which was sure to be worse.
He and Jen Zi began walking toward the school as Dawn Star sat down next to the flyer and began crying in earnest. The broken bodies of villagers and students were all around them, and he wondered how his companion was coping with the loss.
He prided himself on his lack of emotions, but glancing over at her as they walked, even he was taken aback by Jen Zi's attitude upon discovering the only home she'd ever known had been destroyed. Dawn Star was practically inconsolable, sitting on the ground and sobbing. The crying made him uncomfortable – he understood that she was upset, but if only she could remember all she'd lost as a child, maybe this loss would be less devastating for her. After all, she'd pulled through that tragedy – a tragedy partially of his own doing – and seemed to have turned out fine. He didn't know Jen Zi's story, but it couldn't possibly be as bad as what had happened to Dawn Star because of what he'd done as a Lotus Assassin.
Zu had known what to expect upon their arrival at the village. He had even participated in similar attacks on other cities, so when he saw the flyers overhead, he knew what was coming. He took in the burning surroundings with the eyes of one who had seen such destruction before. But Jen Zi hadn't known what she was about to see, hadn't been able to mentally prepare herself for the death and chaos they were encountering.
He was surprised. He'd seen her training during his infrequent trips to the village, and had been intrigued by her skill and talent when sparring. He was satisfied with her performance in actual, life-threatening combat when he saw the way she fought without fear or hesitation. He grudgingly allowed that her solo defeat of Gao the Lesser was rather impressive, though he was still slightly bitter about being forced to stand aside while she fought the man alone.
He'd remained skeptical. She was raised in a sheltered environment, learning mainly how to fight, and had a natural talent for it – of course she was skilled. But now, under more pressure than she'd ever been in her life, Jen Zi was showing what she was made of.
Her posture, he could understand. Her arms were at her sides and her hands in tight fists. But it was the look on her face that truly surprised him. There was no pain or sadness, rage or shock. She'd seen what happened and, by the look in her eyes, she was ready to find whoever had done it and bring them to justice. He'd never seen such a determined expression before. She was clearly upset – she had to be – but rather than giving in to the sorrow she certainly felt, the destruction she was seeing only made her more determined to find her master.
Zu had seen many people after tragedies. Many cried, begged for mercy, pleaded with the gods to restore their homes or family or friends. He'd never seen anyone react like this. And he couldn't help but respect her for her reaction.
She caught him looking at her, and gave him a curious look. "You all right, Zu?" she asked.
She's asking me if I'm all right, he thought in disbelief, but he just nodded once. "I'm fine. Let's go. If we're lucky, there are still people here left alive."
Jen Zi nodded in agreement and led the way. He knew he had no choice but to follow her.